State of the Sustainability Movement 2011 (Part 1)

December 19th, 2010

In the Spring 1990 issue of In Context — which described itself as “A Quarterly Journal of Humane Sustainable Culture” — Robert Gilman described the state of the sustainability movement in his time, and I thought it would be interesting to review this and reflect on where we are today. (See “Sustainability: The State Of The Movement,” in Sustainability (IC#25), Spring 1990, Page 10.)

The first thing that stands out, of course, is that we are no longer likely to speak of sustainability as either “humane” (“marked by compassion, sympathy, or consideration for humans or animals”) or principally “cultural.” We are now perhaps more inclined to speak of it as “human,” in the sense that what is at stake is the very survival of our species; and we would now speak more broadly of “sustainable development” rather than “sustainable culture,” which seems faintly archaic in this world of increasingly globalization and cosmopolitanism. The “movement” (which is no longer a widely used term to characterize the current focus on sustainability either) is now much broader and more diffuse; it is also much larger and more widely accepted, and perhaps even on the verge of becoming mainstream.

But of course to its opponents it remains a movement, and one that is advocating “dangerous interventions” in the market such as taxing carbon or introducing cap-and-trade; that is alarming people about global warming; and that is looking to constrain economic growth.

But what is this movement really? When it is as much led by businesses such as Walmart and BASF and Waste Management; when it is being integrated into school and university curricula across the world; and when it is the subject of heated debate in Congress and of clamor in the councils of the world—this is not the kind of “movement” we were used to discussing during the 1960s. It is, profoundly, a movement of ideas, a transformation of the assumptions our society is based on, and a widespread series of changes in community action, lifestyle trends, and cultural values — occurring concurrently with a dozen other technological, spiritual, and economic revolutions throughout the world. “Sustainability” is a way of unifying these trends, of connecting them in the search for a world of continuing viability and enduring possibility.

In 1990, Gilman felt that he was to some extent conjuring up such a movement, by writing about what he “believed” existed, and could be discerned in the work of “participants [who] are all too diverse and changing to be pinned down by a set of words.” Today there is no doubt that there is a global community of actors engaged in the quest for sustainability. This community includes the “more than two million groups and nonprofits” that Paul Hawken speaks of in Blessed Unrest (2007), and describes as “the largest movement in the world that no one saw coming.” But it also includes many others who would consider themselves part of the emergence of a 21st century megatrend toward greener communities and a greener economy but who are not part of any of these groups.

In 1990 the “movement” consisted, according to Gilman, of

  • a small number of researchers, innovators and activists
  • who have taken a whole-systems approach to
  • the challenge of developing human systems, technologies and lifestylesthat can provide high quality and environmentally benign ways of life for all of humankind, now and many generations into the future.

The whole-system approach remains central, and the number of researchers, innovators, and activists has grown exponentially, yet the challenge largely remains. Arguably, in some areas much progress has been made, but overall things have gotten worse, to the extent that some experts now believe that staying below the critical 2° threshold has ceased to be possible.

Several of the main features of the sustainability perspective remain similar to those Gilman outlined twenty years ago; yet perhaps our expression of them has become more nuanced. For example, he states that:

Closely associated with the movement’s whole-systems perspective is the high value it places on learning and innovation as a response to problems, rather than critique and complaint. The movement certainly has many who are skillful at criticism, but criticism is used as a tool, not an end. For the movement is basically vision-oriented – it is motivated by a desire to build a better world, not just tear down the one we have. The movement is not peopled by Pollyannas: it faces our culture’s problems squarely, with a hard-nosed realism, but it is decidedly optimistic about our capacity to learn and grow.

This optimistic bias is especially reflected in the movement’s “make it better” attitude towards science and technology. There is much in present day science and technology that the movement strongly criticizes, but it is nevertheless at home with the spirit of empirically-tested exploration that characterizes science at its best. Interestingly, a significant number of those who are most visibly active in the movement come out of conventional scientific careers – Wes Jackson, Dana Meadows, Brian Swimme, Amory Lovins, David Spangler, John Todd, and Danaan Parry, to name just a few.

