The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 14, No. 2 (Summer 2012)

Abundance on Trial: The Cultural Significance of “Sustainability”1

Joshua J. Yates

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 14.2 (Summer 2012). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review Summer 2012

(Volume 14 | Issue 2)

Every now and then a single word emerges from our common parlance to achieve the status of a master term. Such a word gives expression to discrete needs and purposes, but it also provides a perspicuous lens through which to view the ethical disposition and emotional temper of a culture at a particular moment in time. The argument of this essay is that “sustainability” has become just such a word for our moment, deserving closer attention than it has so far received.

This essay seeks to address a set of neglected questions about the cultural significance of sustainability’s rise to a master term in our society and to distill its deeper moral and ethical salience from the wide spectrum of its connotations and applications. We will see how varying concerns over what Americans (and humans more generally) are not presently sustaining reflect a deep-seated anxiety that goes to the very heart of our most basic assumptions about what it means and takes to thrive in the contemporary world. Specifically, we will see how such assumptions are themselves connected to growing uncertainty over whether the relationship between humans and nature is one primarily defined by scarcity or abundance. In light of these anxieties and uncertainties, we will also see how the rise of sustainability to a master term represents accumulating disappointment and disillusionment with those key terms once believed constitutive of modern progress—terms like “development,” “improvement,” and “growth.” The cultural significance of sustainability, in other words, is related to the mounting scrutiny and doubt now facing the master terms of modern progress.

How “Sustainability” Became a Word for Our Time

In the summer of 2011, two separate but well-publicized reports by climate scientists issued global calls for sustainability. “The Stockholm Memorandum,” put forward by a group of Nobel Laureates who might well be expected to champion the cause of sustainability, contended: “we are the first generation facing the evidence of global change. It therefore falls upon us to change our relationship with the planet, in order to tip the scales towards a sustainable world for future generations.”2 Similarly, in a report commissioned by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences, “Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene,” a perhaps unexpected champion of sustainability called on all the peoples and nations of the world to “protect the habitat that sustains us.”3

They are not alone. Today, there are thousands of organizations across the planet dedicated to the cause of sustainability in one realm or another. The range of advocacy and application is remarkable, including everything from sustainable economic development to sustainable architectural design and city planning, fashion and apparel, energy, farming, education, healthcare, and so on. As the Nobel Laureate and Vatican reports suggest, the range of constituencies promoting sustainability is equally remarkable. Before we can properly engage the cultural significance of sustainability, it is necessary to develop a fuller picture of how the language of sustainability has become so pervasive.

Conceptual History

The history of sustainability has only just begun to be written.4 As a discrete idea, the term was largely ignored by historians, even by environmental historians, until the first decade of the twenty-first century. There has been, of course, a popular story about the origins of sustainability, more or less agreed on by both its advocates and critics. In this telling, sustainability finds its roots in 1970s’ environmentalism, which was animated largely by a neo-Malthusian view that humans were quickly outstripping the carrying capacity of the planet. There were simply too many humans consuming too much of the Earth’s resources, and the costs of the unparalleled economic boom of the post-war period were finally beginning to come due. Humanity was confronting what one well-known study of the period called “the limits to growth.”5

The term only rose to international prominence, however, as part of a grand synthesis (or compromise) between environmentalists and development experts within the United Nations system.6 That synthesis found its now classic articulation as “sustainable development” in “Our Common Future,” the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development (colloquially known as the Brundtland Report). This landmark report linked sustainability with development in order to harmonize tensions between advanced industrial nations increasingly concerned with environmental problems, on the one hand, and the need for economic development that bedeviled newly decolonizing countries, on the other. In this way, the rhetoric of sustainability was birthed as a policy rubric intended to bridge opposing constituencies in an international context of postcolonialism, Cold War geopolitics, and the beginnings of economic globalization.

The Brundtland Report provided not only what has become sustainability’s reigning definition—“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”—but also its most expansive, tripartite conceptual framework by which to evaluate any action as truly sustainable, the so-called “three Es” of sustainability: Environment, Economy, and Equality (see Figure A). According to many advocates, these three interrelating spheres represent sustainability in the most complete sense of the word.

