Renewable Debate: Progress vs. Sustainability

Daniel Bonevac

Editor’s introduction: NAS was pleased to learn that Professor James V. Hillegas used the sustainability issue of Academic Questions in his capstone course “Documenting Sustainability in the Pacific Northwest” at Portland State University. Professor Hillegas writes about the course on his blog, Sustainability History Project. This month he posted an entry in which he responds and quotes his students’ responses to Daniel Bonevac’s AQ article “Is Sustainability Sustainable?” (pdf). Bonevac, in his original article, systematically examined the most prominent definitions of “sustainability” (in the environmental sense). His goal was to see whether the ethical positions staked out in these definitions passed muster as ethical constraints on individuals, groups, and public policies. In the following article Professor Bonevac responds to Professor Hillegas’ criticisms.   

The reader coming to this debate cold might benefit from a few pointers. The “Brundtland definition” refers to the definition of sustainability used in the 1987 report by the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development, which defined “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their needs.”

The distinction between “strong” and “weak” sustainability refers to claims about the nature of resources (or in the jargon, “capital”). “Strong sustainability” is the idea that we are ethically obligated to maintain natural resources for the indefinite future, and replacing them with manufactured substitutes (i.e. commercial forests for wild ones) is wrong. “Weak sustainability” accepts any form of development that can go from generation to generation, provided that innovative substitutions are made along the way. 

The “equity” argument about sustainability refers to the efforts of some sustainability advocates to say that real sustainability requires the achievement of certain kinds of social equality and social justice. The “equity” side of the sustainability movement is the part that wraps in diversity, women’s rights, gay rights, and “fair trade,” among other such issues that are not, prima facia, environmental matters. Bonevac sets these aside in examining definitions of sustainability.  

Renewable Debate: Progress vs. Sustainability

I am pleased that Professor Hillegas and his students are taking my criticisms of the concept of sustainability seriously. I think, however, that they have missed the point of my article. So, let me try again.

The goal of “Is Sustainability Sustainable?” was to survey the most important definitions of sustainability in environmental literature and to ask whether they could plausibly be taken as necessary conditions for an action or policy to be considered ethically permissible. As I said in my introduction (the first page), I concluded that the definitions are ambiguous, admitting a variety of readings. Readings that are plausible candidates for ethical criteria are too weak to support the environmentalist agenda. They suggest that policies in the developed world are already sustainable. Readings that would support the environmentalist agenda and imply a need for significant policy change are ethically implausible.

I did not “fix,” “focus,” or “alight” on Ehrenfeld’s definition of sustainability—which includes the term ‘forever’—as Hillegas contends. I devoted one short paragraph to it, just to say that I would set it aside as an obvious nonstarter. The purpose of my discussion of the finitude fallacy was to push to one side, not that definition, but a related argument made again and again in environmental literature, that “sustainable growth” is a contradiction in terms. (Professor Hillegas seems to think I endorse that view; I most certainly do not—it appears in a quotation from Bartlett, whom I was criticizing—and devoted this section to showing why.) Perhaps I made a rhetorical mistake in putting that discussion before the main part of my paper. But I thought it was important to get certain confusions out of the way before addressing the serious candidates for a definition of sustainability. I did not assert that the serious candidates commit the finitude fallacy; indeed, I take them seriously partly because they do not make that mistake.

Professor Hillegas asserts, “He...picks-and-chooses definitions to fit his argument.” I did not do so; my goal was to survey the most prominent definitions and evaluate their ethical plausibility. The Brundtland definition, which Professor Hillegas accepts, was front and center, the first definition I addressed at length. From one perspective, the core idea of the Brundtland definition is preservation of the capacity to meet needs. That has inspired a variety of other authors to define sustainability as preservation of something else of value: capital, capacities, opportunities, or well-being. I proceeded from the Brundtland definition to those alternatives partly because my goal was to survey important definitions and partly to see whether the problems facing the Brundtland definition stemmed from choosing the wrong value to be preserved or from something more fundamental. My conclusion is that the difficulties stem from the idea of preservation itself. No matter which value one chooses, the thought that one’s actions must preserve that value is tempting, but ultimately mistaken. Life isn’t a steady uphill climb; it’s a roller coaster ride. There are many reasons why individuals and groups might prefer arrangements in which certain values can decline, at least temporarily, over arrangements that prevent such declines. Maybe permitting declines in a value improves people’s prospects for attaining some other goods. Maybe it allows for attaining a higher level of that very value. Maybe it is necessary for liberty. Maybe it simply recognizes the inevitable.

