Commentary on Sustainability’s Social Responsibilities

As an environmental science major, blogger, and (hopeful) researcher, I am really fortunate to be forced to ponder what sustainability looks like in a variety of contexts. In my last post, I broadly explained how integrity fits into the definition of sustainability and then evaluated a series of cases of sustainable integrity.

Today, I come with a deeper focus on integrity specifically in the social sphere of sustainability. In order to understand where this social sphere originates, we must first understand some basic models of sustainability as a concept and ideal.

In order to execute sustainability’s broad goals of maintaining the lifestyles and natural cycles currently existing in the world, there must be practical support for sustainability. Traditionally, this practical model is known as the three stool model, where sustainability is supported by the three blocks of environment, economy, and society.

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Obtained from wikimedia.com. November 2017. 

This notion is predicated on the idea that a sustainable future is not one simply of preserved environments, but preserved environments that can coexist with existing economic and social realities.

However, I have always struggled to completely conceptualize this notion. How does the environment interact specifically with social systems? What is the defining metric of a functional society, and how do environmental changes impact those metrics? These questions are not new to the environmental discussion. And yet, they so frequently become implicit in scientific and policy analysis that we lose sight of the underlying connections between environment and society- which is just nature and people.

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For this reason, I will seek to think through and ultimately clarify the responsibility, specifically, that sustainability as a movement has on society’s function and fairness.

Because of sustainability’s presence in a variety of societies- be they urban, rural, or somewhere in between- we must analyze the multiple environments in which societies interact, and how the integrity of society is impacted by both successful and flawed attempts of sustainability. 

As usual, let’s begin with our definitions. Within the three stool model of sustainability that I outlined above, there is this idea of ‘society.’ Society, in its most fundamental of descriptions, is the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community. The degree of order of the community relates to the effectiveness of a community to achieve a set of goals. For western society, these goals are arched on capitalist and democratic beliefs (and these beliefs subsequently introduce the notion of the economy being a central element of sustainability).

The specifics of these goals, however, come into question and debate when sustainability is introduced as an aspect of modern living. Historically, societies have not been predicated on the health of the living environment, except in its pertinence to human health. For example, the environments on which ancient cities were built were only considered for agriculture and disaster prevention, which are chiefly related to human health rather than environmental health. Sustainability, however, seeks to define the relevance of the health of the natural world in addition to the health of humans, weighing the two equally. This implicit equality of the natural and human world has never been a factor in the construction of society until now, nuancing the idea of “ordered community.”

Additionally, we must define ‘progressivism,’ which is a fundamental tenet of modern society. In America, progressivism became popular in cities (specifically New York City) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, also (usefully) known as The Progressive Era. The defining aspects of progressivism are its apparent placement of aggregate welfare over individual welfare. Progressives actively placed themselves in uncomfortable situations to discover, explain, and advocate against injustice. Today, progressivism is generally defined as support for or advocacy of social reform. It is important to recognize the broadness of “social reform,” and how each modification of society has ramifications in spheres outside of those intentionally changed. In terms of sustainability, progressivism is held to higher expectations. For each form of ‘progress,’ there must be positive ramifications for the environment, economy, and society simultaneously. Such high standards frequently result in lackluster sustainability efforts, or worse, inaction when sustainable plans do not meet those standards.

We also must define the notion of a ‘greater good,’ which progressivism inherently aims at achieving. The greater good refers to the idea that we as individuals can take actions that benefit a larger body of others. This idea is vague enough so that ‘good’ is left to resonate differently with each individual perceiving ‘good.’ Based on our definition, the greater good can take on a variety of faces, therefore becoming a topic especially interesting in the context of sustainability.

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Obtained from EOS Worldwide Blog. November 2017. 

So now that we have our definitions clarified, let’s take a look at their specific relevance to the integrity of a society in a sustainable context.

First off, the integrity of society rests on the premise that there is sufficient progressivism to guarantee a greater good. In nature, this progressivism exists through the laws that regulate the cycles of the environment. There is no malintent associated with a food web, and different symbiotic capacities between organisms regulate reproduction and ecosystem welfare.

Humans, blessed with rational capacity, cannot rely on these same mechanisms existing in nature. We think. More specifically, we think about what we need and want. In my last introduction to environmental sciences class, my professor summed up this idea:

“Humans always modify their environment to suit their own needs.”

But when has this modification taken into account the concept of a “greater good?” And, more importantly, what have been the ramifications of when these modifications haven’t taken a “greater good” into account?

In order to better understand how human society shapes the environment, and subsequently alters other human life, let’s take a look at some examples sustainability attempts that had both flawed and successful ramifications on society*.

*Here, society is applied to specific geographic locations and groups of people.

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Because sustainability can be measured in a variety of metrics- all of which applying to the three pillars of sustainability – quantifying its success can become subjective. Furthermore, the standards of success of sustainability are much higher because of the complex nature of something fully sustainable. However, there are clear cases of flawed attempts of sustainability that we can analyze to understand what went wrong, and how there was a lack of integrity that contributed to shortcoming.