Figure A: The Three Spheres of Sustainability

Figure A: The Three Spheres of Sustainability

Still, it was not until after 1992 that the idea of sustainability began to seep into widespread public consciousness. Building off of the accomplishments of the Brundtland Report and earlier conferences, the UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro, known popularly as the Earth Summit, brought together thousands of world leaders representing government, business, the media, and civil society. Among its central accomplishments, the Earth Summit developed a global program for action on sustainable development called Agenda 21—a plan to achieve environmentally sustainable development by the twenty-first century. One of the primary goals of Agenda 21, as with the Brundtland Report before it, was to raise the level of understanding of, and participation in, the cause of sustainable development across multiple sectors and levels of human society.7

The Sustainability Industry

To accomplish the aims of Agenda 21 would take extensive planning, coordination, mobilization, and tracking—in short, it would take an international cottage industry dedicated to the cause of realizing sustainability worldwide. However one might want to rate the success of Agenda 21 twenty years on, the multi-sector, stake-holder cohort that was first assembled in Rio has today evolved into scores of international non-governmental organizations (INGOS), consultancies, think tanks, multi-sector coalitions, and auditing firms, which have sprung up to facilitate the integration of one or a number of sustainability frameworks across several leading institutional sectors of society.

Consider higher education. As early as 1990, in the lead-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, a group of 31 university leaders representing 15 nations signed the Talloires Declaration—the first official commitment to environmental sustainability on the part of university administrators.8 Two decades later, institutions of higher education across the world are making sustainability a core organizational concern, and, according to a recent study on the rapidly growing body of research in what is called “sustainability sciences,” the number of scholars writing about sustainability in the academy has doubled every 8.3 years between 1974 and 2010.9 Moreover, the vast majority of universities have established “sustainability offices” to coordinate all comprehensive planning and communication with respect to their sustainability commitments.

Over the same period, sustainability has moved from a buzzword to a core value in business circles. According to a 2011 MIT/Sloan Management survey of 2,874 managers and executives from 113 countries, two-thirds of respondents reported that sustainability was critically important to being competitive in today’s marketplace, up from 55 percent the year before. Moreover, 70 percent of companies that have placed sustainability on their management agendas have done so in the past six years, and 20 percent have done so in just the past two years (see Figure B).10

Figure B: Findings from the 2011 Sustainability and Innovation Global Executive Study, MIT Sloan Management Review

Figure B: Findings from the 2011 Sustainability and Innovation Global Executive Study, MIT Sloan Management Review

During this same period, we can see the growth of a new category of executive; alongside chief executives, chief financial officers, and chief operating officers, major corporations are adding the “chief sustainability officer.” “What started out as a compliance job,” reports Geoffrey Heal, a business professor at the Columbia Business School, “has evolved into one that guards the value of the brand.”11

To be sure, a great deal of controversy surrounds the adoption of the rhetoric of sustainability by corporations. Many environmental, labor, human rights, and localist groups dismiss it as “green” washing. Nevertheless, according to Klaus Kleinfeld, CEO of the aluminum giant Alcoa, “sustainability now has to be on everyone’s agenda, and that represents a fundamental change.”12

A similar story of rhetorical diffusion and institutional development can be found in many other sectors, not least in the public sector. Countries that were signatories on Agenda 21 and other related UN pronouncements have created their own sustainability plans. In the United States, such plans have taken different shapes (and inspired different levels of commitment) under different administrations, but most of the action is found at the state and municipal levels, where various global and national sustainability frameworks have been customized to meet regional and local needs. Go to nearly any official state, city, or county website, and you will find a reference to sustainability principles or programming.13

Thanks to the legacy of the Brundtland Report and the Earth Summit’s Agenda 21, sustainability has become more than a fashionable ideal in institutions of higher education, more than a buzzword in corporate boardrooms, and more than a matter of political expediency in the chambers of governmental power at all levels. Sustainability has become a core organizing principle, and as a result, it has arguably come to define the rhetorical terrain on which individual actors within these sectors increasingly have to operate.

