Public health and environment go hand in hand, and so the idea of sustainability gained appropriate popularity partly because of growing awareness in the West sparked by Rachel Carson’s (1962) Silent Spring, with its documentation of widespread toxicity (1).
By 1972, the first United Nations Earth Summit was held in Stockholm and The Limits to Growth (Club of Rome 1972) was published. In 1987 a UN Commission on Sustainability coincided with the most powerful multilateral anti-pollution treaty to date: the Montreal Protocol which banned CFCs to help prevent ozone hole growth.
But in 1992 the Rio Earth Summit featured George Bush Sr bragging that the “American way of life” was not up for negotiation. Co-opted by corporations during the 1990s, sustainability was downgraded in favour of neoliberal ideologues’ advocacy of export-led growth and the commodification of nature.
Sustainability poked its head up once again at a 2002 UN earth summit in Johannesburg, which unfortunately fused the UN’s strategy with privatisers, carbon traders and mega-corporations supporting the near-broke UN’s “Global Compact.” Then, finding new concepts such as “the Green Economy”, biodiversity offsetting and market-centric climate change policy to be fertile soil at the 2012 Rio Summit, sustainability has again flowered, leading to fears of excessive UN Environment Program promotion of “neoliberalized nature” (2).
For the 2015-30 period, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are now the mantra of the UN and many other multilateral agencies (in spite of extensive critique of the realities they elide, such as by the scholar-activist network The Rules  (3)).
Sustainability’s return will inevitably be contested by radical critics and attacked by the most pollution-intensive forces of capital, partly on grounds of threats to public health. But it is in the torture of the word sustainability through the “ecological modernization” of agencies such as the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (established by Swiss construction billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny) that critics must bear constant witness. Like so many forms of greenwashing, the term is deployed regularly in the course of commodifying, financializing and destroying nature.
Commodification occurs increasingly under the rubric of “Payment for Ecosystem Services,” aiming to “put a price” on nature for the sake of maximum efficiency and rationality. The financialization of nature is underway with carbon markets and other forms of emissions trading and virtual water sales, increasingly packaged in exotic investment instruments (most of which do not hold up under scrutiny) (4).
In ecological modernization’s most advanced form, Deutsche Bank’s Pavan Sukhdev initiated “The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” (TEEB) within the UN Environment Program to “make nature’s values visible” and thus “help decision-makers recognize the wide range of benefits provided by ecosystems and biodiversity, demonstrate their values in economic terms and, where appropriate, capture those values in decision-making.”
TEEB’s search for optimal resource use emphasizes “low-hanging fruit” that can achieve the least costly form of market-facilitated environmental management. Likewise, the World Bank’s (2012) Inclusive Green Growth mandated, “Care must be taken to ensure that cities and roads, factories and farms are designed, managed, and regulated as efficiently as possible to wisely use natural resources while supporting the robust growth developing countries still need… [to move the economy] away from suboptimalities and increase efficiency – and hence contribute to short-term growth – while protecting the environment (5).”
Not mentioned by Bank staff, of course, were capitalism’s recent distortions, such as in the food system, carbon markets and real estate, most proximately caused by financial speculation in commodities, nature and housing. Nor would the Bank admit that overproduction tendencies in the world economy are amplified by the “increased efficiency” required for successful export-led growth, nor that irrationality characterizes a large share of international trade. Silences in neoliberal versions of sustainability discourse tell us just as much about the real agenda behind co-optation of this sort.
This is the weak, corporate-dominated version of the sustainability narrative, but there was once a stronger one. Gro Harlem Brundtland’s (1987) World Commission on Environment and Development defined “sustainable development” as meeting “the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (6).” Moving beyond simple inter-generational equity, Brundtland also allowed mention of two central concepts that reflected the more favourable balance of forces for the environmental left, back in 1987.
First, was “the concept of ‘needs’, in particular the essential needs of the world’s poor, to which overriding priority should be given.” Second was “the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment’s ability to meet present and future needs.” These relatively radical red and green agendas were briefly married in 1987, and hence the idea of sustainability should have been a strong site for contestation of capitalism itself, had activists more jealously guarded the phraseology and demanded consideration of these concepts by corporations using “sustainability” in their greenwashing and branding.
It was not to be. As John Drexhage and Deborah Murphy (2012) explained, “over the past 20 years [sustainable development] has often been compartmentalized as an environmental issue. Added to this, and potentially more limiting for the sustainable development agenda, is the reigning orientation of development as purely economic growth. (7)” It is worth dwelling on this artificial bifurcation because within the discipline of economics, two lines of argument had emerged by the early 1990s.
One was the visionary work of Herman Daly, who authored the seminal Steady State Economy (1973), but then laboured fruitlessly at the World Bank to inject environmental values into financial considerations (8).
Daly (1996, 220) had offered a tougher definition than Brundtland: “development without growth beyond environmental carrying capacity, where development means qualitative improvement and growth means quantitative increase (9).” At the World Bank, he found, this framing “just confirmed the orthodox economists’ worst fears about the subversive nature of the idea, and reinforced their resolve to keep it vague.”
