Sustainability, simply, is the stewardship of environmental, social, and economic assets for future generations. It contrasts with the ordinary way of doing things, which presumably consumes 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. The conservation movement, the labor, and the civil right movements of the early 20th century all saw that they had a common cause over the unequal distribution of assets. 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 iron, firewood, horses, and white pines at various points in 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 using up all that was needed for fusion? Are we good judges of what the future needs? Were our ancestors?
Sustainability’s nemesis, 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 stewardship and sustainability would have been preferable to selfish resource extraction. But how do we know when we are acting unsustainably? How do we know when we are acting in stewardship? Sustainability is not a blessed badge of honor, it is an adaptive behavior. It is often couched as “Don’t do this, do that”. For it to succeed, it needs to inform “If you do this, you’ll be better off”
One could be excused for thinking the solution to sustainability is for us to follow the wisdom of our solons, and act sustainably, whatever that means. The problem with this is that even the best laid plans of the most sustainable 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. The best outcomes that are most important for anybody, from the lowest bacterium to George Soros, is the short term one. We need a clear vision of the future to save for it. If people are regulated against their interests, they might find ways around those regulations. The immediately obvious goal is not stewarding assets in the abstract assets for future generations, but seeking and hoarding returns right now for the weal of our families and our friends..
Sustainability does not, can not, overcome this acquisitive nature. I needs to harness it instead. It doesn’t take much study of ecology to see that every species on earth has the same model of life. When any living thing finds a good thing, we exploit it to its fullest. Worry about the future is maladaptive at best. The worriers get left behind while the doers take all the goods. This holds true from bacteria to birds to Bonobos. If we believe that humanity are living animals, 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 encouragement 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 pundits, policymakers, and politicians over the people. We are still too much of a market and a democracy for that.