Nevertheless, as important as all of this rhetorical and institutional diffusion has been, it is hard to imagine sustainability achieving its current level of popularity without capturing the public imagination. For that it needed a catalytic cause. It found such a cause in the growing alarm and debate over global warming, which was brought to mainstream attention in the late 1990s and early 2000s, through a number of high profile scientific reports and international meetings, such as the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997. Perhaps the event with the greatest popular impact in the U.S. came with the 2006 airing of Al Gore’s documentary on global climate change, An Inconvenient Truth. These factors, among others, helped make sustainability a household word. In the process, however, they have also led to its politicization.

The Politicization of Sustainability

Sustainability has its critics. From the beginning, the UN’s linking of sustainability with development struck many environmentalists as a fundamental contradiction in terms. The concept of sustainability originally emerged out of ecological thinking that was interested in promoting a steady-state (or zero-growth) economy, not more growth, however sustainable it might be. To marry these two opposing concepts would not respect nature’s limits; it would only repackage growth in more environmentally friendly terms. Far from a creative synthesis, sustainable development came to represent, in certain environmental circles, a fatal compromise that enabled economic interests to co-opt ecological concerns, which in turn, resulted in what one scholar has called “sustainable degradation.”14

Today, criticism of sustainability has migrated across the political spectrum and has accrued a very different set of voices along the way. Many of the most vocal critics of sustainable development in the United States are actually anti-environmentalists on the political right. Their nemeses are not proponents of economic growth, but UN bureaucrats who they fear are using the concept of sustainability to restrict national liberties and infringe upon private property rights—in short, as a Trojan horse for socialism. In the words of a letter posted on RedState, a popular conservative blog: “sustainability is the next step in the green government religion, to mandate what statists want, at the local level.”15 On another popular conservative blog,, Rachel Alexander avers that “‘sustainability’ is an amorphous concept that can be interpreted to an extreme degree that would regulate and restrict many parts of our lives.”16

While UN bureaucrats are the object of ire and invective, the epicenter of this right-wing populist discontent is not found in the street protests of high-level UN meetings, as we might expect, but in city halls and county court houses in several municipalities across the nation. The issue? The adoption of land use guidelines from the U.S. chapter of an international consulting group known as “Local Governments for Sustainability” (or “ICLEI”). Over the past decade, more than 600 U.S. cities, towns, and counties have consulted with ICLEI and utilized its various sustainability performance and planning services.17 The trouble with ICLEI, according to opponents, is that it is effectively smuggling into America the goals of Agenda 21, which are seen as “European socialist goals that will erode our freedoms,” ranging from owning our own homes and cars to population control.18 Bypassing Congress, ICLEI is going directly to local communities, who do not fully understand the real agenda, and selling them on their program with technocratic buzz words like “smart growth” and “responsible comprehensive planning.”19

Controversy over high profile global issues has suddenly intruded upon public meetings ordinarily embroiled in local disputes. Around the country, Tea Party advocates have stormed meetings, demanding an end to their community’s membership in ICLEI. According to the New York Times, “a City Council meeting in Missoula, Mont., in December got out of hand and required police intervention over $1,200 in dues to Iclei.”20 In a number of cases, the political pressure has been too much to bear. Communities in Pennsylvania and California have recently withdrawn their participation from ICLEI, and Alabama just became the first state to officially ban Agenda 21.21 Meanwhile Tea Party and other opponents of ICLEI square off against advocates in many other communities across the country. Like so many other key terms, sustainability has become another pawn in the American culture wars.

Curiously, in spite of all the suspicion that sustainability is a shibboleth for socialism in matters of local land use, the word seems to have become important for many of these same critics in the wake of the Great Recession. To be sure, their cause has nothing to do with “sustainable development” and the legacies of Brundtland and Agenda 21. Instead, their watchword is fiscal sustainability, which implies reducing federal spending, and thus debt, which in turn suggests a return to limited government and free markets. It is striking how, for these critics, the same term can engender so much criticism and animosity in one formulation and so much praise and support in another; without realizing it, they simultaneously end up being both boosters and bashers of sustainability, and its invocation “draws applause lines either way.”22 This reveals how sustainability has become not only part of our common idiom, and thus available for wide-ranging and divergent use, but also a term we seemingly cannot do without.

