The End of Sustainability as We Know It

By Saliem Fakir · 13 May 2008

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Picture: Mark Wallace
Picture: Mark Wallace

There is no doubt that we live in an uncertain period. Since 9/11, the world has changed. Global governance is in flux and generally speaking, the outcome of our transforming world is still unknown.

The conventional source and centre of power is beginning to shift. This centre of power largely an alliance between the United States (US) and Europe, which Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt aptly called Empire, is what we have come to accept as the de facto world in which we live, by which we interact, and which has an enormous influence over the character of our moral, political and economic values.

It was and is, somewhat still, a state in which those who fell within Empire enjoyed greater rights of sovereignty over their own policies than those who were subjects of Empire. Those deemed marginal to the interests of Empire had limited rights of sovereignty or found themselves encumbered by the interests of Empire. We have existed, as it were, within the Empire’s sphere of influence.

However, this it is not an Empire without its vulnerabilities. It is this Empire, whose collective military spend, economic pull and push, and cultural dominance that is being tested and finding itself in a phase of insurrection and resistance to its dominance today.

Who would have thought that America’s War on Terror would lead to a marked shift from a uni-polar world to a multi-polar world? The War on Terror, in effect, exposed vulnerabilities that were previously thought not to exist.

Empire's longevity seemed without question. But the War on Terror has had an opposite effect. It has stretched America's military budget, costing it close to three trillion dollars (as the latest co-authored book by Joseph Stiglitz reveals), opening up new opportunities for old and hitherto subdued enemies to take the gap.

Quietism is being replaced by open assertiveness. Supra-nationalism is raising its head once again.

Changes are taking place across several regions: Latin America, the Middle East, East Europe, Asia and even Africa. The Anglo-European centre of power is slowly conceding that the centre cannot hold any longer. The centre is disappearing, so to speak.

Sustainability is one concept that has enjoyed much universal appeal and stability precisely because it originated and was dependent on the dominance of the western world and its value systems.

For 30 years or so, notions of sustainability dominated environmental thinking and flourished with relative stability. It was a concept that gained great impetus after the Brundtland Commission in 1987, finding renewed emphasis and vigour at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, and then again in the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002.

Long taken for granted, sustainability is a unifying concept by which the health of nations, countries and governments are reported in relation to the triple bottom line: economic, social and environmental performance and governance.

A wide range of globally adopted instruments, as well as International Finance Institutions (IFIs) like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and commercial banks have come to adopt sustainability criteria as a guiding philosophy, when making decisions as to whether to fund projects or not. The most prominent of these are the so-called Equator Principles.

The IFIs themselves have additional safeguard measures to ensure that sustainability criteria are infused at all levels, including the conceptual, development and implementation levels of projects. Sustainability has indeed become the lingua franca of the environmental and development fraternity.

It has spawned a whole army of experts and technicians, policy institutions and methods that have led to an industry in its own right, spreading the gospel and seeking an ever-growing number of followers.

However, its stability emanates from a specific world politico-economic hegemony, viz., the supremacy of capitalism and the techno-scientific system of the western tradition. It has relied on institutions emanating from the western hemisphere to gain discursive power as well as for the reach it has enjoyed.

It has set the reference language within international negotiations and in debates over questions of sustainability and the planet's future.

It could only be universalised throughout the public and private domains because it was authenticated and embedded through this hegemony.

A certain politico-economic hegemony is necessary for its universal spread as a normative framework and value system. It is this power in the first place that gave effect to the concept and its usage as a universal reference with little contestation or possibility of alternative ways of seeing things.

Concepts are not natural beings formed and transferred organically. They too need the force of power to give them life in the world of language and human relations.

The hegemony of the western-centred world was generally perpetuated through global institutions such as the UN (United Nations), the IFIs, the WTO (World Trade Organisation), NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), as well as by dominance through aid.

The developed world is still the largest contributor of development assistance, either by governments or private givers, including the 50 000 odd multinational corporations from the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), through their various corporate social responsibility programmes.

But things are changing and these changes also have implications for the future of sustainability.

No longer are its universal premises guaranteed or assured. In a multi-polar world, old politico-economic hegemonies are contested. New rivalries challenge the existing normative frameworks. They are already the source of a new political language that translates into effecting a new worldview.

