Debating Abundance vs Sustainability in the Anthropocene

Joshua Yates that our entry into the Anthropocene, where the course of nature is determined by human activity, may force us to abandon dreams of material abundancy that has driven post-Enlightenment history.

Joshua J. Yates, excerpted from a much longer essay in Hedgehog Review:

“Recently, the language of sustainability has found new impetus in the latest chapter heading in the cultural history of modern economic ethics: “the Anthropocene.” Scientists employ this neologism (literally: “age of man”) to refer to our current geological era. By a number of critical measures, including the fossil record; the chemistry of our air, water, and soil; rates of animal and plant extinctions; and the like, Planet Earth has moved out of the Holocene era, a relatively climatically stable era beginning approximately 10,000 years ago and into an era defined by the unpredictable but thoroughgoing impact of humankind.

In dramatic fashion, the idea of the Anthropocene captures the most recent transformations taking place in our picture of the relationship between humans and the natural world: it posits a world in which humans, as a species, are not just biological agents, but also geological agents.28 Put simply, the impact of humans on the natural world is now as great, and in some instances greater, than nature’s impact on humans. Against such a recognition, the cause of sustainability takes on added urgency.

At the same time, the Anthropocene brings into relief a destabilizing ambivalence running through the conceptual and rhetorical registers of sustainability, one that has been there from its initial formulation as “sustainable development.” In one register, the discourse of sustainability seems to offer a sweeping retraction of modern aspirations in light of the Anthropocene and its implications. What needs sustaining is nature’s (and thus also humanity’s) limits. This inflection of sustainability presupposes a background picture of fundamental scarcity and judges claims of abundance to be illusory. The purported age of material surfeit enjoyed by industrialized nations for the past one hundred years, on this view, came through massive exploitation of the world’s poor societies, through extensive externalization of the real costs of industrialization, and through the plundering of the finite reserves of carbon that have been stored up over eons in the depths of the earth. In short, our fabled abundance came about by overrunning critical social and planetary limits for the sake of present gains, to the benefit of only a minority of humans and at the expense of future generations and other species. The Anthropocene, on this view, represents the redlining of our critical life support systems.

Accordingly, the Anthropocene confirms what many already believed about the history of humans. As the environmental historian J. R. McNeill memorably describes it, our history consists of the movement of people from one unsustainable way of life to another.29 Those human societies that did not make the shift to a new way of life in time collapsed; those that did, very often through migration and conquest, lived on. However, the moral in the lesson of the Anthropocene is that, through the processes of modernization and globalization, the entire human species is finally reaching, indeed may already be surpassing, the outer limits of sustainability, and that this time, there is no new way of life or place to escape to. This time, we will have to live with the consequences, even as we do what we can to mitigate them by reestablishing our way of life within planetary limits.

There is another sustainability perspective, which resists such dire verdicts and considers premature the conclusion that the surpassing of natural limits is always bad.

In the words of one recent proponent:

While there is nothing particularly good about a planet hotter than our ancestors ever experienced—not to mention one free of wild forests or wild fish—it seems all too evident that human systems are prepared to adapt to and prosper in the hotter, less biodiverse planet that we are busily creating. The “planetary boundaries” hypothesis asserts that biophysical limits are the ultimate constraints on the human enterprise. Yet, the evidence shows clearly that the human enterprise has continued to expand beyond the natural limits for millennia. Indeed, the history of human civilization might be characterized as a history of transgressing natural limits and thriving.

On this view, sustainability connotes a less fixed and more adaptable sense of our situation in the Anthropocene. What needs sustaining, in this more optimistic inflection, is not so much nature’s limits, but the abundance that modernity has in fact accomplished, thanks to human ingenuity and innovation thus far. This view recognizes that mistakes were made, even catastrophic ones when it comes to people and the planet, but it does not recognize nature’s limits to be predetermined or unchanging. Instead, having learned from past mistakes, it urges us to engineer a smarter, more sustainable way of maintaining but also expanding a hard-won abundance for both present and future generations. Sustainability, in this latter vein, seeks a mid-course correction rather than a wholesale retraction by more intentionally working with, instead of against, the grain of nature. The Anthropocene, accordingly, is not a parable of human hubris, but rather a call to realize our fullest potential as managers of the earth and our future on it.

