Why Sustainability is Not a Value

The concept of “sustainability” comes from forestry and refers primarily to resource management. The forest should be used in such a way that it can continue to be used for a long period of time. To cut down all the trees, something that has happened many times already in history with catastrophic consequences, would not be sustainable. 

In ecology, the concept of sustainability refers to the relations of human beings to their natural environment, that is, to the “ecosystem”. What is important in this context is the stability of the ecosystem, which should not be endangered by reckless exploitation of resources. This definition of sustainability is based in systems theory. An organism is a closed system that should interact with its enviornment in such a way that it can remain viable and ensure its survival. The implication, much as in forestry, is that the resources in the environment which the organism needs in order to live are to be used  in such a way that they are not depleted. The environment must remain the stabile and not change too much. Otherwise, the viablity of the organism is threatened. Here again, the emphasis is on stabililty and preventing changes. Whether an organism intends to act in such a way that the einvironment remains stabile, or does so by accident, or doesn’t do it all and eventually dies off is another matter. To say that sustainability is a value and a norm means that the environment should not change, or that it is somehow “wrong” to change the environment or even to let the environment be changed by other factors than one’s own actions. The value that sustainabilty signifies is stability. To act sustainably is therefore to do everything one can in order to ensure that the ecosystem remains stabile and does not change.

The systems theoretical concept of sustainability overlooks that evolution itself is not sustainable or based on sustainability. On the contrary, only when the environment changes does it become possible and necessary for organisms to “adapt” to these changes. In reality, the environment is always constandly changing and has been doing this since time began. This is how natural selection works. The environemt changes, and this new environment “selects” those organisms that functoin within it. Those that don’t die off. Natural selection depends upon unsustainability. Evolution is only possible when things change and are not stable. Organisms come into being and disappear as enviornments change. No natural environment is sustainable, at least, not from the perspective of those organisms who do not “adapt” to it. From the perspective of those who do adapt and are temporarily vialbe, everything is fine and everything should stay as it is. Sustainability is only a value from the perspective of a certain organism who is sucessfully adatped to a certain environment. Sustainablity is therefore an egositic value. Sustainablity is not a “natural” imperative. Nature never wanted sustainability or was ever able to realize it. An ecosystem could only be considered “balanced” by forgetting that all those who couldn’t walk the tight-rope have already fallen off.

Sustainability is a questionable value. Nervertheless, everywhere there are calls for sustainable living, sustainable building, sustainable production, sustainable agriculture, etc. Sustainability seems to be an undisputed and omnipresent value in our society. Expecially in the time when ecological problems have taken center stage on a world-wide scale, it would seem irresponsible, perhaps even madness, to call sustainablity into question. Nonetheless, we cannot turn the clock back to undo what has been done. We can only do more in order to ensure that whatever changes we make in the world ecosystem do not needlessly restrict the viability of any form of life. This means that if we ask what is good for the whole world then the answer is change and not stability. When it comes to change, basing ecology on systems theory is not helpful. Even to speak of an “ecosystem is misleading and dangerous, since systems necessarily strive for stability. Systems don’t like change. If we look around for a form of order that likes change and even thrives on it, then it would be networks and not systems. Perhaps we should stop speaking of ecosystems and start talking about “eco-networks.” Networks are inherently flexible, scalable, unbounded, and open to many different participants and many different goals. Ecology is actually a network science and not a system science. The values implied in networks are different from those implied in systems. For networks, change is a value and stability is not a value, but a problem, since it hinders the growth, proliferation, and transformation of networks. If we are move in the direction of geoengineering, as we must in order to deal with the climate problem, then we should start thinking about the world, Gaia, not as a system, but as a network.