Is sustainability sustainable?

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Oct 8, 2018


In short, no. The longer answer is the classic anthropological one: It’s complicated. Whatever the answer, we are probably stuck with sustainability, as a word and as a concept. There are two things I want to explore here. One is the term ‘sustainability’ itself, and the second the issues and concepts it conveys and the ones it obscures.

This post is inspired by three things. Conversations with Charlotte Payne, the insect half of Insects & Wine. Recalling John Maynard Keyne’s famous quote: ‘In the long run we are all dead.’ And finally, a quote in Alice Feiring’s book, Dirty Wine. These three things have led to this post in different ways, and from different directions. Don’t look for unity in the inspiration, but one may hope to find some unity in the following comments.

So, the word. It’s a word that, on reflection, reveals itself to be very difficult to pin down. That’s both a strength and a weakness. It’s useful that ‘sustainability’ is so vague, as it can be used to label a wide variety of practices, approaches, beliefs, and so on. It’s a convenient word to hang things onto. It becomes a term that people can agree is important without actually having to agree on what it means. This is an important part of symbols. They can and do have both public and private meanings. We can agree a religious symbol, or flag, is important, and has certain agreed upon meanings. Yet we also bring our own ideas and emotional resonances to the same symbol.

‘Sustainable’, in the anthropologist Sherry Ortner’s classic term, is a ‘key symbol’ (1973). More specifically, I’d suggest that it is a ‘summarising symbol,’ which ‘are seen as summing up, expressing, representing for the participants in an emotionally powerful and relatively undifferentiated way, what the system means to them.’ (p. 1339). Ortner was writing about symbols that operated culture-wide, and so in this quote, ‘participants’ should be understood as members of a culture or other group that invests in a symbol, and ‘the system’ is that which the symbol represents.

In other words, from this perspective, the use, and also the frustration of, ‘sustainability,’ is that it can be recognised as important, and do a lot of emotional and cognitive work without requiring people to unpack it. That is why I suspect it will be around for some time yet. It’s a useful term to deploy to get people motivated. But what happens if we do try to unpack it?  That’s where things get a bit messy, although to an anthropologist, also interesting.

Sustainable? Over what length of time? Under what conditions? For and by whom? If we talk about sustainability in sustainable farming, for how long does the farming have to be capable of being continued to be sustainable? Ten years? Fifty? Forever? Are any extra inputs (fertilizers, or whatever) allowed? Are they to be denied, or is something that uses less material than most other farming methods good enough to be called sustainable? This is the link to Keynes – the fact that the concept of sustainability relies on an indefinite, but limited, time frame. Are any sustainable practices truly sustainable in a Keynsian time scale?

There are no clear answers. It really is a word that can mean what you want it to mean, and so, perhaps from the perspective of using the concept to achieve goals or make changes in practices, it’s useless. You could go a step further and argue it is actually a dangerous word in these contexts, precisely because it sounds like a good thing, and disinvites critical thinking. How can you be against sustainability, even if you don’t know what it really means, or how to achieve it?

In sum, sustainability as a term is useful for rallying people and gaining support, but much less useful for achieving specific goals. In raising these issues of what questions the term avoids asking, we’ve covered the essence of my second point. Let’s look at it in a bit more depth. We’ll start with the quote I mentioned in Alice Feiring’s recent book, Dirty Wine. It comes in a section of the chapter ‘The Basics of Soil’ called ‘The right kind of farming.’

Sustainable: Okay, so this is like being a little bit pregnant. But there are all variations of sustainable. The French call it lutte raisonée, which is farming by common sense. Basically, it means ‘we reserve the right to spray when we need to spray.’ Some people never pull the trigger. Some spray all the time. So how do you know if the farming is real? That’s the problem. Everyone lies. It’s sad but true. So you have to rely on people like Pascaline [who collaborated with Feiring on the book] and me, who visit a lot and ask the hard questions (p. 34).

There are more things in this passage to object to than you can shake a stick at. (As an aside, I’ve long thought that was a brilliant phrase – more than you can shake a stick at – but have wondered for equally long who ever came up with the idea of using stick-shaking as a measure of quantity?) I want to focus on just a few. First, and perhaps most important – the reduction of the issue of sustainability to farming. Yes, in some ways that’s an unfair charge in a book about wine and soil. But it’s part of a larger trend. In Europe, at least, discussions around sustainability in the wine industry are largely relegated to crop production, and then often in the context of conventional vs. organic (and related varieties) farming. But there is so much more. Water and energy usage. Carbon-neutral wineries. Some places do talk about, and pursue, these aspects. Nonetheless, in my experience, they are uncommon in Europe. Water usage is, perhaps understandably, more of an issue in California. South Africa is the only place I am aware of that has anything like an organised approach to issues such as worker welfare, and living wages, which are a too-often neglected aspect of sustainability. I have recently spotted some Fair Trade wines from South America, so the idea is perhaps gaining traction.

Within this emphasis on sustainability as farming, there is, as in this quote, yet another simplification taking place. This is the reduction of sustainable farming to spraying, or not, excessively or not. By implication, spraying, presumably of any sort, is bad. That’s a more complex argument than I have space to go into here. I do want to make two points. The first is that less rather than more spraying is probably a good rule of thumb, although it’s complicated. That is because of the second point: what you spray matters. People often seem to think that organic farming doesn’t allow the use of pesticides. It does, just not modern ones. This is important. Organic farming allows the use of copper-based sprays, and copper builds up in the soil and is toxic. More modern sprays often breakdown relatively quickly. So, once again, it’s complicated. There’s more to sustainable agriculture than spraying. Integrated pest management, for one. Tilling between rows versus not. Concern about run-off from fields into waterways. The list goes on. But this is the kind of dangerous work that ‘sustainable’ can do. It invites us to associate whatever we call ‘sustainable’ with butterflies and rainbows, even – or especially – when this is not warranted.

Let me be clear: I think the goals often wrapped up in the concepts of ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ are good, and important ones. Lessening our use of resources, reducing carbon emissions, ensuring better wages and working conditions for people. The point is that the terms themselves can obscure as much, if not more, than they reveal. In doing so, they invite us to overlook important discussions. From this point of view, as Charlotte put it, ‘sustainable’ is a worthless term.  (Disclaimer: Charlotte had a slightly, umm… saltier term for it. I’ve glossed it for the more sensitive readers of this blog.) Yet, it does have its uses – it can help rally people to a cause that many of us believe in. And, it’s deeply entrenched in everyday language, let alone being an academic buzzword. It’s not going away anytime soon. I think the best we can do, then, is think long and hard about what we really mean when resorting to a word that’s so easy to use, precisely because then we don’t have to think much. And always remember: It’s complicated.

Works cited

Feiring, A. (2017). The dirty guide to wine: following flavors from ground to glass. New York, The Countryman Press.

Ortner, S. (1973) ‘On key symbols’ American Anthropologist. 75(5):1338-1346. https://doi.org/10.1525/aa.1973.75.5.02a00100

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