The wide spectrum of meanings attached to the term 'sustainability' continues to produce a broad range of theories and actions under this banner. It has invariably found its use in legislature, policy, academia, social movements and business strategies. At its core, sustainable development is expressing views on the appropriate relationship between humans and nature, and as such it envelops normative assumptions ranging from 'strong technocentric' (nature is another form of capital) to 'strong ecocentric' (nature has intrinsic value). However, across the sustainable development literature, the human-nature interaction implied by sustainability is largely a user-resource relationship, and sustainability almost always equate economistic and anthropocentric policies and initiatives. It has effectively become a discourse which disenchants nature.

Sustainability policies are often focussed on decreasing consumption through technological innovation and efficiency gains. But decreasing personal consumption of resources through top-down incentives and regulation is not straight forward. The consumption literature is riddled with paradoxes, such as the (micro-economic) rebound effect and the (macro-economic) Khazzoom-Brookes postulate, which highlight the problem of pursuing techno-centric sustainability policies without considering the behavioural responses that flow from technological improvements. It is important keep the underlying story of sustainability and 'what is sustained' in mind to avoid that changing consumption patterns becomes a relative notion which is ultimately about change for the sake of change while the underlying power relations and forms of knowledge that underpin unsustainability remained largely unexamined.

Given the counter-intuitive effect of many standard policy options, it is imperative that the story of sustainability and its underlying values are discussed. In a world of complexity and uncertainty, values and integrity are better measures of the likely development and impact of sustainability research than targets and good intentions. If sustainability is to retain its transformative potential as an idea based on inter-generational justice within the global community of living beings, we must be clear about what we mean when we say anything is sustainable. Deep-seated ideas such as growth, linear development pathways, and progress are all part and parcel of the continued overexploitation of nature and aggressive expansion of human management of formerly wild places.


Dale Jamieson: Sustainability and Beyond

In this paper Dale Jamieson provides an excellent discussion of the sustainability discourse. He argues that we need to move beyond the language of sustainability if we are to be able to deal with the fundamental issues of unsustainability, and ends with the observation that ‘writers, artists and people from all walks of life’ must be part of articulating positive visions for a different human relationship with nature.

Clive Hamilton: The Rebirth of Nature and the Climate Crisis

In his Sydney Ideas Lecture Clive Hamilton explores the deeper philosophical reasons why we fail to respond to the threats that arise from our exploitation and pollution of nature. Unpicking the historical roots of our current ways of thinking about the environment, he calls for the transformation of our values, our attitudes, and our institutions, but above all, for an expansion of our selves.

Wendell Berry: 2012 Jefferson Lecture

Explaining succinctly how sustainability requires cultural cycles that move in harmony with the natural fertility cycles of the land, Wendell Berry explores how affection and connectedness with place are essential for nurturing sustainable cultures.

Paul Kingsnorth: Confessions of a recovering environmentalist

Paul Kingsnorth became part of the environmental movement in the early nineties when there was still a Wordsworthian feel to it. In this article he explains why he fell out of love with environmentalism and why sustainability has come to equal destruction minus carbon.

Ivan Illich: To hell with good intentions

In this address to the Conference on InterAmerican Student Projects in 1968, Ivan Illich hits on the fundamental hypocrisy when good intentions lead to the imposition of unsustainable ways of life and thinking on so-called under-developed nations.

Sander van der Leeuw: Climate and Society: Lessons from the Past 10,000 Years

Describing three major revolutions in how humans invest in and modify their environments, Sander van der Leeuw concludes that modern societies have invested so heavily in current ways of living that they can no longer innovate themselves out of crisis. The implication is that we should start seeing ‘environmental’ problems as inherently social and shift the way we organise rather than hope for technological fixes. (Clicking the link starts direct download.)

Erik Assadourian: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Cultures

The opening chapter of State of the World 2010 explains why preventing the collapse of human civilisation requires a transformation of dominant consumerist cultures. Identifying the roots of consumerism and explaining its consequences, Erik Assadourian calls for social movements to tackle the issue of sustainability.

The Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative

SCORAI is a network of academics and practitioners working to address challenges at the interface of material consumption, human fulfillment, lifestyle satisfaction, and macroeconomic and technological change. Network members are seeking to facilitate the design of a coherent research program that forges connections between scholars and communities of practice and contributes to an ongoing policy dialogue on these interrelated issues.

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