Several of these remain at the forefront of sustainable thinking today, and the commitment to finding scientific solutions to human and environmental problems is just as strong if not stronger. But the optimism has in some ways become a matter of strategy rather than an article of faith. We are exhorted to act “as if” solutions were possible, whether we think them likely or not. As Paul Hawken said in his 2009 commencement speech at the University of Portland:

Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.

More than just “making things better,” we realize that we need to make many of them over, and perhaps we may even need to stop making some of them altogether.

Finally, Gilman seeks to distinguish the sustainability movement from the environmental movement on the one hand, and from the “new age movement” on the other. The latter, of course, no longer seems to have any traction whatsoever; and while there is a growing intermingling of the sustainability and the environmentalist perspectives, some of important differences remain. As Gilman put it then:

…there are important ways in which the sustainability movement is different and distinct. It insists on a whole-systems approach, whereas the environmental movement has focused on the human impact upon non-human systems, and the new age movement has focused on spirituality and personal growth. Unlike much of the environmental movement, it is vision- and solution-oriented. Unlike the new age movement, it is primarily concerned with the nuts and bolts of ecological and cultural health. People in the sustainability movement are generally happy to work with these and other social movements, but in doing so we retain our commitment to a practical, positive whole-systems approach.

Somehow this seems a bit more “superior” and “rah-rah” than most of the sustainability authorities and activists I work with today, but the essence is clearly there. We’re focused on whole-systems outcomes, on regeneration rather than merely on preservation, and on humans because all of the problems the planet now faces are traceable to them, and are the cumulative consequences of our own actions. (Including our American resistance to fully acknowledging this and responding to the challenges with commensurate changes in our actions.)

Prescient in many ways, Gilman hailed the recent acceptance of the idea of “sustainable agriculture” by the USDA, and the World Bank’s embrace of “sustainable development” — though in neither case, twenty years later, has sufficient progress been made. Amongst other things he looked forward to

Increased attention to redesigning human institutions, especially in economics and governance. The bottleneck to developing a humane and sustainable world is clearly no longer technological nor ecological – though ecological imbalances may cause great trouble in the years ahead. But while we know a great deal about what could be done in such areas as energy efficiency and environmental restoration, we know a lot less about the design of humane and sustainable human institutions – institutions that could both implement the needed solutions quickly and effectively and provide an ongoing vehicle for a fulfilling and environmentally sane quality of life.

Unfortunately, in 2010 this is still where we are today. Human systems are vastly harder to change than technological ones. Machines don’t fight to preserve obsolescence, whereas humans are averse to discarding beliefs and practices even when these are demonstrated to be misguided and harmful. The struggle to free ourselves from the ideas of dead economists continues unabated. As Keynes said,

“The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

In The Wealth of Nature (2003) and other books, Robert Nadeau has made a compelling case for abandoning the assumptions of neoclassical economics as simply inadequate to the task of describing the real economy, let alone prescribing wise policies. Most importantly, the treatment of “parts” and “wholes” in traditional economics is completely at odds with what physical scientists have come to understand about the universe as a whole, and with what ecologists observe everyday, namely that the vitality of organic systems at any level is not simply a matter of additive atomistic components, but involves a higher-order patterning that emerges from the interdependent interaction of the parts. As he puts it, incorporating ecological realities into economics

will require the development of a new economic theory premised on the assumption that parts exist in embedded relationship to the whole and manifest as new wholes with different emergent properties on ascending levels of scale and complexity.

