Jeremy Butman

When we talk about sustainability, then, what is it that we hope to sustain? We certainly do not sustain nature “in itself.” Rather, we sustain nature as we humans prefer it.

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  1. shinichi Post author

    Against ‘Sustainability’

    by Jeremy Butman

    Among the many stories that can be told about the origins of the environmental movement in the West, perhaps the most common is that it began with the emergence of Romanticism in the late 18th century. In this version, environmentalism was born as the good twin to evil industrialization. Today, when we talk about ecological sustainability and environmental preservation, we typically still understand them in terms of a battle between nature and industry.

    For environmental thinkers, the prequel to this origin story involves Descartes, and he is an arch-villain. By restricting the sphere of knowledge to only “clear and distinct ideas,” Descartes in effect reduced the natural world to its mathematical aspect. In doing so, he set the stage for a purely scientific, technological worldview, cleared the way for the domination of nature by industry, and prepared philosophy for Nietzsche’s dramatic declaration of the death of God.

    This story has been told ad nauseam in philosophy classrooms and in books of environmental thought. What is given less consideration is the way that, as the Christian God retreated after Descartes, the attributes traditionally ascribed to Him — goodness, perfection and permanence — were in different ways transposed onto the body of nature.

    Such idealizations of nature can be found in the work of the German Romantics (like Schiller, Hölderlin and Goethe), the English Romantics (Wordsworth, Shelley, Keats, et al) and later in that of the American transcendentalists, most notably Emerson and Thoreau. Much of this work directly counters the philosophical view of nature that reigned in centuries before them.

    For Aristotle, the primary principle of nature — “physis” — is change, and what changes can never be perfect: If a perfect form were to change, it would necessarily become imperfect. For Hobbes, writing in the 17th century, the state of nature was harsh, and man’s life in that pure state, “nasty, brutish and short.” According to Hobbes, a person who chose to live in the woods would thereby renounce the very thing that made her human, and forfeit her ability to reach the divine.

    In the late-18th century, though, this framework begins to undergo a reversal — cruel nature is transformed into the Garden of Eden. This identification of nature with the Christian notion of the divine is one foundation of the philosophy of environmental sustainability.

    In her 2014 book “The Sixth Extinction,” Elizabeth Kolbert offers an account of just how changeable and anarchic nature, when viewed in terms of planetary history, really is. Some 200 million years ago, she writes, during the extinction at the end of the Permian period, which killed off perhaps as much as 70 percent of vertebrate species, a mysterious “massive release of carbon” turned the oceans purple and the sky green.

    Yet one need not go so far back to observe the changing environment. Events like the disappearance of lions from Europe, as well as the extinction of the mastodon and the woolly mammoth (and climate change), all likely resulted from human activity. But the planet has seen mass extinctions of species and significant alterations to the climate before. The fact that they are traced to the behavior of an individual species only makes them particular, not in some way “unnatural.”

    When we talk about sustainability, then, what is it that we hope to sustain? We certainly do not sustain nature “in itself.” Rather, we sustain nature as we humans prefer it. More precisely, we preserve the resources needed for human consumption, whether that means energy consumption or aesthetic consumption. In one sense, we preserve nature for industry.

    The human activity that has produced these environmental shifts is not isolated to one practice or one epoch, say, the consumption of carbon in the 20th century — though it may be accelerated by this. As Kolbert argues, the rise of Homo sapiens fundamentally altered the planetary ecosystem long before the invention of writing, the birth of René Descartes, or the first diesel pump. By killing off the large fauna, our prehistorical ancestors overturned the food chain that existed before us and began a separate chain of events that is still playing out. It might be that the truest meaning of human being, from the perspective of planetary history, is that we are a mass extinction event.

    Mass extinctions are no doubt catastrophic, but they are only tragic if nature is viewed as something perfect that we are destroying, rather than as a state of flux in which we are participating.

    Among many, the argument against sustainability elicits an emotional response. As the ecological theorist Timothy Morton writes in his book “Ecology Without Nature,” the environmental movement has become, and perhaps always was, infused with a sense of mourning and melancholia (not to mention nostalgia). This melancholia, I would argue, is connected to the death of God, or the ability to conceive God in a certain way, and stems from that Romantic transference of the divine into nature.

    In either case, as with any death, first comes denial — we can save nature! — but it eventually gives way to acceptance. Talk about “sustaining” nature, or “preserving” it, only exacerbates this mourning and indulges our melancholia. Like the bereaved who must learn to speak of the dead in the past tense, if we are to move forward in our habitation of the planet, to face the future and not the past, to say “yes” to the anthropocene, we should change our language.

    The contemporary French theorist Bruno Latour has also argued for discarding the idea of nature and the entire framework that puts human culture and the natural world in opposition. In its place he suggests we instead consider a unified network of “actants,” human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate. Nature, after all, includes us in its list of animals, and our products differ in degree, not kind, from those of beavers, bees and spiders. Because we are necessarily engaged with it — with it’s development, history and activity — we cannot simply let nature be, as the deep ecologists wish. And because nature drives and shapes humans in ways we don’t understand, neither can we fully become its “masters and possessors,” as Descartes imagined.

    Perhaps the language we now use is a barrier to forging a more constructive (or less destructive) relationship with the rest of the natural world. Rather than talk about preserving ecosystems or animal populations, perhaps instead we should talk about promoting them. We do not preserve a wetland, we promote it; we do not preserve the black rhino, we foster or advance or endorse it. We don’t sustain the climate, we advocate certain carbon levels.

    Instead of sustainability, we should instead speak of adaptability, a term that skews away from the idea of a perfect, ordered nature and unchanging industrial-technological conditions, and favors a vision of nature in a state of constant change, even chaos; a vision that values difference and diversity, both biological and cultural. Perhaps this revised language will allow us to see the planet not as a video-game landscape, programmed by God, that we’ve been dropped into and can either preserve or destroy, but as a bustling world of colleagues, both human and nonhuman, animate and inanimate, over whom we have influence, but who also influence us.


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