Operational Versus Rhetorical Sustainability: Conflicting Goals, Values and Functions

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Sustainable development, environment


The ideal of sustainability - what I am calling "rhetorical sustainability" - as introduced in the 1987 report of the Brundtland Commission and institutionalized in the form of Agenda 21 at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit is a false and counterproductive ideal. It stands for the impossible proposition that we are almost god-like, capable of perceiving, integrating, monitoring, organizing and controlling our world on levels that are considerably beyond human capability. Even if we somehow developed the capacity to master the complexity we will never have the willingness to do so. Nor would we really want to if we understood the centralized power structures, enormous national and transnational bureaucracies, and inevitable use of unrelenting power and force that would be required to compel the recalcitrant "malingerers" who resisted the imposition of such a political system.

Rhetorical sustainability is a utopian vision of the perfect that truly is the enemy of the possible and the good. On paper we can always sketch detailed and elegant pipedreams that appear to have the ability to do what we claim we desire "if only" everyone would come together and behave in the way laid out in the "blueprint." One lesson learned from the French Enlightenment's failure to accurately comprehend the quality and limits of human nature is that the "if only" is a utopian vision we will never achieve. It represents an inaccurate conception of human nature, including how we act and will continue to act.

The argument introduced here is that rhetorical sustainability ignores the fact that nothing humans create is "sustainable." Entropy grinds down on all of us and erodes, undermines and alters every system or institution we create, sometimes for the better and frequently for the worse. In the face of inevitable non-sustainability we need to focus on strategies aimed at adaptation and the buffering of unacceptably harsh consequences for those affected by change. The reality of ordinary human nature and the intensity of our self-centered motivation obstruct our ability to invent new institutions of the kind required to achieve rhetorical sustainability. The answer is that we need to embrace change while retaining as much of the positive virtues as possible throughout the repeated cycles of transformation.

In part the problem is a function of the combination of scale, of the cyclical dynamism that is part of any human system, of energy loss and the ultimate emergence of dominant self-interest in all human power structures. There is an irremediable disconnection between individual decision-makers, the consequences of their actions, and their ability to bring about desired consequences on a scale that matters in terms of "fixing" a critical situation or taking advantage of positive opportunities. But our failure is also a problem of our naturally limited intellectual and emotional capacity, the inevitable tendency to act in one's self-interest, and the formal and informal system of rewards and sanctions that come with different kinds of behavior. I will address such considerations toward the end of the paper by using a series of case studies and examples and by focusing on the ideas of strategic "small wins" and identifying and manipulating points of maximum leverage. This approach attempts to better understand how we can increase the likelihood of achieving productive solutions on the scale of the possible rather than be content with dreaming grand unachievable visions that blind us to the fact of our profound limitations.