A sustainable world before the end of our world?


Life will not perish! It will begin anew with love; it will start out naked and tiny; it will take root in the wilderness, and to it all that we did and built will mean nothing — our towns and factories, our art, our ideas will all mean nothing, and yet life will not perish!”

Karel Čapek

The possibility of death in the mind of someone living

Many years ago when I was studying Human Ecology in sunny West Yorkshire we learned about Deep Ecology; which sought to place the human species in the wider context of the Earth’s history and its other inhabitants. Viewed via this perspective the infinitesimal instant in the planet’s history in which we have been around is a mere blink of the Earth’s eye, we are newcomers when compared with almost any of our companion species on this planet.

This planetary perspective gave me, as a callow youth, great comfort. I had grown up lucky enough to have the free run of countryside and had always felt an empathy with the eternal changing of the seasons and cycles of life and death. To feel that, in time, my life would conform to these natural cycles felt natural and right and that life on this planet, in whatever form, would persist long after the passing of our species felt equally right.

Of course, with age, the naive bravery of idealistic youth gives way to elements of fear, for ourselves and for the next generation. This warm comfort, whilst I still feel it, is mixed with a desire and hope for the end of our species and civilisation to perhaps be further away in our future than charging ever faster around time’s corner towards us.

Why all this talk of death? Because a subject that seems to be emerging in sustainability circles is that of remaining optimistic in the face of overwhelming odds. The past decade or so has seen massive progress in the acknowledgement of the need for sustainable change by international institutions, visionary businesses and governments, yet the actual practice of modern life is still dreadfully unsustainable.

Given this lag or dissonance between rhetoric and practice, the extent to which sustainability professionals can remain optimistic has been the recent focus of a number of bloggers, activitists and writers.

Some are arguing for optimism, such as Hunter Lovins, and some, such as Osbert Lancaster, calling for a recognition that the possibility of achieving a sustainable world is slipping further from our grasp with every passing day. This latter call for realism makes the point that professional optimism – focussing on sustainable hope for a possible future rather than unsustainable likelihood – is disingenuous at best, and that truly acknowledging the likelihood of failure is a pre-requisite for re-imagining our possible futures.

Such an approach is an interesting one, acknowledging not just the possibility but the likelihood of failure does not come easily to those of us who have dedicated our lives and our hopes to making some contribution to a sustainable world.

Of course, in planetary and universal terms – what we do with our lives matters not one jot…

Eschatalogically speaking – we really are all doomed

Of course, we are, as individuals, societies and likely as a species, all doomed. Death is the inevitable reciprocal of life, so as individuals we have to get our heads around this at some point.

Human history, short though it is planetary terms, has seen the rise and fall of many civilisations and societies- there is, after all, no certainty but more uncertainty.

In a cosmic context, the long term outlook is not too rosy. Eschatology (religious or philosophic studies of the end of the world/ the end of the universe) presents many, many physically certain ends for our planet (e.g. when the sun burns all its hydrogen in about 4.8 billion years) or the slow heat death of the universe (likely to come at a time in the future with so many noughts attached that its best if you just look here).

Is wilfully blind optimism dishonest?

Many people involved in sustainability and CSR are professional optimists, celebrating relative gains in company performance or highlighting the positive possibilities for a sustainable world. Great swathes of the internet are dedicated to CSR and sustainability news sites trumpeting the most minimal changes in the environmental and social impact profiles of companies. They ignore the overwhelming trajectory of our species’ consumption habits and trends and instead try to link these tiny changes to a wider (possible) trend towards different, more sustainable, industrial models.

I have often called myself a (wilfully) blind optimist – an optimist by inclination rather than faith. The trouble with acknowledging that we are all doomed is having to find something to do with the rest of your life – I would rather my life was dedicated to trying to make positive change happen than to spend the rest of my years buying an isolated property on the top of a hill, laying down the tins of soup and long life milk and building a high wall.

OK, we are all doomed, what shall we do now?

Optimism for a sustainable future might be pointless in cosmic terms but then so is pretty much anything when viewed in this light. I would rather feel that I were a soldier in a thousand year war – unlikely to see victory but pretty sure of the rightness of my cause – than give up trying to achieve a sustainable and equitable future.

Of course it is unlikely that we are going to seamlessly achieve the transition of economic, industrial and social models, but the question that we need to ask ourselves is not whether it is logically possible, but whether it is impossibly logical? If we value what we have now then surely it makes no sense not to strive to sustain it.

I believe that, whilst unlikely, a sustainable world remains within our species’ grasp.

There’s a 50/50 chance of achieving a sustainable world, though there’s only a 10 percent chance of that.

(after) Ed Hocken (George Kennedy) in The Naked Gun


This post was originally published (with fewer jokes) in Guardian Sustainable Business on 14/09/2012

One thought on “A sustainable world before the end of our world?

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