If assumptions about part-whole relationships in the neoclassical economic paradigm were commensurate with the actual or real dynamics of part-whole relationships in the global environment, there would be no need to develop and implement an environmentally responsible economic theory. But because the assumptions are utterly different from and wholly incompatible with these dynamics, there is simply no basis in this paradigm for coordinating global economic activities in ways that could lead to a sustainable environment. (The Wealth of Nature, p. 110)

In other words, mainstream economics is based on pseudo-scientific categories and beliefs that can no more accommodate ecological realities than alchemy can yield modern chemistry. While science has moved beyond the simplicities of Cartesian dualism and Newtonian mechanics, into the realm of quantum “potentialities” and “probabilities” that only materialize in relationship to the participant-observer, economics is still struggling to shed its adopted blinders, and come to terms with the much more complex interaction of factors, including its own ideas, that lead to increasingly widespread instability, inequity, and system collapse. But we are clearly still just at the beginning of this critical paradigm shift, and the more traditional economists continue to resist intelligent solutions even if they recognize the looming reality of catastrophic environmental problems.

In the end “ecological economics” will need to carry the day, if we’re going to be around to continue operating an increasingly complex and interdependent global economy; but it remains marginalized in most policy, academic, and financial discourse, in large part simply because traditional economists have become masters of rationalization and obfuscation in promoting the triumph of “unfettered capitalism.”

Of course this assessment of where we are today versus where we were twenty years ago is something of a cursory one, and leaves out all of the details of the many advances in renewable energy, appropriate technology, and environmental protection that have occurred over the past two decades, along with many setbacks and standoffs in policy issues along the way. But I think it’s at least a starting-point for discussing the progress of the movement as a whole, and getting a broader picture of both the challenges and the opportunities of our era. And perhaps what’s most significant is that we can now foresee the end of the sustainability movement, in its ultimate diffusion throughout the enterprise and society, though this may still be a long way off and far from certain.


The central question of our time is really whether we can accomplish the transition to a sustainable economy within the existing societal framework, or whether we need a fundamental shift in human consciousness in order to heal our relationship with nature (if not with each other). There are good arguments to be made on both sides, and there is even a case to be made that changing our behavior will do more to alter attitudes than either advocacy or education. But the reality is that we need both: we need to make the practical changes, in the way we handle energy, water, waste, food production and distribution, and in financial incentives; but we also need the transformation of consciousness as well, so that we are living “from” the recognition of our absolute dependence on nature, and living “within” the given of limited resources, a fragile web of life, and a biosphere that needs our collaboration to maintain itself.

My colleague and friend Doug Cohen, a lifelong agent of change, just drew this quote to my attention:

The future is not a result of choices among alternative paths offered by the present, but a place that is created—created first in the mind and will, created next in activity. The future is not some place we are going to but one we are creating. The paths are not to be found, but made, and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.
—John Schaar, Professor Emeritus, University of California, Santa Cruz

This has of course been true in every era, but that it seems especially relevant today suggests that we stand at the edge of a chasm and must somehow find a way to build a bridge across to the other side. The easy solutions of the past will not help us much here: though we must use everything we know, we need to invent a new possibility for human civilization that allows us to progress beyond the model of domination and estrangement from nature, to a new model of harmonious collaboration, that mirrors the remarkable symbiosis that is biological life (and is perhaps indeed also the model for the sustainable expansion of the universe itself).

There is no doubt that the acceptance of sustainability has made great strides in the past two decades; but we’ve made just enough progress to begin to recognize just how much further we still need to go. We are at the very beginning of a great transition — as a great as that of the agricultural and the industrial revolutions, if we are indeed to continue the expansion of human accomplishment beyond wrenching catastrophes that we are already seeing emerge in the the 21st century — but only at the very beginning. And the outcomes of history are not predetermined; we’ll either span the chasm or we’ll fall into it, and it’s likely we won’t even know until and unless we reach the other side. But as Kuntsler pointed out in his year-end assessment last winter, we’re simply not able to turn around and go back to the way things were. Welcome to 2011.

(Reprinted in the Dead River Journal, 20 December 2010.)

One Response to “State of the Sustainability Movement 2011 (Part 1)”

  1. […] Thanks to all who attended the discussion and potluck Saturday… Here’s part of what it inspired (reprinted from my personal site): […]

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