More than a week later, I continue to really think about our recent “sustainability charrette” at Swarthmore College led by folks like David Orr, Hunter Lovins, John Fullerton and Nikki Silvestri.
At least one of the things I keep thinking about, however, is an issue that could not possibly be discussed in any short meeting intended to focus attention on the concrete, specific things that a single institution might choose to do in order to pursue sustainability.
Even the speakers agreed that it’s not entirely clear what “sustainability” is, and David Orr soberingly pointed out that you could potentially achieve sustainability and yet fail to build a humane, just society (what he called “solar fascism”). I would go a step further, however, and point out that most existing attempts to move towards sustainability radically underestimate just how unprecedented that move will be for human subjectivity and personhood if we manage to achieve it.
I think that’s important, because if you underestimate how different any sustainable future is (fascist or free), you likely will not really understand how to make meaningful steps in that direction right now.
There are almost no examples in human history of a generation of people voluntarily giving up what they already have or deferring what they could plausibly have in deference to what people yet to be born will need.
Yes, individuals sacrifice for their children or grandchildren. At least some of the time, they’re not giving up what they could have, however: they’re just in a situation where the only possibility of social mobility is multigenerational. At least some of what people give up in their lives for family is self-interested in some fashion if you look at it closely, given in expectation of reciprocal care later on, or as part of a kin-based social structure that delivers general benefits to all contributing members.
Yes, individuals sacrifice their lives or well-being for the greater good. But even democratic societies have often made such sacrifices at least partially or wholly compulsory at some level. If not, such sacrifices are also compensated for, if not commensurate in value with the health or life of the person sacrificing one or both. The referent of the sacrifice is often contemporary and concrete rather than abstractly futureward. Soldiers in WWII might have fought for democracy or country, but their sense of what those entailed was largely rooted in their own experience.
Yes, individuals sacrifice much of what they have, either power or resources, in favor of transforming their own societies into more humane, just or sustainable societies. Either out of altruism or self-interest, or perhaps both.
Sustainability requires equally concrete sacrifices for wealthy people and wealthy nations that can only barely be related to contemporary losses or circumstances–which is one reason that sustainability advocates have to rely as much as they do on endangered polar bears, hurricanes and visible droughts even though the emergent consequences of climate change at and beyond +2 C are likely to be systemically new forms of material and biological life, and the sufferings of that future humanity therefore almost as radically difficult for us to conceive as it would be for twelfth-century peasants growing flax to imagine doing something differently in their lives in order to ease the circumstances of suicidal Foxconn workers in 21st Century eastern China.
The problem is not just one of imagination, since in fact human beings are reasonably good at envisioning things which don’t yet exist and even at letting those visions motivate them to act in wholly new ways. It also requires a fundamental moral logic that sustainability advocates usually have to simply assume rather than argue.
If I’m in a room full of religious people who believe in life after death, and that the life to come will be dictated by decisions we made in this life, I don’t have to convince them that they ought to act righteously in order to secure the afterlife they desire. (Ought to isn’t the same as actually acting, but that’s a different problem.)
But in a room full of otherwise secular people? What’s my reward for foregoing something now in order to benefit people who are not even born yet, people I will never know? Why shouldn’t I live for my own satisfactions right now? I am going to be dead a long time. If my great-great-great grandchildren are gathering algae from the soupy, fungus-infested marsh that used to be the foothills of the Appalachians and telling tall tales about how there used to be animals besides rats and cockroaches hereabouts, what’s that to me?
Please don’t give me the “pay it forward, people in the past were looking out for you” line. That’s not going to persuade anyone at a deep level, it’s a sentimental logic fit largely for Hallmark cards. My parents were looking out for me. My grandparents were looking out for me. My teachers in my life were looking out for me. My great-great-great grandparents? They never imagined me, nor did they do anything in their lives that was done in anticipation of me. How could they have, even if they were fine people? (I frankly don’t know anything about them as individuals, so the veil of ignorance runs in both directions.) My circumstances today are as unimaginable to them as the future after climate change (or even after successfully averting the worst scenarios of climate change) is to me.
Even when I wish all of those who came before me had done something radically better than what they did–never have allowed the Atlantic slave trade to flourish, for example–I can scarcely imagine as a historian what the circumstances of that collective counterfactual plausibly could have been. Any change like that would not just have required foregoing self-interest, but also a radically different understanding on a much bigger scale of time and space about what the iterative consequences of small, simultaneous actions could be. My paternal great-great-grandfather, for example, would have had to think differently before leaving Ireland about a concept of whiteness that he had yet to experience, and would have had to do something on arrival other than just head to Iowa and try to farm, but all the “somethings” are things that he likely couldn’t have even imagined until well after the point at which they could have been done.
Almost every analogy we make to argue for the urgency of the cause of sustainability is to campaigns for moral and social transformation that arrived in the disastrous aftermath of oppressive, destructive systems, not in anticipation of them.
The people who made enduring things which I rely upon in my daily existence today did not have me in mind, did not make those things for me or give up something so that I could have them. They made those things for their own benefit and purposes. Or they were forced to make those things for the benefit of others. That those enduring things are still here for me to use is almost an epiphenomenal side effect of the benefits they bestowed upon their makers, or the suffering they caused. Build a building for your own purposes? It’ll be around for someone else to buy and use. Create a Constitution to govern your society? It has an enduring impact to do that, but you’re not giving up something that deeply benefits you so that everyone will be far better off in a distant future. You’re solving problems you have right now, reducing risks and liabilities in your own situation.
You could argue that the Quakers who founded Swarthmore College were looking out for me. Only they weren’t: the college they founded absolutely did not have me or its current students or its current society meaningfully in mind. The only thing they gave us was an institutional framework that could be redesigned and repurposed going forward. There is no reason in that sense when you build something for yourself, with your own resources, to be deliberately spiteful and make it fall apart or break the moment you’re done with it, to “take it with you”. But that’s a far cry from consciously giving up something you have or could have in favor of people who don’t even exist.
That might be where an argument in favor of doing just that could begin, however. Somewhere along the way to sustainability, 21st Century human beings are going to have to accept a radical new kind of material culture, with new prospects and processes. That doesn’t have to mean impoverishment (or authoritarianism), but we will need to accept a moral view of the future that simply hasn’t existed in the past, doesn’t have meaningful analogues or precedents. However, if we demand that everyone has to feel that way now, all at once, that the necessary prerequisite of sustainability is to have all at once a boundless kind of altruism combined with a very different temporal imagination, it’s not going to happen.
A good analogy might be rights-based individualism. It didn’t exist at some point in the past, but at some point became a very deep and fundamental part of how most of us experience being human, it became integral to our subjectivity and consciousness. It wasn’t a straightforwardly instrumental change, and many of the moments and movements and arguments that moved human beings towards feeling as if they were individuals with their own bodies and distinctive minds, individuals with rights, were contradictory, fragmentary, and incomplete.
At a time when even the few human institutions that did have longer time horizons are crumbling under the pressure of short-term calculation, expecting a fundamental epistemic transformation of selfhood, agency and perspective to happen like an epiphany on the road to Damascus may feel as if it is a requirement. But that is in some sense as materially impossible as demanding that we invent a technology to sequester all industrial emissions from the atmosphere in five years, or refreeze the Arctic tomorrow.
Even if you steer clear of the new paradigms of cognitive science, you have to recognize that consciousness has its own long horizons. Embracing, or at least accepting, a different material existence now on behalf of a humanity we will never meet or know, is something that we can only learn to do in small and halting ways, at least to start.