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For Earth Day 2022, St Andrew’s College Sustainability Society secretary, Faith Roche investigates the superficiality of the sustainability movement and considers what more can be done.
Happy Earth Day, folks!
This April 22nd you can switch on your green choices for a day, a week or even two. You could ride your bike to work, remember to turn your lights off and feel solidarity with the Earth as you take your reusable bag to Woolies. God, you’re a champion. You might kick back at the end of the day and read a few feel-good articles on the power of the individual. You’ll nod solemnly after reading an article by Rose Davidson in the National Geographic which starts, ‘Our planet is an amazing place, but it needs [your] help to thrive!’.
It’s when reading lines like this that I think, ‘Well, we’re f***ed.’ Anthropocentrism (human-centred point of view) has dominated our societal philosophies to the point that we’ve forgotten that the planet, does not need our help to thrive. It’s quite fine without us. Humans, however, are entirely dependent on it. The thought occurred to me again as I realised that a Guardian headline article spelling out the end of the world as we know it (IPCC report: ‘now or never’ if world is to stave off climate disaster) felt commonplace. It was nothing new. You’d think that a disaster in slow motion would be the easiest to combat, but the environmental crisis has proved otherwise. It’s made even harder by the fact that the disaster is intricately woven into our systems and practices, forming the foundation of our landscape.
Dear reader, if you’re already losing interest, know that this article is not a list of top ten recycling initiatives, a persuasive text on why climate change is real, or a rally against the megacorps. It’s just a list of reasons why I’m sick of talking about sustainability like it’s an add-on feature.
Capitalism has dominated the modern era, and rightfully so. It is an irrefutable element of advanced human existence, to the point where it has become a ‘landscape factor’ of our lives. Despite this, it has undergone adaptation and improvement, much like other models and systems. Over the past 200 years (since its popularisation) capitalism has undergone significant changes, including globalisation brought about by digitalisation; welfare state adaptions like labour unions, the consideration of worker welfare and the post-scarcity rise of service commodities. in the face of rising environmental demands, it is not unreasonable, to expect another amendment to the model.
In our anthropocentric modern society, capitalism is treated as an external entity, something with its own agency. Much like the environment, it is a separate facet to human existence. Humanity has conceptualised isolated spheres of cause and effect for itself, the economy, and the environment, as though these things do not intersect or interdepend – a contradiction that makes these three systems vulnerable.
In this way, there’s a level of instability to capitalism, because it simultaneously damages and depends on the use and transformation of natural conditions. This poses an obvious problem: this contradiction (both damaging and depending) is unsustainable (in the sense that it can’t last).
Economic theory must recognise that:
1. economics only exists in the context of a society, and is therefore a subset of it;
2. humans, though they form social constructs, are first and foremost natural constructs (subsets of the environment); and
3. therefore, society and the economic activity within it are constrained by the natural systems of our planet.
We cannot forget that we exist as a part of the environment. Our homes, cities and selves are all constructions of the natural world. Recognising this instantly dissolves any logic underpinning the dualism between humanity and nature and the isolation of the three systems.
Let me reiterate that all economic activity is constrained by the limits of the natural systems of our planet. Sustainability does not and cannot exist as a bonus feature to your lifestyle, company policy, or industrial process. It must inform our understanding of how the world exists. Herman E. Daly argues that when our current economic system was born, we lived in a ‘full world’. By entirely neglecting the constraints of the biosphere in commercial market calculations, we treat its value as infinite. He now argues that we live in an empty world.
But this isn’t all doom and gloom. Processes that are aware of the limitations (and finite nature) of the biosphere can thrive because constraints prompt innovation.
When I say sustainability, I do not mean recycling your soup cans.
We need a sustainable economy.
A case study of my favourite Texan
Let’s take a step back and talk about what sustainable means. In trying to articulate how frustrated I was about the word ‘sustainability’ (while being acutely aware of how often I use it) and how abstracted from its meaning it had become, I came across this Guardian article: Why the word ‘sustainability’ should be banned. Finally! Someone had said it. The article reads:
The Oxford English Dictionary defines sustainability as “the property of being sustainable”. It also defines “sustainable” as “to be capable of enduring”, which should be enough for us all to want to be sustainable – consider the alternative: “unsustainable”. If any activity is not sustainable, from a single business to an entire economy, it will cease. By definition. A leader who fails to lead a business or country sustainably will bring about its demise. This is not a question of degree. There is no “more sustainable” or “less sustainable”. The only variable is how long the organisation or activity can survive.
