What do we mean when we say “sustainability”?
For something, say a society, to be “sustainable” means that it can and will persist, presumably indefinitely, into the future in roughly the same form. If this is what we mean when we say we want to make our current society “sustainable” then I can’t see how any ecologically-minded, justice-oriented progressive can endorse the notion.
Our society is one of global neoliberal colonial capitalism, in which hierarchies of oppression, such as white supremacy or male-supremacy, are built into the very foundation. Our society is one of relentless exploitation, both of the Earth and non-human species, and of groups of humans deemed expendable. Our society is one of deep alienation, from our labor, from one another, from the non-human world around us.
The current status quo of global neoliberal colonial capitalism should not be sustained.
“Sustainable” typically means carbon-neutral nowadays and while becoming carbon-neutral or carbon-negative will be a significant prerequisite to having any society at all in the future, merely greening the current system, as I’ve written elsewhere, will leave many of our ecological sins intact (as well as, of course, our many sociological sins).
This is largely because capitalism is a system which resists being ecologically viable. Its precepts are never-ending growth, and the alienation, especially from non-human nature, that results from the systematic commodification of everything it touches.
The Ideology of the Cancer Cell
The way I see it, when green capitalists talk about creating a more sustainable society, they mean finding ways to go on exploiting the Earth and people, go on accumulating a surplus, go on growing — but, like, maybe slower or something. To power the bulldozers with electricity from solar panels instead of fossil fuels, to plant tree farms when they tear down ancient forests.
Just as putting “black faces in high places” doesn’t negate a colonial system that has white supremacy baked into it, token environmental tweaks can’t make capitalism an ecologically viable system. Ecological destruction is baked into a system predicated on ever higher rates of return, a system in which to be doing just as well as you did last year is to be failing.
It is not just the expansionist ideology, what Edward Abbey called “the ideology of the cancer cell”, but the way economic relations are structured in capitalism that allows for the continued degradation of the Earth. As long as capitalists making the decisions to exploit the natural world are able, by virtue of their class status, to avoid living near or being affected by the results of those decisions, the exploitation will go on. It is common knowledge that the most marginalized communities suffer the worst effects of environmental damage, this is largely because decisions about the “resources” they live among are made by corporations or governments whose main goal is capital accumulation.
As long as there is an economic advantage to be gained by transforming these resources into capital, they will continue to be exploited, and there will continue to be an economic advantage as long as the current economy of capital accumulation and commodification exists.
Indigenization & Alienation
By turning the land that supports us (our home) and the life-forms we share it with (our neighbors) into commodities to be consumed, capitalism has managed not just to alienate us from the products of our labor, but from the Real World itself. By this, I mean the actual material world that exists independent of collective human thought & imagination. We may think we “need” market economies for the world to function, but I think you will find that a world without markets can exist (it has before) but a world without a stable biosphere cannot. We don’t “need” lumber like we need trees to make oxygen. We don’t “need” hot showers like we need drinkable water. But capitalism has obscured this, not only by advertising to us until we’re convinced really do need those things, but by downplaying the Real World, using language like “natural resources”, “livestock” or “vermin”.
This is what Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek mean when they said that “it is now easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” We have a myriad of examples of dystopian post-apocalypse stories (as well as utopian extra-terrestrial science fiction) where the world itself has ended or been destroyed, the oceans dried up, the (non-human) animals and plants dead, the air unbreathable, the climate inhospitable. In many of these fantasies, capitalism of some form continues unabated, in siloed cities or on other planets. Even now, arch-capitalists are planning human settlements on Mars, preparing to take manifest destiny into the universe. Meanwhile, those who imagine a world of equality, where the rights of all people and of the non-human world are protected, are considered “naive dreamers”.
This transformation of into of our home and neighbors into “resources”, commodities which are only there to be exploited by humans, is perhaps the original sin of our global civilization. The philosopher Murray Bookchin regards this human supremacy to be the original form of hierarchy, from which male-supremacy, white-supremacy, western-supremacy, Christian-supremacy and all the other myriad forms of oppressive hierarchy within our society sprung.
The United States is perhaps the best example of this ecological alienation. Travel from the arid deserts of the southwest to the rain-forests in the northwest to the swamps and deciduous forests of the east and it’s all the same, the idea of what it is to be a United States citizen, and to live the lifestyle of a United States citizen barely changes. This is not to say that there are not differences in lifestyle between a day laborer in Arizona and a stock broker in New York, but those are differences having more to do class and race than the fact that one of them lives in a desert biome and the other in a hardwood forest biome.
In fact, controlling for class and race differences, folks in Arizona and New York likely eat a diet consisting of the same staple foods (most not native to either location), consume the same entertainment, receive similar educations, have similar career paths open to them etc. It might be more accurate to say that they both live in the “USA Urban Biome”. This lifestyle necessitates huge expenditures of energy in and of itself, that energy expenditure is multiplied when we attempt to graft it on to biomes as diverse as those in this country. The current aim of the global neoliberal colonial capitalist system is to transplant this lifestyle to every place in the world (except for those “sacrifice zones” in the global south which must be kept destitute to support affluence elsewhere).
Compare this contemporary arrangement with the prehistoric peoples of those areas. Ancient Hohokam people in Arizona lived in stone structures in permanent villages, to allow for the use of canals dug to transport scarce water to crops, a lifestyle informed by the desert biome. The Algonquin tribes of New England, on the other hand, has a lifestyle more adept to surviving the seasonal nature of that area, they lived in portable wigwams to facilitate a nomadic lifestyle, hunting and practicing slash-and-burn agriculture in the southern reaches and hunting and gathering only in the more northern areas where agriculture would be more difficult. This embeddedness in the places we live is part of what Daniel Wildcat calls “Indigenuity” — learning to decolonize our minds and see the world through eyes indigenous to a specific piece of land. When we do this, our priorities shift, as Derrick Jensen says:
If your experience is that your food comes from the grocery store and your water comes from the tap, then you are going to defend to the death the system that brings those to you because your life depends on them. If your experience, however, is that your food comes from a land base and that your water comes from a stream, well, then you will defend to the death that land base and that stream.
System Change not Climate Change
What we need, therefore, is not a tune-up of the status quo, but a veritable revolution. That we need a revolution in our political and economic relations is widely espoused, but I argue that this has to happen along with a revolution of priorities. We need to de-prioritize growth and accumulation, find a way to embed ourselves in the ecosystems we live in and prioritize the functioning of Real World, which must remain within certain safe parameters, above malleable human systems.
We should start asking for advice from those humans that managed to live for tens of thousands of years with the Earth without bringing it to the brink of destruction as our civilization has. Learning to Live In A Place, to understand ourselves as embedded in, rather than laid over-top of, the democracy of species that share this world with us, is a recurring theme in the works of such indigenous thinkers and activists as Vine Deloria jr., Oren Lyons, Winona LaDuke and Robin Wall Kimmerer.
We should not be seeking to sustain any aspect of this global system. Instead, we should seek to transform it.
This article was originally posted on Medium.