Sustainability, simply, is the preservation of environmental, social, and economic assets for future generations. It contrasts with the ordinary way of doing things, which presumably consumes these assets heedless of the future. Sustainability derived independently from the environmental, social justice, and socialist movements, but has united to proclaim that all three are equally important. As time is limited, you will often hear form each of these movements that theirs comprise the majority of the virtues of sustainability. The three are forever in tension, even as they are supposed to reinforce one another.
Is sustainability ludicrous, however? The preservation of assets presumes that today’s assets are also tomorrows. Past generations had an inordinate fondness for strl, firewood, horses, and white pines at various points in recent history. A big push of the environmental slice of sustainability is to end civilization’s addiction to carbon. Sustainability is about the preservation of assets, but which ones? Will our grandchildren curse us for all the space and chemicals needed for solar power? Are we good judges of what the future needs? Were our ancestors?
Sustainability’s evil twin, overconsumption, provides perspective on why we have the notion of sustainability in the first place. Booms, severe over-depletions, famines, desertification, the ruination of cropland, desertion, extinction, epidemics and even floods all provide a rich tableau of examples of why stewardships and sustainability would have been preferable to selfish resource extraction. But how do we know when we are acting unsustainably, and how do we know when we are acting in stewardship. Sustainability is not a blessed badge of honor, it is an adaptive behavior. Or maladaptive, if others are becoming richer by acting “un”-sustainably.
One could be excused for thinking the solution to sustainability is for se to follow the wisdom of our betters, and act sustainably, whatever that means. The problem with this is that even the best laid plans of the most sustainable solons are imperfectly communicated to the lumpenprole. What’s’ worst, people have a nasty habit of thinking for themselves, and seeking the best outcomes for themselves. If people are regulated against their interests, they might This goal is not often the one that stewards assets for future generations, but one that maximizes returns right now for the weal of our families and our friends..
The challenge of sustainability is not that it needs to overcome our acquisitive nature, but that it needs to harness it. It doesn’t take much study of ecology to see that every species on earth has the same model of life. When we find a good thing, we exploit it to its fullest. Worry about the future is maladaptive at best. This holds true from bacteria to birds to bonobos. If wee believe that humanity are living things, then we must also believe that we have these impulses as well.
Do we think of sustainability in religions terms as the Manichean battle between virtue and sin? This is alluring, but useless. The hierarchic imposition of sustainability is not as powerful as the understanding and incenting of sustainable behavior. That is not an easy task, and it is one that requires the kind of nuanced though and innovation that universities offer. It will not, however, be solved by the command and control of the solons over the people. We are still too much of a market and a democracy for that.