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Sustainability If

“All oppression creates a state of war.”—Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

Environmental sustainability includes an ‘if’. The ‘if’ is implied, but invariably left unstated. Sustainability means ‘ability to endure across time’. When used as a matter of physical limitation, no ‘if’ is implied or needed. For example, running at 6 km/h is not sustainable for the course of a day—we simply cannot maintain such speed across that much time. (Indeed, if we can reach such a speed in the first place.) In this assertion of limited physical ability there is no ‘if’ involved.

In the environmental movement, ‘sustainability’ has assumed a larger task.  In this context ‘if’ is implied—and essential—to every statement of sustainability. Any particular action is unsustainable if we value and wish to protect and preserve certain aspects of the natural environment. And concurrently, it is sustainable if we may engage in such actions without harming the environment, to such an extent that we ultimately harm ourselves. An environmentalist who notes that our beef habit is unsustainable is really saying that our beef habit cannot be sustained if we would like to preserve rain forests and freshwater, work against the weight of dead zones and climate change. And consuming kale is sustainable only if such consumption does not dangerously degrade the environment. It is thus readily apparent that sustainability, with regard to environmental justice, rests on anticipated outcomes and values.

For example, we might say:

  • Eating bluefin tuna is unsustainable if we intend to protect endangered species and deep water ecosystems.
  • Eating cheese is unsustainable if we hope to protect freshwater reserves and reduce pesticide use.
  • Eating shrimp is unsustainable if we value ocean ecosystems, including essential, fragile deep-sea reefs.
The survival of coral reefs is in danger due to excessive shrimp fishing. Image Credit:
Image credit: The survival of coral reefs is in danger due to excessive shrimp fishing and consumption by  Toby Hudson. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In each instance the ‘if’ is normally omitted, and those speaking for Earth simply say that a certain action is ‘unsustainable’. Period. When we add the omitted ‘if,’ finishing the sentence, we realize that statements of environmental sustainability are value laden, carrying ethical urgency.

What is most interesting about this missing ‘if’ is that reinsertion allows us to see that sustainability is the key not just too environmental justice, but to social justice more broadly. Sustainability can fruitfully be employed in any social justice context—eating bluefin tuna, cheese, and shrimp are no more sustainable than expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, speciesism, ableism, ageism, and so on. Consider ‘sustainability’ applied in these diverse contexts:

  • It is unsustainable for racist police to brutalize Black civilians if we value equality and justice—or peaceful, safe, harmonious communities.
  • Forcing a woman to carry a fetus to term is unsustainable if we are committed to protecting each person’s right to determine what happens with her body.
  • Offering the financial and social benefits of legal marriage only for heterosexuals is unsustainable if we intend to actualize equal treatment and equal opportunity.
  • If we are committed to an ethic whereby we protect the vulnerable from the exploitation of the powerful, eating chickens is unsustainable.

In each instance an ‘if’ connects the ideal of sustainability with shared values that carry moral imperatives. Racist, sexist, homophobic, speciesist, ableist, and ageist behaviors are just as unsustainable as two-car households if we value social justice and world peace. Unsustainable options ought to be avoided if one values equality, civil liberties, protecting the weak and vulnerable, the environment—peace and a measure of prosperity for all.

Exploring sustainability as used in the environmental movement supports the work of ecofeminists—sustainability is not just about cycling and recycling, it is about redistributing wealth, yielding wrongly-gained power to the disenfranchised, and protecting all who are vulnerable from the miseries of oppression.  Indeed, as ecofeminists noted, all forms of oppression are connected. Industrial fishing is unsustainable (and therefore an immoral choice for consumers blessed with such choice) not only because it harms ocean ecosystems, but also because it harms indigenous communities dependent on depleted ecosystems for subsistence survival, and because it harms so many individual fish. Industrial fishing is unsustainable if you care about protecting the defenseless—ocean ecosystems, fish, and indigenous peoples—against the immoral greed of powerful corporate interests, and indiscriminate and/or uninformed consumers.

Similarly, factory farming is unsustainable if you value Earth because animal agriculture harms rainforests and waterways, and is the number one contributor to greenhouse gases. But factory farming is also unsustainable if we value worker’s rights, the protection of defenseless farmed animals, and the health of unsuspecting consumers who suffer from heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and obesity because of diets rich in animal products. These practices are unsustainable not only if we care about the environment, but also if we care about social injustice. We ought to avoid supporting unsustainable acts, such as those that ravage the natural environment, along with acts that are racist, sexist, speciesist, ableist and ageist not only if we care about the Earth, but also because we care about injustice more broadly.

Feature Image: Commercial shrimp fishing by NOAA FishWatch. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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