Because my focus was the ethical viability of the concept of sustainability, I considered the issue quite generally, using environmental and economic arguments—including, but not limited to, nonrenewable resources—as well as arguments drawn from everyday life. Taking a vacation, getting married, going on a diet, saving money, giving money to charities, and taking a class were examples of individual activities I considered that involve at least temporary, but often permanent, declines in something of value. Recall my central question: Is sustainability plausible as an ethical constraint? If it is, it should be applicable to any sphere of human activity.

Professor Hillegas is right that I ignored “equity” considerations, except for my next-to-last paragraph, in which I explained why. Sustainability, to put it baldly, has nothing to do with “equity,” “equality,” “participatory democracy,” or other such notions. In fact, as I argued, it frequently conflicts with them. Nothing but confusion can result from running these ideas together. (Some writers seem to think that sustainability requires justice in some form, on the ground, evidently, that unjust social arrangements cannot persist for very long. I see no reason to be so optimistic.)

I am stung by the allegation that I asked oversimplified questions and provided oversimplified answers. I confess that I don’t understand his distinction between “truth” and “Truth,” but let me explain why I isolated definitions of sustainability from the background discussions in the sources I cited, issues of real-world applicability, and so on. I did what analytic philosophers often do: I focused on a concept, considered various definitions of it, and evaluated their adequacy, all in (I hope) a Socratic spirit. These definitions may be helpful in specific contexts. Many incorrect definitions are. An adequate definition, however, has to apply across the board, separating the sustainable from the unsustainable in every context. If sustainability is a necessary condition for permissible action—the contention I was investigating—then it must in addition do so in such a way that the unsustainable is in every case impermissible. I argued that the chief definitions in environmental literature meet that standard only if they are given a weak interpretation that does not support most environmentalists’ agendas.

I laid out three criteria that a definition of sustainability, understood as a general ethical constraint on permissible action, ought to meet. It ought to be a necessary condition on the permissibility of individual action; it ought to be a necessary condition on the permissibility of group action; and it ought to be possible for policies or general patterns of action to meet it (that is, count as sustainable under it). Professor Hillegas chides me for taking a “one-strike-and-you’re-out” attitude toward these criteria. But an ethical constraint that fails for individual action, or fails for group action, or is unsatisfiable, fails as a general constraint. Two out of three is not good enough.

In fact, however, nothing rests on this; I argue that every definition I consider, on a strong interpretation of it, fails at both individual and group levels. In many cases I argue that the definition is unsatisfiable as well.

Let me close by responding to Professor Hillegas’s allegation that I have some “potentially nefarious ideological agenda.” Many Athenians thought the same of Socrates, and sentenced him to death for it. Like Socrates, I think sloppy thinking ought to be avoided, not because it interferes with some hidden agenda of mine, but because it makes it hard to understand the world, and, in particular, what ought to be done. Clarity is an important value for reasons that are independent of any particular substantive agenda. It is part of the process by which we rationally evaluate policies and alternatives.

Saying that is not to deny, however, that my article has ideological implications. Thirty years ago I considered myself an environmentalist; I no longer do. The reason is related to the distinction between weak and strong readings of the serious definitions of sustainability. The weak readings, which I take in several cases to be plausible, all other things being equal, support a meliorist attitude toward environmental questions—the attitude manifested in voluntary environmental programs and in legislation such as the Clean Air Act and the Water Quality Act, and still manifested in much environmental literature—which has led to significant environmental improvements here and in many other parts of the world over the past several decades. I share that attitude, and in fact think that a notion of sustainability, closer to the pragmatists’ concept of stability (that is, roughly, long-run acceptability) than to preservation concepts such as those I considered in the article, is a crucially important ethical concept. Increasingly, however, environmentalism has become shaped and even dominated by another, more radical strand of thought, which insists on strong (and, I argue, implausible) interpretations of sustainability and demands on those grounds a radical restructuring of social, economic, and often political relationships. I think that strand is mistaken, and that much of its appeal rests on confusing the strong and implausible readings with the weak and plausible readings of sustainability and related notions. Drawing a clear distinction between those readings and recognizing that the difference between them makes a large ethical difference seems to me to be vital for understanding the differences between the meliorist and the radical agendas and adjudicating the debate between them.

Hanging on my living room wall are two panoramic photographs of my hometown, Pittsburgh, taken from the same point overlooking the city 42 years apart. In the 1938 photograph, the sky is a dingy gray, and the city is barely visible. In the 1980 photograph, the sky is clear, and the city stands in sharp relief. Today, standing in the same spot, one sees the city even more sharply, and sees sailboats and waterskiers on the rivers, something that would have been unthinkable in 1938. I have no desire to attack the perspective that effected such a transformation. But neither do I wish to see it turned into a weapon aimed at the social, economic, and political systems that made that transformation possible.

Daniel Bonevac is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas, Austin.

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