Sustainability as Disavowal

Over the last decade, the word “sustainability” has become a compulsively used word to get at some unspecified but ubiquitous notion of an environmentally ethical and conscious way of life. Businesses, cities, neighborhoods, buildings, and lifestyles can all be praised as “sustainable” or criticized as “unsustainable. Moreover, there are substantial resources and interests behind the word. Governments, businesses, and civil organizations on all scales are investing heavily in pursuit of “sustainability,” perhaps because they genuinely believe that this pursuit will improve the quality of life, but quite evidently too because they believe it will give them a competitive advantage vis-à-vis their peers, or perhaps even function as a brand with which they can effectively market their activities. It is, without a doubt, the one-word slogan for the Copenhagen conference. What is it about “sustainability” that enables the word to mobilize wealth and power so effectively?  What does it say that ecological hopes, fears, and calls to action are so wrapped up in this particular word as opposed to any other?

A Raymond Williams-style “keyword” reflection is instructive. The word “sustainability” is often traced back by its advocates to the 1987 Brundtland Report’s definition of “sustainable development” as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[1]World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, New York, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. X

And indeed, if one understands “sustainability” to designate the quality of “forms of human economic activity and culture that do not lead to environmental degradation, esp. avoiding the long-term depletion of natural resources,” then the Oxford English Dictionary can confirm that this meaning does not date much further back than 1980, or perhaps to the 1970s if we consider certain limited references to “sustainable growth.” [2]”

However, the verb “sustain,” upon which the contemporary notion of “sustainability” depends, goes all the way back to Old English, where several of its earliest meanings remain active and relevant.

The most expected of these meanings in the OED is to “cause to continue in a certain state; to keep or maintain at the proper level or standard,” a sense that straightforwardly suggests our ecological appropriation of the word. However, “sustain” has at least two other clusters of meanings that bear interestingly on what the word has become in the twenty-first century. First, “sustain” can mean to “uphold the validity or rightfulness of; to support as valid, sound, correct, true, or just.”[3]” 

We still use this sense of the word when, for example, in juridical contexts we speak of “sustaining” an argument. It is this meaning cluster, I suggest, that lends the word much of its moral force. It is taken for granted that “sustainability” refers specifically to the maintaining of something that is humanly valued, whether it be clean air or an ecosystem (something valued in “nature”) community bonds and cultural traditions (social values), or the production of wealth (monetary value). To refer to the “sustainability” of crime, disease, or poverty seems preposterous precisely because it runs counter to the ethical claim of “right” that the word is meant to invoke. This ethical meaning is in turn framed by yet another meaning in which to “sustain” is to “furnish with the necessaries(***necessities?**)of life.” This is the connotation that sustainability shares with the word “sustenance.” In alluding to a notion of nourishment, “sustainability” thus evokes an ethics of “provision.” Underneath the descriptively neutral sense of maintaining something at a certain level indefinitely into the future, therefore, comes this idea of the rightness of providing or nourishing the indefinite needs of both people and the world they inhabit. Much of the appeal of “sustainability” to both political progressives and humanities scholars is that it apparently calls for reflection on what is worth sustaining, and hence on the ethical and political stakes of the properly nourished life. 

There is yet another cluster of meanings, however, that pulls in a radically different direction. To “sustain” something can also mean to endure or withstand it, or even, as the OED indicates, to “undergo, experience, have to submit to (evil, hardship, or damage; now chiefly with injury, loss as obj., formerly also sorrow, death); to have inflicted upon one, suffer the infliction of.”[4]Ibid. We still employ this sense of the word when we speak of “sustaining a severe injury.” This is a striking definition precisely because it inverts the valence of the others. Instead of suggesting the support of life, it signifies instead a suffering unto the edge of death. Understood primarily through the lens of this connotation, to speak of sustainability is in fact to consider how much injury we can withstand or endure. It suggests damage that we are not so much trying to eliminate as to find a way to survive. Let us therefore think about the damage that is presupposed by sustainability. What is it that the sustainability movement asks us to try to endure?

