Is the Sustainability Movement Unsustainable?

The Sustainability Movement as an Increasingly Polarized Landscape

Few terms, outside of religious or political discourse, are as polarizing as the word “sustainability”. In academic discussion, the word usually alludes to, among other things, the growing sense of responsibility that many feel to find ways of living that will not leave future generations screwed over. In other words a sustainable culture is one that is ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just.

In popular discussion, however, the word often evokes numerous images ranging from tree-hugging hippies and advocates of steep, across-the-board carbon taxes to people who believe that anything less than 100% organic farming 100% of the time will bring about ecological ruin. Thus, the word “sustainability” is associated with everything from environmental extremism to misguided and naive idealism that is unrealistic in a pragmatic world.

On the other side of the coin, there are many who view skeptics of climate change or other ecological concerns as being ignoramuses that impede critical progress. More than often, such conflicts get intensely personal, and there are plenty of pejorative terms used for such skeptics ranging from “science deniers” to a host of terms involving accusations of religion-based ignorance or idiocy. Thus, people who talk about sustainability, whether in a positive or negative light, are too often pigeon-holed into one of these categories before real discussion can even take place.

In this way, advocates of “sustainability” are often viewed as alarmists — the proverbial Chicken Littles — whereas skeptics are widely portrayed as ignorant science deniers who will doom us all through voting in politicians that care more about aiding big business than facing matters of ecological necessity. The true complexities and nuances of the issue of sustainability are lost as each side of this standoff views the supposed ignorance of the other side as being the primary barrier to real progress.

In the case of environmental skeptics, advocates of “sustainability” may be seen as threatening our economic future with their proposed carbon taxes and other such proposals. In the cases of sustainability activists, skeptics may be viewed as science deniers who impede progress by voting in ignorant, science hating Republican lawmakers.

A Polarizing and Divisive Sustainability Movement is Unsustainable

In some areas, a certain amount of divisiveness can make things more interesting and rarely causes any serious problems. Sports competitions are one example that come to mind. In the case of sustainability progress, however, such polarization and divisiveness is bound to cause far more long-term problems for all those who hope for a sustainable future — irrespective of political affiliation.

Such divisiveness is often viewed simply as a byproduct of the “fight” to win the “other side” over to the “correct” way of thinking. In this light, it is easy to view such polarization simply as part of the necessary process to win the supposed battle for sustainability — for instance, by getting rid of legislators who are science denying climate skeptics. Once this battle is won, and most or all lawmakers are “on board with sustainability”, then it will all be over. At least that is how this line of thought usually plays out.

This thinking reasons that in order to tackle an issue as big as climate change, only an apparatus as big as centralized government can have any significant effect. Therefore, the main impediments to progress are those “science denying” lawmakers who consistently vote against any attempted 15,000 page bill that will make like, tons of progress. But I digress.

I strongly disagree with this line of reasoning and propose that not only is this way of thinking narrow and one-dimensional, but short-sighted and will cause more long term problems than any such victory — if it could be called that — would be worth.

The cost of “defeating” the so-called science deniers is too great, and the cost of pigeon-holing all talk of sustainability as mere alarmism is likewise too great. The paradigm which says that the primary impediment to progress is this opposing camp is misguided, to say the least. If there ever was a time and place to expand consciousness and find common ground, it would be here and now, within the discourse concerning sustainability.

In order to succeed in its goal of leaving a better world for future generations, the sustainability movement must view finding common ground with supposedly opposing camps to be a matter of pragmatic necessity, and not one of mere good feels or other wishy-washy sentiments. The issues we face today, such as the reality of climate change, are not the first nor will they be the last challenges of sustainability. Your opponents today, whether they be “climate deniers” or “carbon tax hippies” may potentially be your most valuable allies tomorrow.

If the topic of sustainability becomes increasingly polarized and divisive, how will things fare when the next generations must find ways to deal with the issues of tomorrow? If the topic of sustainability becomes as polarized as that of certain political or religious issues, how will progress be made in an era where a certain amount of unity and solidarity becomes increasingly essential to forging a sustainable future for all of mankind? Activists in either camp must decide what is more important: winning the arguments or finding the common ground necessary to make real progress.

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