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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The (Academic) Politics of "Sustainability"

At Inside Higher Ed, Peter Wood has an interesting op-ed called Sustainability's Third Circle.  Wood argues that the very concept of "sustainability" can, accordionlike, be narrowed to "hard core empirical questions" or expanded into a "sail for utopian dreams in which advocates imagine themselves transforming humanity itself by changing our appetites.  On college campuses, you can find instances of both." 

Wood criticizes those academic sustainability programs, often spearheaded not by actual academics but by various college administrators, that have "no science at all but a great deal of ideology."  Some of those advocates have launched campus programs on sustainability that aim to explode the "myth" that sustainability is "mostly about the environment" in favor of a vision of sustainability that includes such "social justice aspects" as "fair trade," "living wage," "domestic responsibility," "water rights," "affirmative action," "multicultural competence," and "gender equity."  Wood argues that while some of these aspects of social justice might indeed be reasonably included under the general rubric of sustainability, the programmatic blending of a raft of social justice issues with academic and popular sustainability projects, without much argument about when it is appropriate to do so, is evidence that "'sustainability' is more of a social movement, with its own symbols and passwords, than it is a nascent intellectual discipline."

Wood bites off a lot here, and it seems to me that his argument is potentially subject to lots of reasonable argument and criticism; of course, one would expect as much from an op-ed as opposed to a fuller exposition of his ideas.  What a shame, then, that Wood's critics, in the comments section, mostly limit themselves to ad hominem attacks, general (and self-contradicting) arguments that Wood should be dismissed because he is an ideologue, ipse dixit statements that sustainability is "about ending human suffering," and utterly banal citations of Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 

Read the whole thing.  If you get that far and can take any more, I added my own lengthy comment to the discussion there.

Over to you, Frank!      

Posted by Paul Horwitz on April 29, 2008 at 04:37 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink

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I'm not Frank, but I'll chime in anyway.

The concept of "sustainability" is, admittedly, a sometimes vague or somewhat porous concept, and I don't think it's possible to claim it has a readily or easily identifiable "scientific" core, if only because it is not only about the science of ecology but has consequences and implications for social ecology or environmental ethics as well, which takes the concept out of the natural sciences and into the social sciences, ethics, and even philosophy (of value). Thus sustainability becomes, for instance, a concept in reference to "the sustainability of a pattern of practices." Thus, for example, "Affluent lifestyles are built largely on nonrenewable energy sources while many marginal lifestyles rely centrally on insustainable use rates of biomass." But definitions of sustainability tied exclusively to lifestyle choices are, in the end, inadequate, as Donald Scherer has argued. And I think we can, in the end, make a case for a largely ecological (hence scientific) conception of sustainability, however, that conception will not itself lead in any straightforward fashion to the resolution of environmental problems that remain involving questions of justice, ethics, or politics [Cf. Kristin Shrader-Frechette, Environmental Justice: Creating Equality, Reclaiming Democracy, 2002]. In other words, there is no easy way to translate the ecological into the environmental, as the debates, ideologies and movements within the Greens (e.g., social ecology v. deep ecology; of late, we can add 'reverential ecology' to the mix') and mainistream environmentalism (conservative to liberal, Darwinian Malthusianism to...) attest, let alone the differing public policy positions which claim allegiance to environmental values and principles.

Sustainability as sustainability of resoures uses shows more promise. But notice how, again, the ecological overlaps with the environmental and thus the political:

"The choice of fissionable materials as fuels would probably by itself be sustainable for a very long time. While the problem of the continued use of radioactive fuels is in part a practical and political problem of whether safe long-term use can be provided, beyond that the problem is the potential problem that fissionable materials potentially refinable into fuels, have other uses, say in armaments. In this way it is possible that a (theoretically sustainable) resource becomes unavailable because a competing and nonsustainable use of the material undermines the market within which the theoretically sustainable resource exists."

When a resource's rate of renewal needs to be assessed in terms of the resource's rate of consumption, again, the questions are not merely or solely scientific and ecological, but involve questions, for instance, of social organization, technology, and public policy. Fossil fuels at present rates of consumption are "nonrenewable," but we might imagine, with the requisite social changes, a different rate of consumption that renders them "renewable."