The answer one expects might be “environmental damage,” but interestingly the “environment” in question does not refer simply to the natural world in which human life operates. Sustainability, emerging as it did out of the “sustainable growth” and “sustainable development” movements, has always referred quite directly to regimes of capital accumulation. So rather, “sustainability” actually concerns itself with damage to the environs of capital, including both the natural and human lifeworlds that its accumulation depends upon.

This is illustrated in the widespread concept of “triple bottom line accounting,” first coined in 1994 by corporate responsibility guru John Elkington, which calls on companies to track their practices, not only in the area of economic sustainability (i.e. profit), but also social and environmental sustainability (the cost to the human and natural worlds respectively). This “triple-bottom line” logic is neatly illustrated in the following diagram, which appears as “Figure 1” of an essay titled “A Call for Sustainable Development” by Thomas N. Gladwin, a prominent business professor at the University of Michigan.[5]Thomas N. Gladwin, “A Call for Sustainable Development,” Fathom: The Source for Online Learning,” , 2002, p.2.

This image, which powerfully crystallizes the litany of damage to which “sustainability” refers, produces a perfect and frightful symmetry between the injuries inflicted upon “nature” and humanity. Even as soil erodes, fish stocks collapse, and forests disappear, so too do families disintegrate, acts of political violence accelerate, famine, homelessness, and disease increase. The reason why this chart represents global “unsustainability” is the unstated yet implicit assumption that these continuously re-inflicted wounds have become excessive, and may soon become too much for either nature or humanity to bear.

However, Gladwin is neither an environmental scientist nor a sociologist, but a business professor. His article’s principal goal is to indicate the relevance of these conditions for “those engaged in global business.” To be fair, Gladwin makes a strong ethical appeal, asking his readers to care about the severity of this dual crisis for its own sake, on the grounds of the intrinsic value (or sacredness) of natural and human life. But inevitably, the appeal turns also to that other kind of value, the one signified by the exchange-value of natural and human life as mediated by the money-form.

Implicit in Gladwin’s discussion is the presumption that business and investment practices are not in and of themselves unsustainable, (and that) there is no necessary contradiction between capital accumulation and social and natural well-being. Indeed, what Gladwin urges us to do is to create a new kind of capitalism that recognizes the long-term unprofitability of depleting nature and humanity, and can find an alternative to doing so. What persuades Gladwin that this is possible? Unlike James O’Connor, Gladwin does not believe that individual capitalists will lose out to their competitors if they increase their costs in order to reduce the amount of social and natural damage their business inflicts.  “Sustainable” businesses are not less competitive. On the contrary, he makes exactly the opposite assumption that they will be more competitive. Why? Precisely because he does not see nature and humanity as conditions of production, but rather as forms of capital. As he puts it, “a sustainable society lives off the ‘income’ generated from its stock of capital, not by depleting these.”[6]Gladwin, p.4.

We can therefore evaluate the long-term potential profitability of “manufactured capital” (tools, technology, stocks of producer and consumer goods) according to their “consequences” for a list of four other types of (“non-manufactured”) ecological, material, human, and social capital.

Since, like manufactured capital, these types also produce revenue streams, a society organized economically so that its companies invest in these four types of capital will necessarily make more money and be more profitable than one that squanders and destroys them. By demonstrating to the public that such “natural capitalism” is more profitable than the old economy, green corporations can lead the rest of us toward a sustainable future.

This deeply flawed argument represents an act of wish-fulfillment on several levels. It presupposes the two following dubious ideas: 1) that when a capitalist reduces the natural and social damage inflicted by his production practices (polluted water, clear-cut forests, expropriated communities, loss of civil rights, broken families), there is actually a gain in capital, and 2) that if there were such a gain, the individual capitalist would be its beneficiary as opposed to anyone else (such as his competitors).

