No one really knows, even those who study such things. Everyone has a different definition of the term “sustainability,” leading everyone to pick and choose different criteria that must be satisfied for a system to be sustainable. For those of an engineering bent (such as myself), definitions tend to focus around energy and material flows: Clean, abundant, reliable energy and control of the supply of material goods around the globe–and minimization or elimination of environmentally harmful by-products. Those from a social sciences background focus on the communal, human dimensions: Safety, basic needs are met, people are happy and lead generally pleasant lives, institutions are open and transparent, etc. The business community tends to define sustainability as incorporating environmental and social externalities into traditional models–in other words, a sustainable society is one in which the effects of toxic products and the social disruption from industry are accounted for in valuation. Ecologists and environmentalists, who in my experience are near the epicenter of the movement, define a sustainable system as one in which natural systems, biodiversity, etc. are preserved and the irreplaceable functions of the biosphere are maintained. An individual’s background very heavily weights his or her perception of what sustainability means and what a sustainable society will look like.
Sustainability is frequently associated with ideas such as organic farming, local production of goods, energy and material efficiency, waste reduction, clean technology, transparent government, growth of social capital, equality, and so on. All of these ideas sound great. Some of them actually are. Some may be disastrous in execution. They are part of an ideology that attempts to be all-inclusive and concerned with all dimensions of continued life on Earth. This makes them dangerous, as they are taken as inherently good ideas by many of the people in the movement and, because of its global scope, these same people may fall prey to thinking this is the only way to do things. Taking on faith that such ideas are good drastically narrows the scope of thought that we can bring to solving our problems, both now and in the future.
Organic farming and the “eat local” movement is one such example (read the link for a pretty good discussion). What happens if we can get vat-grown protein (meat) factories up and running and they can produce vast quantities of beef-equivalent for a sliver of the energy/material now required? What does that do to the vegetarian and vegan movements, so deeply intertwined with environmentalism and sustainability? Does an overemphasis on “natural,” “organic” food and farming methods mean that this option will blindside the mainstream sustainability discourse? Or that the discourse will fight it or in some way reduce the likelihood of it coming about, even if it may be more beneficial in the long run? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. When I feel cynical (which is most of the time), I think that sustainability may inadvertently do great harm to society by pretending to be all-encompassing and open to dialogue but in actuality eliminating some rather positive options. For example, the discourse as it stands now is not too keen on technology, other than stating that it is part of the reason we’re in this mess and that its undesirable impacts must be reduced. This isn’t stifling innovation, but it is very subtly directing it into more limited channels. I contend that the thinking that leads to a focus on certain very particular solutions must be done away with and largely stems from a lack of a neutral definition of sustainability.
Back to the original question then: What is a sustainable society? Most of the answers to this question are laden with value judgments, wishful thinking, and ideological stances that can be far too inflexible. My answer, and I’m sure it’s not original, is thus: A sustainable society/system is one that learns and acts at a rate that is faster than the pace of the problems that would destroy it. These problems could range from a clash with a rival civilization to a failing ecosystem to a rogue asteroid hurtling toward Earth. Yes, its still a pretty vague definition of sustainability, but it defines the term in such a way that the ideological baggage is largely removed. I’ll answer a few other questions that will provide more context for this definition:
What are we sustaining?
Whatever we wish to sustain, beyond the continued existence of humanity. If we wish only to ensure that some number of humans are alive into the indefinite future, then so be it. If we want to create Eden on Earth, fine. If we want a techno-utopia of computers, internet, and cybernetics, good. What matters is that we are able to create these things and allow them to further evolve on their own. The three scenarios just mentioned are not end-states by any means, since there is always change in large, complex systems. The direction that we take will be dictated by politics and the usual social bargaining. The role of sustainability, in the large sense, should be to sound out how possible these scenarios are and what would be required to reach them and allow us to move on from them without wiping ourselves out.
Should humans be the focus (anthropocentric), or ecosystems (ecocentric)?
I implicitly answered this in the previous question, but… humans should be the focus for now. Why? Because we already run the planet, even if we don’t understand how we’re affecting it. We’ve been changing atmospheric and oceanic chemistry for quite a while now, predating even the Industrial Revolution. We’ve altered ecosystems across the globe by introducing new species and hunting others to extinction, and this is true even before European colonialism. We have tinkered with the genetics of our crops and animals for thousands of years, well before genetic engineering was even conceived of. In short, humanity is a race of tinkerers that, thanks to our numbers and our technologies, now plays as great a role in the evolution of the Earth’s systems as that of “nature.” (Personally, I don’t think that nature is separate from humans at all but is instead a social construct… but that’s for another post).
Given this, the only ethical option we have is to manage our systems so that they don’t cause catastrophic, global failures–i.e. death and loss of life on a massive scale. Although we do have two other options, which are to (1) not even try to manage the Earth and instead let our system run amok, likely leading to disaster, and (2) dismantle our systems before they can do much more harm, thus eliminating the need for management. That second scenario sounds like it might be easier, but I’d hate to be the person who has to inform 5 billion people that they have to lay down and die.
So, humans must be the focus of sustainability because their ideas and actions determine how the rest of the planet evolves. And, if you’ll indulge a little species-exceptionalism, we are the absolute best at bringing about new systems. Before human brains and thumbs, an ecosystem had to evolve the slow way. Now, we are capable of designing life. What right do pre-existing ecosystems have that would let them monopolize existence over designed, alternative ecosystems created by humans? The design space for life is much bigger than that which currently exists and we appear poised to explore it much more rapidly than traditional evolution.
But then, if pre-existing ecosystems should not be privileged over potential ones, why do I state that humans should be the focus of sustainability? Surely we are not privileged either? True. Note above that I state that humans should be the focus for now. Humanity is not the end-point of evolution, and that’s a cold, hard fact. Future changes in the Earth and in ourselves will be driven by the ideas and designs in our heads, and that is a form of evolution–just cognitive and “memetic” rather than “natural” and biological. Something will take our place, whether it be supreme machine intelligences, a new type of primate, or something in between.
But we are the smartest. We are the most adaptable and the best at learning and acting. Therefore, despite all the violence we have done to the world and each other, we are the best thing going right now and the natural defenders and sustainers of life. Sustainability should be about keeping us alive, so that we may create more life and provide something for our successors to build upon.