Political discourse is already changing: where the Americans talk of regime change, the Chinese talk of gradualism and non-interference. Where the Americans talk about democracy and economic liberalism, the Chinese demonstrate that autocracy or one party democracy and semi-open economies can co-exist, undermining the premise that democracy is essential for economic success.

If there is to be any future for sustainability, we can be sure that it will be very different from what it is today. In this period of transition, where there is political rivalry and contestation, the term itself is more likely to be abused for political gain than for the benefits of sustainability.

It would assume the same role the term humanitarianism has acquired of late. As Carl Schmitt, a political philosopher once noted in his book, The Concept of the Political: "The concept of humanity is an especially useful ideological instrument of imperialist expansion and in its ethical-humanitarian form, it is a specific vehicle of economic imperialism".

Under the cover of moral talk and of environmental ethic, great powers pursue moral and political gains over each other. Current climate change debates are riddled with colourful idioms and accusations between powers.

China and Russia are going to be less interested in a low carbon economy if it means compromising their economic security and advancing the economic security of the US or Europe. One can be sure that agreement on the reduction of green house gas emissions and the sustainability of climate change actions will find itself in a stalemate, resulting in a lack of collective action.

The term sustainability will be used to score points against old rivals.

In this period of flux, powers will seek to gain moral legitimacy over each other. The substance of sustainability will be lost as rivalries are more likely to cause the usurpation of the concept for purposes of moral victory over economic and military rivals, than be concerned about its implementation.

Sustainability, like the concept of humanitarianism, will become a convenient armory, as ethical concepts are merely turned into tools for political discourse in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the general public.

Values are in flux, as are systems and economic premises. The universal appeal for liberal democratic values, which is also key to the universal spread of notions of sustainability, are finding retractions as western liberal values are contested or openly being opposed by other systems of authority and governance.

Other interests and new nationalistic objectives are displacing sustainability. These include increased security, the quest for economic dominance and energy security.

These new nationalistic objectives essentially overflow into the re-configuring of regional politics and displacing the interests of old powers by new powers and centres of influence.

They predominate in global political perspectives and rivalries, a mood that is clearly displacing the centrality and future value of sustainability. One clear example of this is the growing importance of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) that rivals NATO and perhaps the G7.

The SCO, which includes China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, was formally established in June 2001 when Uzbekistan joined the existing 'Shanghai Five' that have been meeting annually since 1996.

Iran is also vying to be a member of the SCO. The SCO’s sole aim is to exclude the existing western powers and establish itself as a new centre of power.

A similar regional reconfiguration is being attempted with the establishment of the Bank of the South by some Latin American countries to do away with the influence of the World Bank and IMF. The Bank of the South too wants to promote greater regional economic autonomy and less dependence on western institutions.

A multi-polar world implies an emergence of a new non-universal set of values as there will not be a single reigning hegemony, but rival powers seeking to contort the world platform of power, economic exchange and diplomacy in the direction of their own contending interests.

In sum: this means the displacement of a universal concept of sustainability for more fragmented versions of sustainability in which its meaning and application will be refracted by specific powers and their interests. To use that Huntington expression, sustainability too will suffer a 'Clash of Civilizations', translated as a clash of values and perspectives.

A new paradigm of global politics is long overdue. The usual centres of power can no longer be taken for granted. This in turn will entail a certain fragmentation of worldviews and applications of sustainability. The term itself will find itself in a tepid phase subject to intense mobility of meanings.

Instead of the notion of sustainability guiding the politico-economic paradigm, it becomes the victim of politico-economic rivalries. The golden era for environmentalism and sustainability existed from 1972 to 9/11 --- that has now come to an end.

But there are also opportunities. When a single power no longer enjoys total hegemony, it frees up the world from its normative, legal, political and economic grip. Its moment of fissure opens up a range of possibilities and different paths to the future.

This period of flux, fragmentation and unsettled power may well spawn new possibilities for sustainability. The richer new powers become, the more culturally diverse the world will become as new aspirants acquire new tastes and their tastes influence others.

The era in which sustainability was always associated with a specific politico-economic world is slowly being displaced by the emergence of new powers and their own politico-economic values.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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Rory Verified user
16 May

End of Sustainability As We Know It

I guess you are right Saliem. We have reached the end of sustainability as projected through the lens of the power structures of the West and its client states.

It cannot mark the end of sustainability as an issue to be addressed by humankind however. That remains a problem that all of humanity needs to engage with no matter under which hegemony people will reside.

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