Taken together, the foregoing rhetorical and institutional “mapping” of sustainability leads us to an important recognition: as a matter of empirical description, sustainability has indeed become a master term. This recognition should help us resist the temptation to dismiss it as a meaningless platitude and encourage us to ask why so many different people and interests, across so many realms of society, resort to using the same term. What is it about this term that seems so compelling at this moment in time? Approaching the topic of sustainability in this way allows us to see a deeper cultural logic at work, one that touches on some of the most fundamental assumptions about the world and our relationship to it. It is to an analysis of this cultural logic that we now turn.

The Cultural Logic of Sustainability: Thriving between Scarcity and Abundance

Discerning the cultural logic of sustainability demands that we attend seriously to critical changes in three overlapping areas. The first has to do with our changing confidence in inherited terms and concepts that once defined modern progress; the second, with changes in our answers to the question of what it means and takes to thrive; and the third, with changes to our understanding of the relationship between humans and nature. Let us take each briefly in turn.

Progress on the Defensive

Our point of entry into this first area comes with the recognition that the rhetorical force of sustainability is found in how it orients us to time. More specifically, it portends that what we do in the present has serious consequences for the future. The emotional pull of sustainability is to act now before it is too late on behalf of future generations. The semantic burden of sustainability, however, directs our attention backwards; its reference points are neither the present nor the future, as its emotional pull (and its formulations in and since Brundtland) would lead us to expect. They are historical. Sustainability’s semantic interlocutors are a set of older terms such as “improvement,” “development,” and “growth”—all once standard watchwords for modernization. As a group, these terms have inflected the overarching master term of modern society in the West: progress.

If we are to perceive the cultural logic driving sustainability’s spectacular rise and ubiquity, we will have to examine it in light of our changing relationship to these older terms and thus to our former expectations about progress itself. As we do, we begin to see that such terms no longer compel us in quite the same ways they once did. For example, industrialization, urbanization, and mass consumption are no longer seen as the unmitigated goods they once were taken to be. We are all too familiar with their negative impacts on people and the planet. While our leading institutions still depend for their legitimation on the promises of modern science, markets, and technology to deliver material and social progress, as individuals we do so hesitantly, neither fully comprehending how they work, nor knowing whether today’s cutting-edge advances will turn out to be tomorrow’s fatal mistakes. We recognize that our lives and livelihoods are impossible without them, but we are also aware that we can only count on them until further notice. In many important respects, the hallmarks of modern progress are on the defensive.23

Thrift and Thriving

Now consider the second area of change. If we look closely at the key words that have historically constituted our notion of progress, we see that they have, in effect, provided an evolving set of answers to what is arguably the most fundamental economic question for any society: what does it mean and take to thrive? Culturally speaking, all societies must provide some provisional set of answers to this question. However partial or contested they may be in practice, such answers give expression to some idealized vision of what human thriving looks like, just as they exhort a community to embrace particular practices and habits of wise use that are believed essential for achieving that ideal vision of thriving. Over time, these answers gather the force of custom, morality, and even law, and as they do, they become recognizable as distinct economic ethics.

For example, in the economic ethic of the American Puritans, thriving was located ultimately in the soul, which motivated members of the New England township to pursue the pious management of time and talents and to accumulate wealth as a spiritual calling, not just for individuals, but also for the whole community—á la the mythic Protestant ethic. For the Victorians, however, the picture shifted from the all-encompassing but thoroughly spiritualized condition of thriving to one focused on material wellbeing and individual frugality. This was the birth of classic thrift epitomized by Benjamin Franklin’s famous maxims “time is money” and “a penny saved is a penny earned.” In the Victorian era, thriving was primarily located in the individual and in family life as a reflection of financial security, middle-class respectability, and diligent philanthropy. In time, the Victorian picture of thrift and thriving would be supplanted by yet newer visions—by the rise of Progressivism in the early twentieth century, by mass consumption in the post-world war era, and so on.

It is in the ebb and flow of these economic ethics, with their distinctive visions of thrift and thriving, that we eventually locate the cultural headwaters of sustainability in the 1970s and 1980s. Before we can bring these origins more fully into view, however, we need to attend to a third area of cultural change: the pictures of nature that are operative in our economic ethics. The plausibility of any particular picture of thrift and thriving ultimately depends upon a certain implicit set of assumptions about the basic constitution of nature and its relationship to human agency—whether that relationship is fundamentally characterized by scarcity or abundance.

