Temporality & Sustainability

Here’s a short piece I wrote for a workshop last year at McMaster’s Institute for Globalization and the Human Condition. It sought to bring together a variety of different themes from across different projects in my work. I’m not sure this short writing venture worked, but it offers a quick look at the problematique of sustainability in its contemporary parlance, which is something I am currently revisiting. I’ve become  re-interested in the relationship between global environmentalism and development questions, especially as they relate to the rise of “sustainable development.” I wrote a bit about this here, and would like to explore the behind-the-scenes efforts of the Founex meetings in the 1970s and their efforts to articulate a definition for “eco-development.” More on that to follow.

Time, Globalization, and the Human Condition

Sustainability has gone mainstream. It now serves as the universally accepted cornerstone of political and ethical guidelines for dealing with the planet’s ecological and social crisis. Just as environmental issues are now entrenched within the popular media, sustainability and sustainable development have become global buzzwords that unite environmentalists, legislators, and industry the world over. As a result, the politics of sustainable development constitute a happy marriage of Northern environmental lobbies and Southern development interests, identifying and communicating their common concerns and building multilateral cooperation toward realizing a greener and more prosperous world.

Here’s the rub: sustainability is a concept whose definition has shifted over time and place. Its history indicates that its goals are increasingly obscured by short-term political compromising and diffusion. While the vagaries of the idea are appealing insofar as they can bring wildly disparate parties together and breed a superficial consensus, the fact that sustainability means different things to different people has resulted in little substantive change in terms of lasting efforts and successes in curbing the global environmental crisis. To make matters worse, just as sustainability and sustainable development have crashed into the popular imagination, they have continued to evolve without a clear notion of what the goal of global environmental politics should be.

This is a problem that strikes at the very root of contemporary global environmental governance, and it is bound in sustainability’s complicated past. While sustainability’s political history can be traced through a series of Earth summits and studies—notably Our Common Future—and more focused international conventions that were initiated shortly after the creation of the United Nations, its intellectual history is far older and more nebulous. Both histories and their interactions are pivotal for a deeper understanding of the political climate that is steering our contemporary efforts to address the tenuous state of the global environment.

While a more detailed analysis of sustainability’s place in time might carefully consider its intellectual heritage—from, it seems, the German “Nachhaltigkeit,” which was coined in print by Hans Carl von Carlowitz in 1713 in a book titled Silvicultura Oeconomica—and link that to its place in global environmental governance, situating sustainability in a discussion of temporality raises some interesting questions about its applications. As an historian, I’m drawn to sustainability because of its implicit interaction with time. So many efforts to engage with the environment are static. They assume nature, societies, and civilization are immobile objects on a canvas that can be moved, altered, or bandaged. Insofar as sustainability plans for (or predicts) a greener future, it is conscious of the fact that time moves and so do people, ecologies, and hazards. Historicizing sustainability provides an important contextual lens for engaging with contemporary debates about our environmental future, but I think it also serves a further intellectual purpose insofar as history can help to illuminate one of the foundational obstacles associated with misunderstandings or miscommunications about applying sustainability in a global context. The evolution of sustainability as an idea has emerged out of older strains of environmental thinking that can be linked to stewardship, husbandry, management, conservation, and ecology. With these intellectual ancestors, sustainability shares an energetic capacity for planning for the future, but it is unique insofar as it gives little or no thought to the past. As an unfortunate result, sustainability implies a concerted effort to imagine a greener future, but this effort suggests as its goal an unrealistic end of crisis—or end of history.

And its future, too. The future is always just an idea, a proposal, a scenario, rather than an orchestrated series of events. One of the enduring challenges in realizing a more sustainable future consists of re-engaging with how we might plan for the future. Political and economic imperatives tend to put emphasis on a shorter timeframe that lacks pragmatic viability when the environmental stakes are so high. Rather, sustainability debates should be reaching for a much more sophisticated and expansive notion of time. Planning one year into the future, or two or twenty frequently lacks the kind of foresight and breadth of perspective that might help to plan for mitigating our environmental trespasses. Our contemporary notion of “the here and now”—in which our political and economic decisions are made—is frequently constrained to some variant of “this place and this week.” A more effective brand of sustainability demands a more ambitious interpretation of time, looking and planning much further into the future. Thinking sustainably involves ensuring clean air, soil, and water, an abundance of resources and amenities, and innovative planning, if not in perpetuity—how long is sustainability for?—for a very long time. Gambling on a future technological fix coming in the near future does not constitute sound planning (history says we have been very good at planning for these, and not very good at realizing them).

So: to globalization. One of the important developments in environmental history over the past number of years is that material nature’s motility does not adhere to the boundaries of the nation state. Resources, contaminants, people, and ideas are constantly on the move, making global connections that transform how we should think about environmental crises. Tropical rainforest destruction satiates Northern tastes for beef; mercury-based fungicides banned in the developed world found their way to developing nations; climate change—rising seas and desertification—has initiated an unprecedented form of human migration. To engage with greater sustainability—or, perhaps, more usefully, greater resilience—necessarily involves not just a re-envisioning of temporality, but also a broader geographical context.

Criticisms of the idea aside, sustainability possesses an energetic (and hopeful) capacity for inclusive planning for the future, which is a much-needed quality in contemporary environmental practice. And its meteoric rise in social, political, economic, and cultural circles warrants careful attention as a valuable lens or portal through which we can examine critical aspects of global politics and nature’s impact on the human condition across a multitude of places and through time, backwards and forwards.

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