I’ve been contemplating the name of this blog and its meanings of late, including whether to retain this name. Now is fairly good time to reflect on this, having published 100 posts (to my great surprise!). The name of the blog has at least three different meanings:
- It is a general statement about the content of this blog – that is, that the intent of this blog is mostly to discuss issues, ideas and trends related to addressing sustainability challenges and my own research (both doctoral and project research);
- It is also a statement on the nebulous and contested nature of the concept of sustainability – that is, the desperate search being undertaken by many for greater clarity on what “sustainability” is and how it can best be conceptualised and pursued (or ought to be pursued); and
- It can also be read as a statement on how people think about and pursue sustainability, and the potential social consequences of this.
The first meaning is fairly straightforward and certainly doesn’t need elaboration here. However, my thinking and writing has veered towards the latter two of late and deserve greater attention in this post.
Regarding the second meaning, this is linked to the emergence of the nascent discipline of sustainability science, theorisation of how complex value-laden problems are handled (or perhaps should be), and development of increasingly high stakes forms of environmental politics. Also central is how scientific knowledge is mobilised and efforts aimed at overcoming or reducing uncertainties often occupy a central place in environmental controversies. (For an interesting analysis see Sarewitz, 2004). Scale issues are important too: e.g. at the local level one can fairly readily consider the sustainability of, say, a fishery (and associated measures of how sustainable the fishery and related commercial activities are), or an organisation (i.e. organisational sustainability). However broader global sustainability is another matter entirely – for example, see attempts to define humanity’s overall “footprint” and assess how sustainable this is. Too often debates about what “sustainability” is just become value disputes.
The question of how sustainability ought to be pursued is equally contested. For instance consider conflicting views on whether decarbonisation will primarily be a process of technology evolution and diffusion or, say, radically shifting and governing consumption. Increasingly, a wide range of contested dimensions seem to demand more attention, including: the role of science and related expectations (e.g. whether science is expected to be a predictive oracle); the use and abuse of modeling practices (e.g. techno-economic modelling, climate modelling); and decision-making under high uncertainty.
More broadly, what’s clear at this point is that “simple, linear formulations leading from “more science” to “less uncertainty” to “political action” are [very often] inherently flawed” (Sarewitz, 2004). Thus, part of the way forward must involve scrutinising existing ‘formations’ (bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change adopt such a linear formulation) and the development of alternatives.
Increasingly I think the third meaning is, perhaps, the most important meaning. The search for “sustainability” seems ever-more intense, and perhaps also more desperate in some quarters, at least within some social groups and regarding some issues. I find this especially interesting for a number of reasons. The most important reason is the development of policy discourses and political debates that relate to this and, in some ways, are driven by it. An obvious example is the political and policy debates about a climate emergency and potential interventions like geoengineering. More broadly, the catastrophism around population growth in the 1960s and 1970s seems to have developed in relation to many other sustainability issues, notably resource depletion, climate change, food security, and risks associated with financial system instability. For an extreme example see the “prepper” movement.
A workshop related to this meaning was convened last week in Adelaide entitled “The New Catastrophism and Social Futures“. The keynote speaker John Urry addressed questions like: “What are likely futures involving wicked combinations of social-and-material processes? What is the likelihood that such futures will be ‘catastrophic’? And how do we anticipate such unknowable complex futures? This talk will address these questions in the context of energy/environment/climate processes.” This workshop and topic highlights futures components, although one must wonder if it is possible to anticipate unknowable futures – I wonder if anyone posed that question to John Urry?!
With the above in mind I’ll retain the blog name for the time being and reflect further on these meanings and continue to explore them. If you have any thoughts on this I’d love to hear from you (weigh-in in the comments section below or send me an email – smcgrail [at] swin.edu.au)