From Scarcity to Abundance to Sustainability

When we trace the trajectory of succeeding economic ethics over the past two hundred years, we discern a definite pattern: a broad historical arc moving from the common assumption in the nineteenth century that nature was fundamentally constituted by scarcity to a radical reversal of that assumption in the twentieth. There were compelling reasons for this shift in assumptions. Most strikingly, the period between 1800 and 2000 witnessed the greatest sustained level of economic growth in the history of humankind (see Figure C).

Figure C: “The Great Acceleration”: Data extracted from Angus Maddison’s “World Population, GDP, and Per Capita GDP,

Figure C: “The Great Acceleration”: Data extracted from Angus Maddison’s “World Population, GDP, and Per Capita GDP, 1-2003 AD”24

Increases in longevity, reductions in mortality, ever-higher standards of living, greater freedoms for greater numbers and classes of people—the evidence was obvious for all to see. Even the two World Wars, a planet-wide Great Depression, and the specter of atomic destruction that haunted the decades of the Cold War could not completely dampen the “facts” of modern progress.

In a spirit of exuberance, early twentieth-century economists like Simon Patton and John Maynard Keynes understood the trajectory of what Adam Smith called the “progress of opulence,” and they reversed the famously dismal conclusions of the classical economists like Thomas Malthus, John Stuart Mill, and David Ricardo by heralding a new era of abundance. For Keynes, humans had finally solved their economic problem—the problem of subsistence—and overcome scarcity once and for all.25 By the final third of the twentieth century, our economic conditions had shifted so dramatically that accompanying economic ethics were forced to accommodate themselves to the assumptions of the “new normal” of abundance. Unsurprisingly, not only did our conceptions of thrift and thriving have to adapt significantly along the way to a new ethic of consumption, the word “thrift,” for so long indexed to a world of scarcity, seemed increasingly out of touch with reality and eventually faded from common use.

It was not long, however, before the dilemmas of this new abundance began to come more fully into view, provoking, in turn, the need for a way to account for the costs of modern progress. By the 1970s, with the rise of the modern environmental movement, mounting urban and industrial decay spreading in advanced industrial nations, not to mention the oil crisis, stagflation, and growing concerns about overpopulation, the background picture, which had only recently been in thrall to a picture of industrially produced abundance, was once again thrown into flux. Did scarcity or abundance best capture our late-modern situation? In this simple question, the implicit background perception of the limits and potential of humanity’s interaction with the natural world moved to the foreground, where it became an overt and increasingly disputed issue. In the resulting epistemological confusion and ideological contestation, not only has providing a coherent and cohesive way of answering the question of thrift and thriving become a challenge, just being able to pose the question coherently has proven enormously difficult. The key terms associated with the conventional paradigm of modernization came into serious question. People began to search for new justifications, if not altogether new terms. The need to fill the semantic vacuum and either reformulate the old terms or seek out new formulations of thrift and thriving became a matter of widespread concern and mobilization. It is no coincidence that this was the point at which people began to gravitate toward the language of sustainability as a compelling way of working through the confusion about our present situation (see Figure D).

Figure D: Google Ngram: Decline of “Thrift” and Rise of “Sustainability” (1800-2012)

Figure D: Google Ngram: Decline of “Thrift” and Rise of “Sustainability” (1800-2012)

The rise of the rhetoric and practice of sustainability to global prominence has been meteoric since the 1970s, and today its comprehensiveness matches its pervasiveness. Whether its ascendancy as a master term has clarified our situation, either descriptively or prescriptively, remains an open question. Yet whatever else we might say about it, sustainability has become the word for our time because it aptly expresses the unsettling of our confidence in our inherited ideas about progress and thus in the background picture of our dominant economic ethic. Our visions of thriving (as sustainability) vacillate uncertainly between scarcity and abundance.

