Sustainability is Not a Destination
Development as we know it is a conformist agenda stemming from Victorian values poorly hinging on preferential interpretations of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). The idea that we could essentially make the savages like us through mass acculturation programs has engendered a massive erosion of human cultural diversity. As an industry, development, is a collection of political and economic strategies to bring Western civilization to the world’s material poor so that they can become successful economic actors and capable of “participating” in society. In reality, it has been a highly extractive process mining human life force and natural resources for the benefit of an increasingly smaller group of people.
By the end of the 1970’s, problems of global material poverty, disease, disenfranchisement and cultural degradation had grown exponentially despite decades of “helping”. Sustainable development became the next iteration concept supposedly to ameliorate the unintended consequences of development. The reason that sustainability cannot be clearly defined is because Development was never intended to meet the diverse needs of global people and landscapes.
Sustainability became an active part of international discourse in 1987 with the publication of Our Common Future by the Brundtland Commission. This commission was convened in recognition of the failure of development programs to effectively “help” the world’s material poor. And although they brought the conversation of inter-generational equity to the table, they failed to recognize that without intra-generational equity it would be impossible to bridge to the future. More importantly, since the concept of sustainability has always been conjoined with development, it is always referential to the mental paradigm that supports this economic and material view of human civilization.
This is the Cartesian worldview that values only what can be seen and measured seeking to incessantly break things into parts and individuals in order to generate knowledge. This approach is predicated on a belief that by understanding constituent parts, the whole can be understood. This has engendered a development framework that is more or less teleological – meaning it is linear and has an end point – in this case, Western civilization. Naturally the focus on quantities and economic terms makes sense in this mental framework.
Without an understanding of the whole being, these types of economic focused development programs have had massive externalities. Turning everyone into economic actors reduces our relationship to each other and the planet into economic data thus effacing our potentiality and purpose as beings that have spiritual, emotional, community, planetary and physical experiences that are unique and possess enormous value.
The worldview that is going to propel all life into to an age of prosperity must be one that embodies a systems view. This is what Fritjof Capra means when he discusses making the invisible visible in Hidden Connections (2002). All of nature and the entire universe are best understood as a series of nested relationships and it is only through the full expression of these relationships that system health can be achieved. This is the indigenous worldview and the body-mind worldview – holistic health requires whole systems embodiment.
Continuing down the path that says sustainability is the destination without a shared intention for our future, we may easily find ourselves in a material economy based on the interest of nature, but in a social system that is still sub-optimizing the expression of life. The conversation we most need to have is how, as a globally united humanity, can we live with each other and our planet in such a way that all cultures and all life are nurtured?
Sustainability can be a technology on the path, but culturally we need to evoke a new paradigm for our future. We can only arrive at this intention through a distributed and generative process that actively builds buy-in from the global civil society. The Earth Charter is one such attempt to do this. A new vision of humanity will likely say that life is critical and critical to life is the capacity and opportunity to be expressive as this is the natural impulse at all levels in biological phenomena.
All levels in the universe tend toward complexity. When we remove complexity through homogenization or other tactics we are operating against the normative flow of the universe and this engenders entropy. This is why Development and its barage of cookie cutter programs have produced enormous externalities since they have removed opportunities for creative and culturally rooted forms of expression and without this human being potential is sub-optimized. Complexity arises from creativity. Therefore removing creativity from the system stagnates the flows of universal energies and causes decay. We experience this socially as deviance, depression, apathy, violence, etc. On the contrary, communities filled with people who are self-actualizing are healthy and functional.
Preserving the biosphere is a priori, yes we have to save [sic] the earth; yet, we need to expand our collective visioning on who we want to be as a global humanity so we have an ontological compass to guide our decision making. For me, the great Russian sage and artist, Nicholas Roerich sums it up as the trinity expression between art, spirituality and science (inclusive of all knowledge pathways, e.g., somatic, reductionism, associative, sensory, ancestral, ritual, experiential, dreams, intuition, critical thinking, inferences, laboratory, play, music, theatre, observation etc).
Imagine a collective higher purpose that seeks to optimize the conditions for all life to prosper, for all life species to have the opportunity to self-actualize and live into their calling?
On the way to this future, yes we need to make choices that align us with the interest of nature rather than extinguishing the capital stock – we might call the pathway sustainability – the destination, I think, looks more like full spectrum art and creativity.
Originally pubished on worldchanging.org in 2007; updated 2018.