Let us consider each of these in turn. The only reason that one would assume that reduced social and natural damage yields capital is because one has already decided to describe humanity and nature as forms of capital.  But in what sense is this true?  Although Gladwin claims to have abandoned “the conventional neo-classical assumption of near-perfect substitution for different types of capital,” he in fact subscribes to the most basic neo-classical assumption of all, that capital is simply anything that helps you generate monetary income. In fact, while a production process may require many different kind of inputs (raw materials, machinery, labor, infrastructure), capital is best understood as the store of value that confronts the laborer in a production process that is bent on producing even more value. In other words, capital is necessarily either money or the means of production that money has bought, and even then, these things only become capital if they are put in motion in order to generate profit.

The salmon in the river, the oil reserves under the ground, the knowledge in my head, the communication infrastructure in my town, are at first not even money. They are, initially, natural or social phenomena, things that perhaps belong to other kinds of systems (ecological systems, systems of knowledge). From a human viewpoint, they are usually also forms of wealth (that is to say, they are useful to us). They can also be made part of production processes to which they are indispensable. But it is only if they are bought (treated as commodities) to be made inputs in a capitalist production process, that they interact for the first time with capital. The money for which they are exchanged could indeed become capital at this point. But at no point are they themselves capital because in no sense are they self-expanding forms of value.  Fish may breed more fish (though oil will not breed more oil), but outside of a production process they cannot play a part in the accumulation of capital. To call them “capital” is therefore to engage in an obfuscating metaphor. While it is true that capital is accumulated through production processes that absolutely depend upon natural and social elements, those elements are not therefore themselves capital. Rather, they must be “mixed” with capital in order to breed more capital. Gladwin clearly thinks that, by preserving more of nature and society, we create a larger income stream for ourselves in the future. But this is a strange argument for someone who claims to have emphatically rejected the neoclassical doctrine that these alleged kinds of “capital” can be easily substituted for one another. If the fish stock that we save will yield an income stream in the future (natural capital converting to money capital), then presumably we will also be able to replace the depletion of any particular natural capital with money capital. Either they are convertible, or they are not. One cannot say that they are not convertible for “unsustainable” companies, but convertible for the “sustainable” ones. The real problem here is that Gladwin is calling nature and society a form of capital when it is convenient for imagining the future profitability of green capitalism, but identifying nature and society as radically different from capital to the extent that he needs to criticize the damage to people and the planet (as opposed to profit).

Ultimately, the sustainability discourse that I have been critiquing needs to be understood as a certain version of neoliberalism. It might initially seem very strange to refer to advocates of “sustainability” in this way, and without doubt what I am suggesting is that neoliberalism is a much broader political phenomenon than has been previously acknowledged. We need to account for what might be described as neoliberalism’s “progressive” wing. There are several strong reasons for interpreting the sustainability movement in this way: its conversion of humanity and nature into capital, its goal of creating a “market-based solution” to capitalism’s destructiveness, and its emphasis on the discourse of responsibility.

The turn to the language of “capital” for talking about both nature and humanity should be read for the important work that it performs. Perhaps the most obvious place to start is to see how committed “sustainability” is to market-based solutions for the dual forms of environmental damage. On this assumption, there is no longer any need to require a non-economic agent, like the state, to step in and regulate the effects of capital accumulation on social and natural life. It is a very common argument that the state’s strong role in Keynesian-Fordist capitalism derived from the assumption that the unregulated market has pernicious social effects (low wages, hazardous work conditions, degraded health and education) which government must seek to counteract by extracting taxes from capital and providing the services and protection that it would avoid paying for if it could. “Sustainability” is therefore noticeably post-Fordist in its insistence that the market itself offers the solution to its own problems.