Abundance on Trial: Sustaining in the Anthropocene

Recently, the language of sustainability has found new impetus in the latest chapter heading in the cultural history of modern economic ethics: “the Anthropocene.” Scientists employ this neologism (literally: “age of man”) to refer to our current geological era.26 By a number of critical measures, including the fossil record; the chemistry of our air, water, and soil; rates of animal and plant extinctions; and the like, Planet Earth has moved out of the Holocene era, a relatively climatically stable era beginning approximately 10,000 years ago and into an era defined by the unpredictable but thoroughgoing impact of humankind (see Figure E).

Figure E: Indices of the Anthropocene, International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme

Figure E: Indices of the Anthropocene, International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme27

In dramatic fashion, the idea of the Anthropocene captures the most recent transformations taking place in our picture of the relationship between humans and the natural world: it posits a world in which humans, as a species, are not just biological agents, but also geological agents.28 Put simply, the impact of humans on the natural world is now as great, and in some instances greater, than nature’s impact on humans. Against such a recognition, the cause of sustainability takes on added urgency.

At the same time, the Anthropocene brings into relief a destabilizing ambivalence running through the conceptual and rhetorical registers of sustainability, one that has been there from its initial formulation as “sustainable development.” In one register, the discourse of sustainability seems to offer a sweeping retraction of modern aspirations in light of the Anthropocene and its implications. What needs sustaining is nature’s (and thus also humanity’s) limits. This inflection of sustainability presupposes a background picture of fundamental scarcity and judges claims of abundance to be illusory. The purported age of material surfeit enjoyed by industrialized nations for the past one hundred years, on this view, came through massive exploitation of the world’s poor societies, through extensive externalization of the real costs of industrialization, and through the plundering of the finite reserves of carbon that have been stored up over eons in the depths of the earth. In short, our fabled abundance came about by overrunning critical social and planetary limits for the sake of present gains, to the benefit of only a minority of humans and at the expense of future generations and other species. The Anthropocene, on this view, represents the redlining of our critical life support systems.

Accordingly, the Anthropocene confirms what many already believed about the history of humans. As the environmental historian J. R. McNeill memorably describes it, our history consists of the movement of people from one unsustainable way of life to another.29 Those human societies that did not make the shift to a new way of life in time collapsed; those that did, very often through migration and conquest, lived on. However, the moral in the lesson of the Anthropocene is that, through the processes of modernization and globalization, the entire human species is finally reaching, indeed may already be surpassing, the outer limits of sustainability, and that this time, there is no new way of life or place to escape to. This time, we will have to live with the consequences, even as we do what we can to mitigate them by reestablishing our way of life within planetary limits.

There is another sustainability perspective, which resists such dire verdicts and considers premature the conclusion that the surpassing of natural limits is always bad. In the words of one recent proponent:

While there is nothing particularly good about a planet hotter than our ancestors ever experienced—not to mention one free of wild forests or wild fish—it seems all too evident that human systems are prepared to adapt to and prosper in the hotter, less biodiverse planet that we are busily creating. The “planetary boundaries” hypothesis asserts that biophysical limits are the ultimate constraints on the human enterprise. Yet, the evidence shows clearly that the human enterprise has continued to expand beyond the natural limits for millennia. Indeed, the history of human civilization might be characterized as a history of transgressing natural limits and thriving.30

On this view, sustainability connotes a less fixed and more adaptable sense of our situation in the Anthropocene. What needs sustaining, in this more optimistic inflection, is not so much nature’s limits, but the abundance that modernity has in fact accomplished, thanks to human ingenuity and innovation thus far. This view recognizes that mistakes were made, even catastrophic ones when it comes to people and the planet, but it does not recognize nature’s limits to be predetermined or unchanging. Instead, having learned from past mistakes, it urges us to engineer a smarter, more sustainable way of maintaining but also expanding a hard-won abundance for both present and future generations. Sustainability, in this latter vein, seeks a mid-course correction rather than a wholesale retraction by more intentionally working with, instead of against, the grain of nature. The Anthropocene, accordingly, is not a parable of human hubris, but rather a call to realize our fullest potential as managers of the earth and our future on it.

Conclusion: Sustaining Sustainability?

At present, we find ourselves confronted by the fact that, while the expectations of the old terms of modern progress are still valid for us, and still legitimating our leading institutions, the terms themselves no longer have the force of historical inevitability. They can no longer be automatically assumed, and they are certainly no longer unassailable. As never before, we are aware of the risks and the costs associated with the ways we have tried to formulate and implement a compelling picture of thrift and thriving both at home and globally.