Daly (1996, 88-93) proposed four sustainability policy recommendations for both the Bank and governments, centred on preserving the ecological inheritance which came to be known as “natural capital” (9):
Daly (1996, 220) grew frustrated by 1995, because “Although the World Bank was on record as officially favouring sustainable development, the near vacuity of the phrase made this a meaningless affirmation … The party line was that sustainable development was like pornography: we’ll know it when we see it, but it’s too difficult to define (9).”
Laying down the party line, in the other side of the bifurcation, was World Bank chief economist Lawrence Summers (1991) (11). He signed off on an internal memo to his underlings (leaked to The Economist, which endorsed the idea) a few months prior to the Rio Earth Summit, in a way that dramatically reworked the idea of sustainability: “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”
For Summers, in effect, sustainability at global scale allowed evasion or evisceration of state regulations that should otherwise “internalize the externalities” associated with pollution or ecological damage. Summers’ version meant simply displacing these externalities to wherever political power and economic wealth were negligible and the immediate environmental implications less visible.
After all, Summers (1991) continued, inhabitants of low-income countries typically died before the age at which they would begin suffering prostate cancer associated with toxic dumping (11). And using the “marginal productivity of labour” as his guiding measure, Summers implied that low-income Africans were not worth very much anyhow, compared to those living in wealthier sites, nor were Africans’ aesthetic concerns with air pollution as substantive as for wealthy northerners. So sustainability would permit dumping toxic waste on poor people instead of halting the production of toxins.
“Your reasoning is perfectly logical but totally insane,” rebutted Brazilian environment secretary José Lutzenberger. “Your thoughts are a concrete example of the unbelievable alienation, reductionist thinking, social ruthlessness and the arrogant ignorance of many conventional ‘economists’ concerning the nature of the world we live in” (cited in Summers, 1991) (11).
Lutzenberger was fired by a conservative Brazilian president (later impeached for corruption) whereas Summers rose to the positions of US Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton, Wall Street investment advisor, Harvard University’s president (from which he was fired by the faculty for sexism) and Barack Obama’s economic tsar where he arranged trillions of dollars’ worth of banking bailouts, following the hazardous deregulation of banking for which he was the main champion.
Unsustainability is perfectly personified in Summers, and thanks to displacement of the “dirty industries”, pollution largely generated in the North (or caused by Northern overconsumption) began to shift to new production sites in the South, such as Mexican maquiladora border manufacturing zones and the Newly Industrializing Countries (Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and then Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand), and eventually to the east coast of China and to South Asia.
In part because of rampant socio-environmental unsustainability in these sites, the world started to hit what the Club of Rome (1972) (12) had long warned would be “planetary boundaries.” The most serious threat is running out of the carrying capacity for greenhouse gases that cause climate change, and in turn, ocean acidification.
There are others: biodiversity loss, stratospheric ozone depletion (abated by the 1987 Montreal Protocol that phased out CFCs by 1996 – but leaving atmospheric aerosols as a danger), crises in the biogeochemical nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, other resource input constraints, chemical pollution, freshwater adulteration and evaporation, and shortages of arable land (Magdoff and Bellamy Foster 2011, 12) (13).
Addressing these systemic threats, powerful institutions and companies are increasingly proposing technological silver-bullet fixes – which critics term “false solutions” – to unsustainability. These include:
Many tech-fix strategies violate the Precautionary Principle, cause land grabs, have excessive capital costs, require increased energy, are unproven in technological terms and are many years if not decades from implementation.
Can the logic of capitalism generate repairs for the intrinsic damage being done during the Anthropocene (named for our current epoch in which humans have altered geological and macro-environmental processes) or, more specifically – since obviously not all humans are equally responsible – the ‘Capitalocene’ (14)? Some believe in a “green capitalism” strategy, including Al Gore (15), often based on arguments by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins (16) (for a critique see 17).
But as Ariel Salleh (2012) argues, a serious consideration of externalized costs should include at least three kinds of surplus extractions, both economic and thermodynamic, never comprehensively incorporated by reformers: 1) the social debt to inadequately paid workers; 2) an embodied debt to women family caregivers and 3) an ecological debt drawn on nature at large (18).
In contrast to the weak form of sustainability are concepts of the left, stressing distributional equity, non-materialist values and a critique (and transcendence) of the mode of production. Strategies for transitioning to genuinely sustainable societies and economies are also hotly debated (19,10), and include:
With such creative options flowering – albeit in sometimes reformist mode harking back to indigenous conservation, mere accounting reforms and the slowing (not ending) of capitalism – determining genuine sustainability does ultimately depend on the nature of the critique of unsustainability.
Perhaps the most popular systemic analysis comes from Annie Leonard’s (2007) Story of Stuff film and book which link the spectrum of extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal (28). Naomi Klein’s (2014) This Changes Everything puts the onus on capitalism for climate change (29).
But expressed most bluntly, Joan Martinez-Alier and Jochen Spangenberg (2012) explain what is truly at stake: “Unsustainable development is not a market failure to be fixed but a market system failure: expecting results from the market that it cannot deliver, like long-term thinking, environmental consciousness and social responsibility (30).”
Note: Patrick Bond’s presentation held at the conference can be accessed here.
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