In a proposal I wrote to staff members of St Andrew’s earlier this year, I expressed a similar sentiment: Actioning these proposals is not a point of sustainability, but of responsibility.
In other words, move with the land or the land will move you.
Economic theory is not the only thing we need to update; we need to shift the narrative on sustainability. I’m sure when some of you think sustainability, you picture a barefoot hippy (maybe from Noosa, she might be wearing some seashell jewellery and have a crystal collection): this is the type of sustainability that stops at recycling soup cans. We need to revisualise the archetypical greenie (hint: it doesn’t involve communes, or farming your own veggies).
In comes my favourite Texan. Picture a dignified gentleman whom I assume wears his suit to bed, never has a single strand of silver hair out of place and talks to you with respect and efficiency. He recently flew to the States (note that he didn’t sail his way there as to make any significant change you also need to be practical) to meet with the investors of a company for which he has just joined the executive team. In a quick work-break debrief, we discussed the experiences and purposes of his trip. He first spoke of an American hospital undergoing upgrades, where he watched as factory-built bathroom pods were delivered on-site, as a finished product, and then installed by crane on the 15th floor. He then compared this to a typical hospital renovation, where before hiring tradesmen to saw, tile and paint the bathrooms on site, the first thing to-do was to hire a skip-bin.
And then he said: The difference between these two scenarios is this: a handful of woodchips [in each bathroom] must be thrown away, but a roomful of woodchips [in each factory] means you can create a system of circularity.
I interpreted his words to mean this: the narrative up to this point has taught us that the word factory is synonymous with corporate greed and environmental destruction. But a shift is required that permits us to realise that sustainability thrives in a place of scalability. By centralising the by-product of industrial processes (like building entire bathrooms) into a single factory floor, opportunities can be created that didn’t exist previously, and new systems can be added.
Mr Texan continued his analogy and talked about a company that sold their woodchips to a brewing business that charred the chips and distilled them to make whiskey. Circularity complete. This would not have been possible if the wood chips were produced in small batches on separate days by separate on-site tradesmen.
Sometimes, factories are the best place to be sustainable.
A drop in the ocean.
A lot of conversations on sustainability are centred around the dichotomy between individual action versus collective, commercial action. Using carbon emissions as an example of measurement, we can assess the average Australian’s emission per capita, which is a whopping 17 tonnes per person (more than three times the global average), in comparison to the global, overall emission per capita, which is 36.44 billion tonnes. This is a number far too big for our brains to comprehend. Essentially, it means your contribution to the global average is about 0.0000000004%, which, statistically speaking, rounds to zero.
At this point, it would be reasonable to cast your mind back to the Texan and hope that his factories are scaling quick smart, because you won’t be seduced into thinking that your personal virtues, thrifting and abstinence will change the world. Surely getting coffee in a reusable cup is just a feel-good, virtue signalling act to make you feel better about our f***ed world?
And you’re right. It is.
But there is an argument for individual action, in that we ought to stop thinking about our actions inside the scope of direct, individual impact. Actions are a form of communication. When nihilism comes creeping in, I cast my mind to Anne Lappe’s words: every time you spend money [or make a choice], you’re casting a vote for the kind of world you want. I can’t go to the polling booths three times a day, but I can choose to reject one company and support another. Your actions invite others to engage with their values, we must remember that no person is an island, and that we don’t exist in isolation. Compounded action demonstrates that the impact of a small, singular act doesn’t stop at its face value.
But will compound individual action be enough, fast enough?
Yes. The best argument for why individual action matters is this: imagine if the CEO of a megacorporation said his impact didn’t matter.
The power of the individual is not only in your choices, but in your capacity to develop better systems and solutions. Drew’s is a breeding ground for corporate prosperity and future leaders. We will be the CEOs, managing partners, leading strategists, and financial advisors. When I say individual change, I mean that as we go forth into the world, we’ll be the ones committing to improving and changing the way business operates. Systems are already beginning to change (think roomfuls of woodchips), and when we change the systems, we’re changing millions of people’s habits without them even realising.
So, this Earth Day, I’d like you to join me in viewing sustainability as the platform that we launch our lives off. Not as the bonus-feature side game.