One of the signature features of neoliberalism, according to Michel Foucault in his recently published lectures The Birth of Biopolitics, is that it fundamentally changes the meaning of market society and its principal subject, homo economicus, from one modeled on the act of exchange (the producer who trades a good with another producer) to one that is instead defined by the act of competition (the entrepreneurial subject who seeks to corner a market). Understood in this way, “sustainability” names an almost paradigmatically neoliberal project whenever it takes the form of an enterprise that makes itself competitive in the marketplace by prudently investing in its store of natural and social capital. As Foucault also notes, neoliberal economic thought insistently converts the traditional category of labor into one of human or social capital. From the viewpoint of the worker, according to neoliberal arguments, work is actually a means of improving yourself, acquiring capacities that promise an “earnings stream” for the future.[7]Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979, Graham Burchell (trans.), New York, Palgrave McMillan 2008, p. 223-224. 

In this sense, neoliberalism also returns to the idea of the moral economy because personal responsibility is a key concept for the accumulation (as opposed to the squandering) of one’s own human capital.

It isn’t hard to see that “sustainability” extends this principal to the social level, demanding that we invest in both the “human capital” of the population and the “natural capital” of a region’s physical resources because, if not wasted and destroyed as they are now, sustainable businesses will provide their society with an invaluable, long term revenue stream. If nature and society endure, in short, our “manufactured capital” can grow in an enduring way too. Not only does the language of “sustainability” ask us to think about “nature” and “humanity” in solely economic terms, but even its narrowly quantitative economic analysis offers no critical perspective from which to consider whether the expansion of money or manufactured “capital” necessitates the exploitation of nature and humanity. Since those latter categories are also forms of capital, all we ever need to worry about is whether we are expending them at a rate that is out of sync with our “manufactured capital,” and that therefore simply requires harmonization.

Now, in analyzing how “sustainability” obscures what capitalism actually does to nature and humanity by calling both of them “capital,” I might seem to contradict my earlier assertion that the very definition of “sustainability” alludes to the damage inflicted by capital. The contradiction lies not in my analysis, but in the language of sustainability itself, which points toward the “structural cause” of its own emergence the serious injury that capitalism wreaks on the very social and natural systems upon which it depends, while simultaneously disavowing the identity of its agent. On the contrary, capitalism can save the day, if not by healing the damage, at least by reducing it to a level that can be endured. To put this point another way, “sustainability” discourse functions according to a classically Freudian logic of disavowal: it is a split discourse that, in a single symptomatic gesture, both denies and refers to a painfully traumatic reality.

Psychoanalysis teaches us that disavowal is itself a kind of psychic splitting that serves the purpose of allowing the ego to be preserved in the face of a deeply traumatic reality, one that it can neither ignore nor fully admit. It might seem that the traumatic reality engaged by sustainability would be the injury itself, the mortal wounds inflicted upon the planet and humanity by the ever-expanding process of capital accumulation. In fact, this is a reality to which sustainability readily admits. One need only glance again at the diagram that appears earlier in this essay for confirmation of this. In point of fact, sustainability typically advances a narrative that introduces the damage (the “inconvenient truth” of the narrative’s dark first half) before the moral call to action (launching sustainable practices and natural capitalism) is proposed with the aim of averting crisis and recuperating the future. What sustainability discourse cannot admit, therefore, is the prospect that such injury is a necessary and “sustaining” feature of capital accumulation. What then is the “traumatic reality” that animates sustainability? Not the damage itself, not even the fact that capitalism inflicts this damage. The reality that traumatizes is the desire for capitalism even when faced with what this damage portends. Lurking behind sustainability is the inadmissible reality of our own desire: if forced to choose between the death of capitalism and the planetary and human life as we know them, we might actually choose the latter. Until sustainability discourse traverses this desire, it only abets the very horrors that it alleges to confront.


1 World Commission on Environment and Development, Our Common Future, New York, Oxford University Press, 1987, p. X
4 Ibid.
5 Thomas N. Gladwin, “A Call for Sustainable Development,” Fathom: The Source for Online Learning,” , 2002, p.2.
6 Gladwin, p.4.
7 Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics: Lectures at the College de France 1978-1979, Graham Burchell (trans.), New York, Palgrave McMillan 2008, p. 223-224.

leerom medovoi