As a result, we do not have a coherent and cohesive answer to the question of what it means and takes to thrive in part because we cannot agree on whether the world we relate to is one fundamentally defined by scarcity (and thus limits) or by abundance (and thus unlimited potential). We cannot agree on whether the line between scarcity and abundance is linear and absolute or iterative and relative, whether the relationship between humans and nature is synergistic or zero-sum.

The fact that so much of the discourse of sustainability contains elements of both perspectives means that there is an inherent instability in its answer to the question of thrift and thriving—an instability bordering on equivocation, if not contradiction. We have convincing reasons, therefore, for calling into question the ability of sustainability to carry the ethical and moral weight many have placed on it. Nevertheless, we should not conclude from this that the discourse of sustainability is ultimately meaningless or inconsequential. It should be clear by now that, culturally speaking, the reality is just the opposite.

Indeed, attending to this potential for equivocation presses us toward some stark realizations about contemporary society, the most critical of which raises unsettling questions about the prospects for our deepest and most cherished moral convictions. Modern civilization, at least as it developed in the West, is premised on the recognition of every individual human’s equal dignity through various operations of emancipation and empowerment, from securing formal rights and protections to guaranteeing a basic threshold of material wellbeing. The groundswell of sustainability, however, signals the gradual recognition that the very processes by which modern civilization has come to realize this fundamental premise (to the extent that it has)–that is, through industrialization, urbanization, and consumption—are proving to be unsustainable. At the most profound level, the cultural logic of sustainability ultimately forces us to ask: if these fundamental socio-economic systems are not sustainable, how sustainable are our own highest ideals that have thus far depended on them for realization?

This examination of the cultural significance of sustainability has only scratched the surface and clearly cannot answer such a question; it can only raise it. More empirical, interpretive, and critical work waits to be done and is needed to determine whether sustainability is better understood as a symptom of or a solution to our perceived problems. Might it be the illness purporting to be the cure? Might it be both?

As a symptom, we will want to know how long the cultural moment to which sustainability gives expression might last. How long, in other words, will the word remain expressively and symbolically salient? How much longer will its apparent indispensability counter-balance its inherent vulnerability to equivocation between two competing worldviews and agendas? How long will it continue to override our own creeping cynicism about all key words?

We will want to know how close sustainability is to becoming a fully fledged economic ethic capable of addressing the challenges to which it also points. How satisfying are we likely to find its answer to the question, “what does it mean and take to thrive in the context of the Anthropocene era?” What about its political fortunes? Will sustainability be capable of evading the vortex of politicization in today’s culture wars?

Taken together, all of these invitations for further investigation are ways of asking whether the language of sustainability is itself sustainable, whether the languages, institutional arrangements, principles, policies, and practices that today are converging under the heading of “sustainability” will eventually coalesce into something like a coherent moral ethos. In the meantime, we have already learned much by this initial examination: sustainability is, for the moment, a word that gives voice to our present fears and uncertainties about whether we live in a world of scarcity or abundance, just as it augurs and upholds our hopes for thriving in a decidedly uncertain future.


