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Sustainability and the extension of privilege (an inconvenient post)

There is something I have to say about the dark side of sustainability. If, like me, you are a middle to upper income white male, you probably won't want to hear it. If you are just about anyone else, you probably already know it.

If you get uncomfortable, you might want to click over to one of my posts that is easier to read. (In fact, maybe I should go write about something that makes me sound enlightened, that extends my advantage....). In fact, Exhibit A proof of privilege is that I can choose to talk about this or not.

But if you can hang with me for a few moments, maybe we can address this thing that is festering at the core of this work, and yet is rarely discussed:

Sustainability just might be the wealthy white male's way of making more money, of cementing and building his privilege thus conveniently extending his power and influence while lessening his guilt. (my words; not a quote)

To understand what I mean by this, we have to go back to the beginning, back to the mid 20th century and especially the year 1987 when "sustainable development" was born.

The monumental work and people that coined the term "sustainable development"

Most experts point to Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring as the beginning (at least in the United States) of an awakening to the human health and environmental costs of industrial and technological progress. 1962 was the same year James Meredith was the first black student to enter University of Mississippi, under federal guard. (President Kennedy sent in 5,000 troops to prevent violence) The 1960's and 70's saw the acceleration and convergence of the racial equality timeline and gender equality timeline. The dawning environmental awareness timeline was another thread in a fabric of concern about our values, our responsibilities, and our common future.

While all this social unrest was brewing, industrial and technological growth were exploding. This "Golden Age of Capitalism" ran hard after World War II and OECD countries saw 5% growth and low unemployment. Productivity expanded and suburbs, roads, cars and cheap oil to fuel it all. And yet, the growing economy and growing social unrest seemed to be on a collision course with one another. It was clearly unsustainable to grow your economy while using up natural resources and contaminating our communities and environment. And it was surely unsustainable to leave out women (one half of humanity), people of color, and not expand the rights of workers. Many called for a more inclusive economic development and one that took greater responsibility for its true costs.

Seeing the slow collision developing, the UN created a World Commission on Environment and Development (the people named in the image above) led by the former Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland. Resolution 38/161 established the commission and charged it:

(a) To propose long-term environmental strategies for achieving sustainable development to the year 2000 and beyond;

(b) To recommend ways in which concern for the environment may be translated into greater co-operation among developing countries and between countries at different stages of economic and social development and lead to the achievement of common and mutually supportive objectives which take account of the interrelationships between people, resources, environment and development;

(c) To consider ways and means by which the international community can deal more effectively with environmental concerns, in the light of the other recommendations in its report;

(d) To help to define shared perceptions of long-term environmental issues and of the appropriate efforts needed to deal successfully with the problems of protecting and enhancing the environment, a long-term agenda for action during the coming decades, and aspirational goals for the world community, taking into account the relevant resolutions of the session of a special character of the Governing Council in 1982"

Over 900 days they held listening sessions across five continents and then published Our Common Future:

"During the time we met as a Commission, tragedies such as the African famines, the leak at the pesticides factory at Bhopal, India, and the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, USSR appeared to justify the grave predictions about the human future that were becoming commonplace during the mid-1980s. But at public hearings we held on five continents, we also heard from the individual victims of more chronic, widespread disasters: the debt crisis, stagnating aid to and investment in developing countries, falling commodity prices and falling personal incomes. We became convinced that major changes were needed, both in attitudes and in the way our societies are organized."

-Gro Harlem Brundtland, from the preface

The commission concluded that what we needed was not "economic development" but something they called "sustainable development"

"Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".

This definition has two crucial aspects:

  • the concept of needs, in particular the needs of the world's poor, to which "overriding priority should be given"

  • the idea of limitations imposed by "the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs"

From this short history we can draw a few important conclusions. First, we can assert that "sustainability" began as "sustainable development" a term that arose in response to the conventional economic wisdom of its day. It was post Bretton Woods and the expansion of neoliberalism that set the table for globalization in the 80s and 90s and today. Growth was king. Economic development was the big dog and "sustainable development" just nipped at its heals. Sustainability rose to counter a force that would cut off the limb it was standing on and call it progress.

Second, we can say that inclusiveness was a central tenet of the Commission's work and the social movements that gave rise to it and from whom it took its inspiration. Moreover, the early work was done by a diverse group: scientists, civil servants, activists, NGO's, and business people in purposely designed, inclusive learning environments.

If "sustainability" began with a female prime minister of Norway focused equally on poverty, ecology and equity, how did it become reduced to what could be seen as a guilt and risk management tool of today's (mostly white and male) economic elite?

This will surely not be a popular question. But it is an important question. I spend a lot of time making the "business case for sustainability" and this is a very popular approach and will get someone hired, promoted and a seat at the table. Too much talk of privilege and equity and you risk not being asked back. But what do we risk if we don't ask the hard questions? What do we risk if we don't ask whose "business" are we making the "case" for and to "sustain" what? And for whom? And if we are right and sustainability reduces costs and increases revenues, who benefits? If our sustainability does not force us to ask these questions, it is a sustainability we can trust.

The inconvenient truth is that sustainability has presided over the largest increase in income inequality in US history. I am not suggesting that the sustainability movement caused income inequality. But I am saying that it has done little to stop it and much to exacerbate it.

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