When I first started considering the sustainability literature I engaged with commonly discussed frameworks like so-called ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ sustainability – the former commonly described as being technocentric and anthropocentric, whereas the latter is more ecocentric, communalist and preservationist – and environmental discourse frameworks. Such discourse frameworks include John Dryzek’s model of four ecodiscourses (the Limits, Environmental problem-solving, Sustainability, and Green radicalism discourses) and a fifth, contrasting Promethean discourse.
Increasingly I question some of the assumptions and beliefs which inform such frameworks. For example the often rigid distinction that is made between technological and cultural change ignores the interactions between technological and cultural change – cultural change is often shaped (or influenced) by technological change, for example. Achieving ‘strong’ sustainability in a world 9 billion people (by around the year 2050) might demand increased use of advanced new technologies. Similarly, the distinction between humanity and technology increasingly seems artificial and incorrect.
An alternative approach could be to consider different traditions of sustainability research and practice. Below I outline four possible traditions and related directions in my thinking.
One ‘tradition’ I’ve written about frequently on this blog I term the prophetic tradition. Often sustainability debates have a strong future-orientation informed by modelling activities, predictions, and other assessments of the future. For example, future oil production and associated risks are predicted and groups consider the potential implications of such events (e.g. at a policy-level, or at the community-level in ‘Transition Town’ initiatives). Risks of future societal or civilisational collapse-style events are also frequently discussed. Another example is how the implications and risks associated with emerging technologies – along with their future trajectories – are predicted to inform governance frameworks, a move that has been critiqued by many STS scholars (e.g. Robin Williams, such as in this paper). In this tradition science is seen as a “prophetic oracle” that can guide policy choices.
Another tradition could, broadly, be described as a utopian social engineering project. Utopian in the sense that the project is centrally animated by a vision of a different type of society, a ‘sustainable society’; social engineering in the general sense of the use of policies, strategies, reforms and so on, to realise this different society (not in the contrasting sense of seeking to manipulate or deceive people in order to achieve particular goals). All social policy and related social reforms can be seen as types of (piecemeal) social engineering. An illustrative example – unrelated to sustainability, but illustrating the general point – is that it’s argued that the development of a high-consuming urban society in China is the outcome of social engineering project constructed by the nation’s political elites/leaders.
A key recent text is the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) report World in Transition. The WGBU views structural transitions in the “fossil economic system” as “the start of a ‘Great Transformation’ into a sustainable society, which must inevitably proceed within the planetary guard rails of sustainability”. A core argument is that, whilst past great transformations “were, for the most part, the uncontrolled results of evolutionary change” (p. 5), the Great Transformation into a sustainable society must be more anticipatory (to “avoid the ‘standard historic reaction’, a change of direction in response to crises and disasters”), more comprehensive and more rapid. A “proactive State” is central to many of the proposed actions. Proposed strategies aim to generate a major societal tipping point, “beyond which resistance to the transformation significantly decreases, the requisite political willingness grows, and the acceleration gains considerable momentum” (p. 9).
A core goal within this tradition is moving away from “from the incremental politics of short-term crisis management and the ever-procrastinating negotiation of compromises” (p. 9).
A third tradition could be termed community-based sustainability research and action. Community-based action research is a central form of action, aiming to achieve cultural change. For example, environmental dilemmas are seen as having cultural roots such as those related to consumer culture values. Those working in this tradition may be informed and motivated by assessments of possible futures but the response to sustainability issues is fairly unique, often aimed at localised community resilience, models of localised sustainability, and efforts to abandon (or transform) the political-economic status quo. An example project funded by the CRC for Low Carbon Living is the “Livewell Clusters” initiative (see Livewell Yarra) and the “decarb groups” formed during the initiative. Another example could be the programs run by CERES Environment Park here in Melbourne.
A fourth possible tradition could be termed the muddling through tradition, or perhaps the intelligent muddling approach, is related to the concept of wicked problems and the epistemological limits that constrain our foresight and knowledge. (The notion of “muddling through” was first theorised by Charles Lindblom in 1959 with a focus on public policy/administration). Many books and papers related to sustainability that I’ve been read over the past couple of years theorise and/or propose an intelligent muddling approach, such as: The Big Ratchet (by Ruth DeFries); The Techno-Human Condition (by Braden R. Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz); and the book Tackling Wicked Problems (edited by Valerie A. Brown, John Harris, and Jacqueline Russell) which emphasises that our knowledge of such problems is partial, fallible, and consequently uncertain, and theorises the problem of ‘under-determination’. Taking action through political compromise is often necessary (Allenby & Sarewitz 2011).
Brian Head from the University of Queensland has theorised the implications of more ‘wicked’ problems for public policy and public administration/management. In a recent co-authored paper he notes that for more wicked problems “conclusive “solutions” are very rare” but argues that “it is possible to frame partial, provisional courses of action”. The keywords are partial and provisional – muddling through means developing and adopting such courses of action, learning and adjusting as you go.
Related literature on strategy-making processes under uncertainty and on policy-making processes similarly emphasises that these are typically ongoing processes, often incremental in nature, where adjustments, evaluation and learning are constants. For example, scenario planning scholar Kees van der Heijden argues strategic analysis and execution are ongoing under uncertainty and he critiques those who view it as an episodic activity (rather than continual learning and adjustment).
Increasingly, I’m persuaded that in the context of truly wicked problems the best we can do is try to muddle forwards – but (hopefully) far more intelligently. Unintended and unforeseen outcomes will continue to occur. But we can aim to muddle forwards in a more reflective and anticipatory fashion, rather than the highly reactionary crisis management that is more common today.
Additionally, I’m persuaded that if our predictive capacity is low then it often makes more sense to adopt iterative, more modest and incremental approaches to decision-making and action.