The Dark Side of Sustainability


Curtis White’s essay in the new Tin House, “A Good Without Light,” contemplates the dark side of sustainability. In a word, he argues that sustainability, as a philosophy, is a desperate and perhaps futile attempt to figure out how the status quo can be preserved without significantly altering our society.

White argues that our capitalist industrial technocracy, underpinned by an arrogant scientism, has led us into this mess and is incapable of leading us out; that we must look beyond this economic system, and draw from other “systems of value” (religion, the arts, even social science, and I’d add secular philosophy to his list) to find a way out; and that we can do this without necessarily discarding all of capitalism, industry, technology, or science.

[Y]ou would be mistaken if you assumed that the point of sustainability was to change our ways. It’s not, really. The great unspoken assumption of the sustainability movement is the idea that although the economic, political, and social systems that have produced our current environmental calamity are bad, they do not need to be entirely replaced. In fact, the point of sustainability often seems to be to preserve — not overthrow — the economic and social status quo.

This should not be surprising. Sustainability is, after all, a mainstream response to environmental crisis. It may want change, but it does not want what would amount to a fundamental self-confrontation. While it wants to modify existing models of production and consumption, especially of energy, it does not want to abandon what it calls “freedom,” especially the freedom to own and use large accumulations of private property. And certainly it does not want to ask, “What went wrong in the great Western experiment with freedom? Why do we seem to be mostly free to destroy ourselves?

What no one is allowed to consider is the distressing possibility that no amount of tinkering and changing and greening and teaching the kindergartners to plant trees and recycle Dad’s beer cans will ever really matter if our assumptions about what it means to be prosperous, what it means to be “developed,” what it means to live in “progress,” and what it means to be “free” remain what they have been for the last four hundred years under the ever-growing weight of capitalist markets and capitalist social relations… But such a line of thought is not tolerated because the very word “capitalism” … is a fighting word. (Or, worse, it is a sort of faux pas to speak of “capitalism” at all; you’d be better off saying “the economy,” just as if you were a slave asked to refer to your master as your employment counselor.) Unfortunately, in banishing this word we eliminate from the conversation the very thing we came together to discuss. We can talk about our plans to save the world, but we can’t talk about the economic system that put it in jeopardy in the first place. That’s off the table.

White structures his essay around a metaphor, the Barbaric Heart, which he uses to explore the equation of selfish violence with virtue. For more on that idea, you might check out a post here that touches on that subject, The Ultimate Gateway Drug to Life on the Right; also related is our post on Douglas Rushkoff and his book, Life, Inc.

Jeremy Hatch is a writer, musician, and professional bookseller leading a cheerful, aimless life in San Francisco. He is the Junior Literary Editor of the Rumpus and has a blog which he updates once in a while. More from this author →