Climate change is “a condition under which human beings will have to make choices about such matters as economic development and the way we govern ourselves” (Rayner 2009:xxii). One of the ways people have responded to climate change is by becoming more sustainable. But, as we know, it is not always clear what sustainability is.
People have said all sorts of things about it – as if it is a ‘thing’ that can be defined. But mostly, they have tried to make ‘rules’ about what it is and how we can determine what the best course of action might be. This has been difficult at best, with consensus difficult to build.
For example, Meadowcroft (2000) decided sustainability is an accommodation between economic growth and environmental security, while Beckerman calls it an all-embracing concept “with no clear analytical bite” (2008:1). Giddens (2009) says it is a slogan; others, a positive vision; Dryzek (2005) a discursive construct; Kates et al., (2005) call it an evolving idea; Adger & Jordan (2009) decide it is a process; and along with Lele (1991): an inevitable outcome.
During fieldwork, I came across the way different people work out sustainability in interesting ways. On one day I attended a seminar at the Garden Museum and afterwards we had tea and coffee. A little note was put above the cups to explain why their china cups had been replaced with plastic ones. As the museum is housed in an old church, the floor is paved with flagstones. It turns out that too many cups were being broken on this hard
floor that in the balance of all factors it was more sustainable for the museum to serve coffee and tea in plastic cups.
One week later, I was attending a meeting in The City, in a building of an entirely different kind: one of the contemporary, bright and light glass buildings (don’t say I don’t get around) and at coffee time I spotted a sign above the cups explaining why they were china and not plastic: in order to be sustainable!
Expectation. In the garden museum the expectation of customers and staff is that we have china cups, which are then washed and reused. In The City, deep in ‘coffee culture’, the expectation is to have hygienic, portable, one-use, individual cups. The reversal demanded an explanatory note.
Calculations. The working through of ideas of sustainability depends entirely on context. In the case of the garden museum the cups were breaking so often that buying new ones which continued to be broken became unsustainable. Money, time, effort, accidents all conspired to make plastic – widely considered unsustainable – the oddly sustainable choice, solving the problem of cups.
However, in the modern office environment, unsustainable plastic has been replaced by reusable china. This will involve paying someone to load them into a dishwasher, but these economics are now part of the calculation of sustainability. Sustainability here also involves offsetting the material qualities of objects and their relationship with time. The initially expensive but long-lasting china cups now signal sustainability over the temporary, but recyclable plastic ones.
Shiny offices (not exact location, but similar)
And what is the decisive factor in the calculations? Flooring. In the museum, the hard flagstones makes china unsustainable and in the office, the carpet means that dropping a china cup, while causing a mess, will probably not result in breakage.
The capacity for excess, or ‘superfluity’ (Buchli 1999a:11) contained within the idea of sustainability allows it to be adaptable but that also means it is completely context-dependent. The concept can have everything to do with ecological matters, or nothing. This has spawned an industry dedicated to the interpretation and implementation of sustainability (Kates et al. 2005:11). Some believe that defining it further is counterproductive (Adger & Jordan 2009) while others (Rayner 2009) view the lack of definition as an obstacle to agreement and a hindrance to effective action.
Adger, W. N., & Jordan, A. (2009). Governing Sustainability. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Beckerman, W. (2008). “The Chimera of ‘Sustainable Development’”. Electronic Journal of Sustainable Development, 1, 1.
Buchli, V. (1999). An Archeology of Socialism. Oxford: Berg Publishers.
Dryzek, J. S. (2005). The Politics of the Earth: Environmental Discourses. Oxford: Oxford Universisty Press.
Giddens, A. (2009). Politics of Climate Change. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Kates, R. W., Parris, T. M., & Leiserowitz, A. (2005). What is sustainable development? Environment, 47(3), 8–21.
Lele, S. M. (1991). “Sustainable Development: A Critical Review”. World Development, 19(6), 607–621.
Meadowcroft, J. (2000). “Sustainable Development: a New(ish) Idea for a New Century?” Political Studies, 48, 370–387.
Rayner, S. (2009). Foreword. In M. Hulme (Ed.), Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity (pp. xxi–xxiv). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.