  1. A word of sincere appreciation goes to Stephen Macekura, Benjamin Cohen, Maegan Moore, Philip Lorish, Matthew Puffer, Jeffrey Dill, and Sarah Friedman for their assistance and constructive criticism.
  2. Third Nobel Laureate Symposium on Global Sustainability, “The Stockholm Memorandum: Tipping the Scales Towards Sustainability” (18 May 2011): 3, available at <>.
  3. Pontifical Academy of Sciences, “Fate of Mountain Glaciers in the Anthropocene” (11 May 2011): 1, available at <>.
  4. To be sure, the idea, if not the term itself, has a much older history connected to the management of forests, farmland, mineral deposits, and other “capital stocks.” For a useful start to the history of sustainability, see a recent forum in Modern Intellectual History 8.1 (2011): 147–51, featuring insightful essays from Emma Rothchild, Paul Warde, and Alison Frank.
  5. Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth: A Report to The Club of Rome on the Predicament of Mankind (New York: Universe, 1974).
  6. See Andres Edwards, The Sustainability Revolution (Gabriola Island: New Society, 2005) 11–26.
  7. UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs: Division for Sustainable Development, “Preamble,” Agenda 21: III.23.2 (2009): <>.
  8. University Leaders for a Sustainable Future, “Talloires Declaration” (1990): <>.
  9. Luís M. A. Bettencourt and Jasleen Kaur, “Evolution and Structure of Sustainability Science,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (2011), as cited in “After 25 Years, Sustainability Is a Growing Science That’s Here to Stay, Research from Los Alamos, IU Shows” (21 November 2011): <>.
  10. David Kiron, Nina Kruschwitz, Haanaes Knut, and Ingrid von Streng Velken, “Sustainability Nears a Tipping Point,” MIT Sloan Management Review (December 2011): 2.
  11. Claudia Deutch, “Companies Giving Green an Office,” The New York Times (3 July 2007): <>.
  12. Peter Lacy, Tim Cooper, Rob Hayward, and Lisa Neuberger, A New Era of Sustainability: UN Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study 2010 (June 2010) 27.
  13. There are, for example, the Minnesota Principles (<>), Oregon’s 2001 Sustainability Act (<>) and 2004 Sustainability Plan (<>), California’s Sustainability Alliance (<>), the City of Ottawa’s ORTEE Principles (<>), and Johnson County, Kansas’s Sustainability Program (<>).
  14. Timothy Luke, “The System of Sustainable Degradation,” Capitalism, Nature, Socialism 17.1 (2006): 99–112.
  15. “‘Sustainable’ Government,” letter posted on RedState (18 December 2011): <>.
  16. Rachel Alexander, “Agenda 21: Conspiracy Theory or Real Threat?” (2 July 2011): <>.
  17. ICLEI Global: Global Members, <>.
  18. Alexander.
  19. These concerns do not only reside on the fringes of the political Right, but are to some extent shared at its center. The Republican National Committee recently passed a resolution declaring its own suspicions: “the United Nations Agenda 21 plan of radical so-called ‘sustainable development’ views the American way of life of private property ownership, single family homes, private car ownership and individual travel choices, and privately owned farms; all as destructive to the environment.” Leslie Kaufman and Kate Zernike, “Activists Fight Green Projects, Seeing U.N. Plot,” The New York Times (3 February 2012): <>.
  20. Kaufman and Zernike.
  21. See Alex Newman, “Alabama Adopts First Official State Ban on Agenda 21,” The New American (4 June 2012): <>.
  22. I owe this insight to Philip Lorish.
  23. To be sure, various aspects of modern progress have always had their elite critics. Today, however, the apprehension is democratized. The fear that the very institutions and technologies upon which we must rely might just be making the world less, rather than more secure and livable is never far from our minds.
  24. The historical data were originally developed in three books by Angus Maddison: Monitoring the World Economy 1820-1992 (Paris: OECD, 1995); The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective (Paris: OECD Development Centre, 2001); The World Economy: Historical Statistics (Paris: OECD Development Centre, 2003).
  25. John Keynes, “The Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren,” Saturday Evening Post (11 October 1930).
  26. This term was coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in “The Anthropocene,” IGBP [International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme] Newsletter 41 (2000): 17. For a more popular discussion, see “Welcome to the Anthropocene,” The Economist (26 May 2011): <>.
  27. Taken from W. Steffen, A. Sanderson, P. D. Tyson, J. Jager, P. M. Matson, B. Moore, III, F. Oldfield, K. Richardson, H. J. Schnellnhuber, B. L. Turner, II, and R. J. Wasson, Global Change and The Earth System: Planet Under Pressure (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2004) 132–33.
  28. For an enlightening discussion of this idea, see Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History,” Critical Inquiry 35.2 (Winter 2009): 206.
  29. J. R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: Norton, 2000) 358. See also J. Donald Hughes’s essay in this issue of The Hedgehog Review.
  30. Erle Ellis, “The Planet of No Return,” Breakthrough Journal 2 (Fall 2011): 6.

Joshua J. Yates is Research Assistant Professor of Sociology; Director of the Program on Culture, Capitalism, and Global Change; and Managing Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

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