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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ikerd

A Colloquy on Deep Sustainability

Updated: Jun 11, 2019

In mid-June, a couple of friends and I invited a small group of thoughtful people to Fairfield, IA for a three-day event we called a Colloquy on Deep Sustainability. A colloquy may be defined as a conversation, a theological dialogue, or a high-level serious discussion. We wanted to participate in a high-level dialogue focused on ideas we had been working on for several years about how best to take the sustainability movement to the “next level.”

Over the past 25 years, sustainability has evolved from an esoteric idea of interest to a small group of ecological intellectuals into a strategic buzzword of government and industry. However, many current sustainability initiatives are little more than “greenwashing.” Even many of the serious advocates of sustainability seem unwilling to go beyond advocating things that are good for the environment only if they improve the economic bottom-line. While such strategies are necessary, they simply are not sufficient to create an equitable society or sustain the future of humanity.

We believe the challenges of sustainability must be addressed at their source – at the deepest levels. We must look beyond the shallow concepts of instrumental sustainability and even deeper than the basic principles of ecology, sociology, and economics. We must challenge the current dominant ways of thinking about how the world works and our place within it. We must explore the philosophical, ethical, and spiritual roots of ecological, social, and economic reality. We refer to this philosophical inquiry as Deep Sustainability.

Fortuitously, Pope Francis’ “encyclical on climate change” was released just prior to the Colloquy. In it, the Pope challenges the biblical reference to human dominion over the earth as justification for the extraction, pollution, and plunder of the other living and non-living things of the earth. The Bible teaches that we humans should “till and keep” the garden of the world, he said: “‘Tilling’ refers to cultivating, plowing or working, while ‘keeping’ means caring, protecting, overseeing and preserving.” He also linked rampant environmental degradation to growing social and economic inequity. He blamed both on the relentless pursuit of economic self-interests inherent in an unrestrained capitalist economy. The Pope’s encyclical provided an authoritative moral framework for our discussion of Deep Sustainability.

In retrospect, I think about half of our group of 20+ participants was ready for the conversations about Deep Sustainability. The rest, to varying degrees, seemed committed to addressing sustainability within the current worldview – or at least were not willing take the risks inherent in challenging the dominant paradigms. Over the past 20+ years, a “culture of sustainability” seems to have emerged that now seems almost as resistant to change as the culture of economic materialism.

This new culture of sustainability has its own set of distinguishing characteristics: Since sustainability is not easily defined, just about anything that improves natural resource efficiency and substitutes renewable for nonrenewable energy passes for sustainability. Some still question whether sustainability is the appropriate word. Some advocates think sustainability is confusing or is not enough. Opponents are offended by the thought of being labeled “unsustainable.” The new culture seems to suggest the sustainability movement can’t “move ahead” unless it can find ways to accommodate all points of view and to avoid being offensive.

The most bothersome aspect of the new culture is its continued reliance on the dominant dogmas of science and economics – which we call scientism and economism. It denies or ignores the existence of purpose and meaning in life. It assumes that few if any will do anything significant for sustainability unless it is to their economic advantage to do so. The decisions made by for-profit corporations are seen the key to success, since corporations control the markets and politics. Consumers must change their buying habits and governments much change public policies to give corporations economic incentive to change. Sustainable producers must find ways to “scale up” so their products become more affordable to consumers.

There is nothing inherently wrong with these ways of thinking, except their growing popularity is not getting us any closer to sustainability. The early environmental and civil rights movements called for moral and ethical changes far deeper than simply responding to market incentives and government subsidies. After their initial success, we seem to have lapsed back into business as usual, expecting people to do no more than pursue their narrow self-interests. As a result, we are faced with growing threats of ecological catastrophe, social revolution, and economic collapse.

There have been many opportunities in the past to “do well by doing good,” and there may be many more in the future. It is necessary that we take advantage of such opportunities as they arise. However, the necessary appears to have become an obstacle to the sufficient.  To create a resilient, regenerative, sustainable economy within a sustainable society we must be willing to do some things for purely moral and ethical reasons – simply because they are the right things to do.

When we do the “right things for the wrong reasons,” we fail to address the root causes of the problems. We treat the symptoms while allowing the disease to grow worse. I believe this is what Pope Francis meant when he called for a “spiritual and cultural awakening to ‘recover depth in life.’” I believe this is what a philosophy of Deep Sustainability ultimately demands of us.

John Ikerd

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