Again, with Scherer, consider what happens

"when we shift our attention from cities to rural areas and from countries that use nonrenewable energy resources intensively to countries that rely much more centrally on human labor. When we shift our attention from the center to the peripheries of power, we encounter disease, poverty and people who lack opportunities to live in the syle of either their parents or their powerful contemporaries. The likelihood of the siting of hazardous waste in a given area is known to be a function of the race and poverty of its human inhabitants. The effect of a given resource shortage on a particular local human population is a function of the strength of the network of other resources available to that population. In light of the differential effects of resource shortages on human populations, some rethinking of the concept of sustainability is appropriate. 'We should not imperil the availability for future generations of what we have available to us now.' When is 'now' and who is 'us?' Is there a future population that is less deserving of what more affluent societies now have available to them? Here the ethics of sustainable energy becomes an ethics of the use of power. In its starkest form, the danger is that the concept of sustainable energy itself is loaded. The very concept comes under scrutiny from the suspicion that concern about sustainability is no more that a concern of an elite to retain its privileged status."

In short, justice becomes germane to the question of sustainability: "...at some level just patterns of resource use or changes in the pattern of resource use must be patterns or changes acceptable to the least powerful." Of course this raises more questions than it anwers, but it reinforces the point about the unavoidably contestable nature of sustainability, even when invoking ecological principles on its behalf. There appears to be an ineluctable tension between "sustainability" in reference to *human* resources and the intrinsic/inherent good, ecologically speaking, of ecoystems (having to do with their functional/structural integrity). All the same, we can well appreciate the fact that "the good of an ecosystem regularly involves public goods for human beings."

The challenge remains:

"...all forms of life use resources. From that perspective the functional value intrinsic to an ecosystem provides the only clarity humans presently have about what sustainability has and why. The most clearly sustainable resources are renewable. The danger that no adequate substitute will be found for some nonrenewable resource grounds the argument that nonsustainable resources, if used, should be used for bootstrapping, not for lifestyle maintenance."

Scherer draws several conclusions from his helpful analyis of the concept of sustainability:

"First, sufficient poverty exists to drive human population growth, thereby increasing the energy supply required to sustain human life. Honesty requires humans to affirm that the problem is hard enough and that making the problem harder will increase the likelihood that wide-spread social and ecological harm will precede energy sustainability. From this caution must derive the fundamental courage to attack poverty worldwide as a prerequisite to achieving energy sustainability. [....]

Second, the scale of the operation of maintaining energy supplies for human beings implies a moral demand not only for increasing the efficiency with which the demand is met but, quite significantly, with constraining the pollution of present-day demand meeeting. The harms of pollution and their projectable ballooning as developing nations command larger supplies of dirty energy, combine with the unevenness of access to such energy to demand the courage of the immediate pursuit of both the short-term goals of purity and efficiency of using non-renewable energy supplies, and, the longer-term goal of conversion to solar (including wind) and other, hydral forms of renewable energy.

Third, the fuzziness of our understanding of ecoysystems and of the myriad species that compose them, argues, in conjunction with the importance of understanding sustainability, for improving human biological knowledge. In our current state of considerable ignorance, the fuzziness of our understanding of ecosystems argues, in light of the value of sustainability, for prudence. Prudence implies relieving the poverty that provides the impetus to human population growth [for an earlier and excellent instance of this argument, see William W. Murdoch's The Poverty of Nations: The Political Economy of Hunger and Population, 1980], encouraging healthy, energy-efficient lifestyles chosen informedly in the light of prices that thoroughly reflect costs [on what this might entail, see Partha Dasgupta's Human Well-Being and the Natural Environment, 2001], and converting energy production to renewable, non-polluting forms."

The quoted material is from Donald Scherer, "The Ethics of Sustainable Resources," in Andrew Light and Holmes Rolston III, eds., Environmental Ethics: An Anthology (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2003): 334-358. (Reprinted from the Encyclopedia of Energy Technology and the Environment, 1995)

I share the concerns of Dale Jamieson about the "discourse of sustainability," which he believes has a legitimate role to play in thinking about environmental policy. Nonetheless, according to Jamieson, "sustainability, as it is employed in most of its guises, is primarily an economistic and anthropocentric notion. The moral reorientation that is required, which involves new relationships between humans as well as with other animals and the rest of nature, is unlikely to be affected by developing ever more precise understandings of sustainability. We need a discourse that permits deeper discussion of aesthetic, spiritual, religious, cultural, political, and moral values." Please see: Dale Jamieson, "Sustainablility and Beyond," in Morality's Progress: Essays on Humans, Other Animals, and the Rest of Nature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 321-334.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Apr 29, 2008 7:31:23 PM