Urban areas are specifically susceptible to environmental injustice. Although all cities battle with meetings the needs of all demographics, there have been specific cases where claims for sustainability for the “greater good” are actually directed to poorly impact certain groups of people. I recently wrote a case study for my english class about the history of New York City solid waste management and how its evolution targeted and negatively impacted Jewish immigrant populations. Basically, as New York City elites tried to combat the environmental harms of poor sanitation methods, all they really did was redirect garbage and refuse to predominantly Jewish neighborhoods. The results were increased wealth inequality and poor health among Jewish populations, all in the name of “environmental justice” and “pollution reduction.”

This is a clear example of how people were taken advantage of in the name of sustainability. The social responsibilities implicit in the definition of sustainability were breached in the form of negligence on behalf of elites and politicians. It is important to note, however, that solid waste management in New York City was ultimately successful at making New York City much cleaner. But there was a very large cost to this effort, which was the safety of an entire ethnicity of people.

To make matters worse, this historical case of a flawed attempt of sustainability is replicated daily in our modern society. The people of Flint, Michigan, for example, deal with the negligence, and arguably, blatant racism of politicians. Native Americans in Montana are losing land and have no political voice. Los Angeles has several shanty towns of communities of segregated and specific ethnic communities who have systematically lost their assets from “green homes” and gentrification by people who politically support sustainability.

These flawed attempts of sustainability become blurred and sustainability topics because of their social context. In an effort to purify water, protect natural beauty, and create more environmentally friendly neighborhoods, we have isolated and silenced so many people. That is not justice. That is not sustainable. And yet, the social ramifications of these actions are rarely linked to breaches of the integrity of sustainability.

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Obtained from CNBC. November 2017.

But is that the end of the story? Is there no way to completely unite integrity and sustainability in a social context? Holistically, it might never be possible, but there are examples of successful attempts of sustainability that did not unintentionally target or harm society.

 

One of the best examples I can think of is the growth of urban gardens in New York City. Between larger gardens like the Brooklyn Grange and the tiny cooperatives that can be found in ABC town, urban gardens have become normal, and the city offers a variety of resources to support these gardens.

A couple of months ago, I went with a friend to four urban gardens in Manhattan, specifically, to evaluate the success of these gardens for ourselves. We found that, despite the differences in quality of the gardens, no matter the neighborhood, these gardens fostered community and sustainability.

The first garden we visited was definitely run down, and, I admit, was a strong let down. There were glass bottles, dying plants, and generally a misuse of space. However, the land was still allotted for garden use, and quickly my friend and I thought of ways the space could be improved. The fact was that the community itself lost interest in the garden, rather than the garden being disabled by some outside force. There was sufficient independence in the project to recognize the community’s disinterest, and move on.

The second, third, and fourth gardens provided important juxtapositions from the first, completely embodying the concept of a community supported garden. They featured directions for composting, areas for food supply to the people living in the neighborhoods, and education centers for the types of plants and symbiotic relationships being cultivated. New York City’s urban gardens, in all of their different effectiveness levels, prove that sustainability can be successful in a social context. Urban gardens take into account the idea of a “greater good” by applying it to a small population. Each garden is tended to by the people living in the area, and therefore serve the people living in that area. When my friend and I looked through the gardens, we knew they were not designed for the entire island of Manhattan. And yet, their community-designed purpose was still fulfilled, and therefore the integrity was preserved. Furthermore, because of the small-scope nature of these urban gardens, the communities were inclusive, predicated solely on who bought the real estate of those neighborhoods, rather than those part of a specific socio-economic tier.

When sustainability is executed with integrity, society benefits. When actions are taken in the name of sustainability, but are really for personal gain, society does not benefit. The difficulty with carrying out “sustainable goals” is that they exist in a social context that is defined by the variety of interests that frequently come into conflict with one another.

My commentary on sustainability’s social responsibilities is therefore that we need to properly define the “greater good” of interest. Sustainability is by definition progressive. It is by definition trying to solve environmental problems without birthing new ones in the meantime. And yet, it so frequently fails to do so, rendering the societal aspect of sustainability an afterthought.

As members of a nation struggling to achieve sustainability, we need to adapt our methods of modifying our environment. That adaptation requires social awareness, however. We need to ask ourselves questions that seem fundamentally understood, but may not account for all of those involved in the subsequent change. How does renewable energy impact blue collar labor? Are short term environmental devastations socially more acceptable? Who can adapt to the immense social changes necessary to make civilization more environmentally-friendly? More importantly, who can’t? And what is stopping them? How can we create environmental goals that factor the obstacles society must overcome, and how can we evaluate specific obstacles without segregating society?

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All of these questions need to be asked when designing a more sustainable world. All of these questions arise from the notion that society can never be holistically utopian, despite the idealistic definition of sustainability. And all of these questions can be answered with rational approaches to sustainability that compromise environmental improvement with societal stability.

 

Indeed, it is the compromise that we need for the integrity of sustainability. With that compromise we can more properly define “greater good,” and more intentionally execute the purpose of original sustainability goals.

The question is: what is worth being compromised?

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