What You Talking ‘Bout Sustainability?

Environmental sustainability is a growing concern around the world. Issues like global climate change and the loss of biodiversity have grabbed our attention and brought the topic of sustainability into an international discussion. In this post Nathan Palmer takes a hard look at how we are thinking about sustainability and asks us to think about what we hope to sustain in the sustainable future we envision.

Sustainability is a big buzz word right now. Seems everyone, especially on college campuses, is concerned about becoming sustainable. Before we go any further let me say, as an environmental sociologist I think it’s a good thing that we are concerned about the impact human actions are having on the planet. But with that said, let me ask you a question. What is the goal of sustainability? That is, what are we hoping to sustain indefinitely?

Do you mean that we want to sustain every living thing from single cell organisms to mammals? If this is the case, then we may need to reduce our human population a little. I mean, to support the 7 billion humans currently in our population we have to destroy ecosystems and species of animals almost everyday. So, if you’re for sustainability, then you wouldn’t mind a government policy limiting how many children you can have, right? If you’re like most people, you find the idea of limiting human reproduction horrible[1] and oppressive. But what this little thought experiment shows us is, when we say sustainability what we mean is human sustainability. The great fear of sustainability is that human actions will change the ecosystems we depend on so greatly (either through pollution, consumption of natural resources, global climate change, etc.) that we will not be able to survive. Or simply put, sustainability is a movement to prevent humans from committing ecological suicide.

Anthropocentrism, Sustainability, and Nature

So what? What does it matter if humans are concerned with human sustainability? I mean that does seem completely rational, right? I think the answer to this question can be found in a quote often credited to Albert Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”[2]

What got humans into this mess in the first place? We clear cut forests, blow mountain tops off to mine them, let toxic chemicals billow out of factory smoke stacks, and so on and each time we do so because it is in our best interest; or at least it was in the interest of a few humans who owned the timber company/mine/factory. If we are on the brink of ecological collapse, it’s because we put human interests before the interests of nature. Or as an environmental sociologists might say it, we can’t solve the problems of sustainability by using the same anthropocentric thinking we used when we created them.

Anthropocentrism means putting humans at the center of your thinking and decision making. When people argue that the primary concern of sustainability needs to be human sustainability, they are arguing for anthropocentric sustainability. The opposite of anthropocentrism would be ecocentrism (i.e. putting the ecosystem at the center of your thinking and decision making). Another way of thinking about anthropocentrism and ecocentrism is, do you think humans should live above nature or within nature? Are we humans the rulers of nature or a member of the natural community?

Ecocentric Sustainability

If anthropocentric sustainability is inherently flawed, then we need to think of ecocentric sustainability. This would be sustainability that sees everything from rocks, to plants, to microorganisms, to insects, to… well, you get the point. You may be tempted to dismiss this idea as hippy non-sense, but realize all of these things work together to make your life, the life of your loved ones, and the lives of your future relatives possible. We can’t survive in a world without rocks, plants, microorganisms, insects, and so forth. And this is where the idea of anthropocentrism comes full circle.

If we are truly anthropocentric, that is we put human needs first, then we must be ecocentric because all of our human needs are met by our ecosystem. Anthropocentric sustainability, as we defined it above, really just focuses on the immediate needs of humans. But on a long enough time line, the interests of humans are the interests of the ecosystem.

Is this confusing? I’m willing to bet for many of you reading this it will be. And perhaps that’s because I’ve failed to clearly articulate my point, but I also think it’s because it’s hard to imagine a new way of thinking. If you were in my environmental sociology class, we’d spend a whole semester breaking down this idea and developing our understanding of ecocentrism. In closing I’d like to share with you Aldo Leopold concept of the “land ethic” In his famous book A Sand County Almanac he offers us a sort of rule to decide if something is ecocentric. He says: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Dig Deeper:

  1. Why do many people think anthropocentrically? That is, why do we tend to put humans needs above the needs of every other species and ecosystem?
  2. Towards the end of this article I argue that true anthropocentrism must be ecocentrism. Reread that argument and see if you can rephrase it in your own words (i.e. don’t quote or copy/paste your answer).
  3. Brainstorm some ideas for ecocentric sustainability. What could we do to put the interests and needs of nature first in the sustainability movement?
  4. What efforts has your school made to be sustainable? What changes or actions would you like to see them make in the future to increase their sustainability?

  1. For the record, I don’t support limiting reproduction, sterilization, or anything of the sort. I’m making a larger point here about anthropocentric environmentalism.  ↩

  2. I say “often attributed to…” because I can not find the original source. It’s also cited as, “Problems cannot be solved by the level of awareness that created them.”  ↩