Conclusion: Sustaining Sustainability?

At present, we find ourselves confronted by the fact that, while the expectations of the old terms of modern progress are still valid for us, and still legitimating our leading institutions, the terms themselves no longer have the force of historical inevitability. They can no longer be automatically assumed, and they are certainly no longer unassailable. As never before, we are aware of the risks and the costs associated with the ways we have tried to formulate and implement a compelling picture of thrift and thriving both at home and globally.

As a result, we do not have a coherent and cohesive answer to the question of what it means and takes to thrive in part because we cannot agree on whether the world we relate to is one fundamentally defined by scarcity (and thus limits) or by abundance (and thus unlimited potential). We cannot agree on whether the line between scarcity and abundance is linear and absolute or iterative and relative, whether the relationship between humans and nature is synergistic or zero-sum.

The fact that so much of the discourse of sustainability contains elements of both perspectives means that there is an inherent instability in its answer to the question of thrift and thriving—an instability bordering on equivocation, if not contradiction. We have convincing reasons, therefore, for calling into question the ability of sustainability to carry the ethical and moral weight many have placed on it. Nevertheless, we should not conclude from this that the discourse of sustainability is ultimately meaningless or inconsequential. It should be clear by now that, culturally speaking, the reality is just the opposite.

Indeed, attending to this potential for equivocation presses us toward some stark realizations about contemporary society, the most critical of which raises unsettling questions about the prospects for our deepest and most cherished moral convictions. Modern civilization, at least as it developed in the West, is premised on the recognition of every individual human’s equal dignity through various operations of emancipation and empowerment, from securing formal rights and protections to guaranteeing a basic threshold of material wellbeing. The groundswell of sustainability, however, signals the gradual recognition that the very processes by which modern civilization has come to realize this fundamental premise (to the extent that it has)–that is, through industrialization, urbanization, and consumption—are proving to be unsustainable. At the most profound level, the cultural logic of sustainability ultimately forces us to ask: if these fundamental socio-economic systems are not sustainable, how sustainable are our own highest ideals that have thus far depended on them for realization?

This examination of the cultural significance of sustainability has only scratched the surface and clearly cannot answer such a question; it can only raise it. More empirical, interpretive, and critical work waits to be done and is needed to determine whether sustainability is better understood as a symptom of or a solution to our perceived problems. Might it be the illness purporting to be the cure? Might it be both?

As a symptom, we will want to know how long the cultural moment to which sustainability gives expression might last. How long, in other words, will the word remain expressively and symbolically salient? How much longer will its apparent indispensability counter-balance its inherent vulnerability to equivocation between two competing worldviews and agendas? How long will it continue to override our own creeping cynicism about all key words?

We will want to know how close sustainability is to becoming a fully fledged economic ethic capable of addressing the challenges to which it also points. How satisfying are we likely to find its answer to the question, “what does it mean and take to thrive in the context of the Anthropocene era?” What about its political fortunes? Will sustainability be capable of evading the vortex of politicization in today’s culture wars?

Taken together, all of these invitations for further investigation are ways of asking whether the language of sustainability is itself sustainable, whether the languages, institutional arrangements, principles, policies, and practices that today are converging under the heading of “sustainability” will eventually coalesce into something like a coherent moral ethos. In the meantime, we have already learned much by this initial examination: sustainability is, for the moment, a word that gives voice to our present fears and uncertainties about whether we live in a world of scarcity or abundance, just as it augurs and upholds our hopes for thriving in a decidedly uncertain future.”

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