Sustainability or Bust?

Ecomodern Dispatches

By Emma Brush and Alex Trembath

Another year, another Earth Overshoot Day.

The calendar date marking our overdrawn ecological credit—as Time, Popular Science, and the Christian Science Monitor have all reported—is upon us. Actually, it passed: according to the Global Footprint Network’s “ecological accounting tool,” we officially used up the resources that can be regenerated in a year on August 8.

The very notion of “ecological overshoot,” however, remains flawed, both as a metric and as a concept. Our own Linus Blomqvist wrote on this subject last year, summarizing his own analysis over the ecological footprint. But with the turning of our ecological clock, we’ll briefly return to the subject here, with an eye towards ecomodernism and the much-debated meaning of the word “sustainable.”

The language Global Footprint Network uses to describe its work provides some insight. “The Ecological Footprint,” according to its website, “tells us how close we are to the goal of sustainable living. Footprint accounts work like bank statements, documenting whether we are living within our ecological budget or consuming nature’s resources faster than the planet can renew them.” The fact that this analogy resonates with misconceptions about national (economic) debt points to the basic, and misleading, assumption that underlies this framework: that balance—the hallmark of “sustainability”—is the gold standard when it comes to the natural world.

We might note first that contemporary ecology has largely discredited the “balance of nature” framework, and has replaced it with a dynamic model of constant change. But even beyond this scientific disconnect, sustainability remains a troubled construct, as Jeremy Butman argues in a recent New York Times op-ed. As Butman puts it, the sustainability movement has been defined by a misplaced faith in nature’s Edenic perfection, an understanding that derives from Romantics like Wordsworth and transcendentalists like Thoreau. Prior to this philosophical turn (i.e., from Aristotle through to Hobbes), nature was viewed as cruel and ever-changing; since then, it has come to embody a once-changeless harmony that is rapidly eroding at the hands of human influence.

Most damaging for our purposes is the strange nostalgia that accompanies such a stance—a mourning for a lost wholeness that never really existed. Rather than to trap ourselves in such a state of melancholia, Butman urges, we need to instead “face the future” and “say ‘yes’ to the anthropocene.” In order to do so, we’ll need to change the language we use to define our relations with the nonhuman world. What Butman is proposing, in other words, is a paradigm shift—from a backward-facing sustainability, rooted in “preserving” and “sustaining,” to a forward-facing “adaptability.”

Ecomodernism, too, proceeds from such a posture of pragmatic affirmation, saying “yes” to the possibility of a “good, or even great, Anthropocene.” Where Butman and ecomodernists might differ, of course, is in the application of this model.

Butman draws from Bruno Latour in his understanding that humans and nature are so deeply embroiled that we can neither “let nature be” nor control it, and should therefore embrace such an enmeshed relationship. Ecomodernists, on the other hand, emphasize that an increasing dependence on nature will mostly prove destructive, and as such, endorse intensification and substitution as an antidote to agricultural expansion and biodiversity loss. The disagreement here recalls a rebuke of the framework that Mr. Latour himself gave at our Breakthrough Dialogue last year, which surfaced some tension even among self-described ecomodernists over whether, how, and to what extent humanity and nature can really “decouple.”

Nevertheless, Butman, ecomodernists, and surely many others can agree on the fundamental premises that make sustainability so problematic. First is the assumption of a prelapsarian natural world. In fact, Butman says, humans have been altering their climes for millennia—and the planet has been in turmoil all on its own for far longer. Second is the notion that sustainability will serve to return us to nature. Instead, we should note, sustainability is fundamentally a human project; in Butman’s words, “we preserve the resources needed for human consumption, whether that means energy consumption or aesthetic consumption.” And finally, sustainability presupposes an attitude resigned to the status quo—of a world with limits that must be adhered to. Such a failure to think creatively and constructively may not only fail to curtail environmental destruction, but it may also prevent us from reaching our full potential when it comes to conservation, human development, and adaptation to climate change.

Certainly, more will have to change about our policies and strategies than simply the words we use to describe them. But language plays a role in these processes as well, and in the shape of public perception. As the confusion about GMOs shows, labels matter. And sustainability, in the way it’s been brandished for decades, is one that environmentalists could do without.

Ecomodern Dispatches

As a result of the “zero emissions credits” that operators of nuclear plants will now receive under New York’s Clean Energy Standard, Exelon has agreed to purchase the struggling FitzPatrick plant, which was previously scheduled to close in 2017. Robert Walton of Utility Dive and Samantha House of Syracuse also report on the details and emission reduction benefits of the deal. Brad Jones, CEO of NYISO, echoed this optimism in a recent interview with Utility Dive: “Retaining the nuclear fleet is important not only to achieving the Clean Energy Standard, but also to maintaining fuel diversity.”


A recent comment by conservation scientists in Nature issues a reminder that the primary drivers of biodiversity loss remain overexploitation and agriculture. According to their analysis, 62 percent of a sample set of species from the IUCN’s Red List are threatened by agricultural expansion. Land-sparing, unfortunately, is not discussed as a strategy for conservation here...


New research from Yale's Dan Kahan shows that a curiosity about science reduces polarization over climate change. The question now becomes “whether there is an effective way to prime people to be more science-curious -- which could then also have political ramifications.”