Incidentally, there is an example of the application of the principle of sustainability in international law that is, I think, interesting. It is discussed in Vaughn Lowe's contribution to The Role of Law in International Politics (Michael Byers, ed., 2000). Lowe has elsewhere argued "there is no adequate basis on which it can be said that sustainable development has emerged as a norm of customary international law," for there is no State practice and opinio juris to support it. Nonetheless, it seems the principle does have some relevance, in this case acting as an "interstitial norm" that is invoked by way of resolving conflict or competition between conflicting norms "with their own normativity."

The exemplar here is found in the International Court of Justice's (ICJ)ruling in the *Gabcikovo Case* (1982) 37 International Legal Materials 162. Lowe fills in the details:

"The *Gabcikovo Case* arose out of a dispute between Hungary and Czechoslovakia (as it was then) concerning hydroelectric and navigational and flood control works on the Danube. Reflecting the conflict of values at the heart of the dispute, the majority judgment in the ICJ referred to the 'need to reconcile economic development with the protection of the environment.' The concepts of economic development and the protection of the environment were treated as legal principles, and their reconciliation was, in the words of the Court, 'aptly expressed in the concept of sustainable development.' Judge Weeramantry, in the elaborate discussion of sustainable development in his Separate Opinion, refers to it as 'more than a mere concept, [it is]...a principle with normative value.' Noting that the right to development and the need to protect the environment may collide, he asserts that '[t]he law necessarily contains within itself the principle of reconciliation. That principle is the principle of sustainable development.'"

In short, sustainable developement acts as an interstitial principle here to resolve a conflict between primary norms of international law. As Lowe points out, adjudication is frequently motivated or guided by, strictly speaking, "extraneous factors:"

"Those factors are many and varied. Two are obvious and carry great weight. The first is the consistency of the preferred outcome with what is thought, on broad moral and political grounds, to be 'desirable'--a kind of broad equity. The second factor is the general cohesion of the preferred outcome with the existing norms of the legal system, which is in itself one of the desiderata of judicial decision-making. These factors are often, but not always, made explicit in the reasoning of the tribunal which is offered in justification of the decision. Judge Weeramantry argues that international law needs coherent principles of this kind for the resolution of internal conflicts and tensions; and he argues that, in the case of the conflict between the right to development and the protection of the environment, sustainable development is such a principle."

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Apr 30, 2008 8:52:12 AM

Great comments, Patrick. A more than adequate substitute for Frank (who I was as much complimenting as ribbing)! I think the argument that the questions involved "are not merely or solely scientific and ecological, but involve questions, for instance, of social organization, technology, and public policy" is entirely reasonable and fairly persuasive, although I am less utterly convinced by the Jamieson quote. In any event, the commenters who criticize Wood don't treat these questions as contestable; they treat it as incontestable that sustainability necessarily involves a broad-brush version of "social justice," which appears to be more closely related to prior ideological commitments than by any close thinking, of the kind you provide here, about the link between sustainability and "wider" issues. As my post notes, I wasn't denying and, if anything, leaned in favor of the view that sustainability probably can't be too narrowly defined; but I did find Wood persuasive in challenging the way this happened in particular campus programs as too shallowly reasoned, and his commenters did little to dissuade me. You, on the other hand, have really engaged the issues. Cheers.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 30, 2008 8:55:09 AM

As he is one of my cyberspace mentors in most-things-legal, I can't imagine ever being "a more than adequate substitute for Frank"!!!

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Apr 30, 2008 9:14:29 AM

I've got a lot to say in response to both Paul and Patrick....but still trying to get it organized. It does strike me that Wood's apparent call for the priority of "science/engineering" here is, if not misplaced, based on an unjustifiable elevation of technology over politics. I still believe in Gandhi's basic point that "there is enough for everyone's need, but not for anyone's greed." Addressing that will require some attention to redistribution, and perhaps even the "recognition" issues Wood seems so allergic to (to use Nancy Fraser's dichotomy).

Posted by: Frank | Apr 30, 2008 5:02:07 PM

I kinda thought this might be up your alley, Frank!

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Apr 30, 2008 5:20:18 PM

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