Re: Sustainability (fwd) - from Anthro-L

Patricia Clay (pclay@WHSUN1.WH.WHOI.EDU)
Thu, 9 Jun 1994 10:37:17 -0400

Chris Finlayson writes:
> the ideological foundations of
> sustainability as it is most commonly and rather unreflexively advocated are
> profoundly conservative. Sustainability is an essentially static concept.
> It is about the preservation of the status quo and the prevention of change.
> This seems to contradict one of the very few uncontested claims about the
> social and natural worlds...that they are essentially dynamic and are all
> about change...

Certainly, one of the points I periodically find myself arguing with fishery
managers is an impression that anthropologists only want to preserve
"traditional" behaviors. (Perhaps publicity about efforts to prevent the
physical and cultural genocide of tribal populations contributes to this.) I
assure them that the norm of culture and society is *change*, and that
"traditional" is a value laden and contestable term.

It seems to me that sustainability, though, is not necessarily about being
static. In fact, I would argue that true sustainability necessarily presumes
an ability to adapt to changing circumstances, to maintain (sustain) through
flexibility rather than through tyrannical suppression of change -- which
never works for long, anyway.

This is not to say, of course, that sustainability simply means any system
as it was, is, and becomes. That would be foolish. Rather, I would say that
sustainability implies a system which maintains certain culturally defined
acceptable levels of resource access and use. The precise rules and mechanisms
for how to attain this may change as population levels, new technologies
(and new definitions of "acceptable", perhaps?) etc. are introduced into the
system, but the goal of some minimum (uh oh) quality of life (Basic Needs,
again anyone...) remains the same. The quality of life side of the argument,
incidentally, explains why economic well-being and community maintenance come
into it.

This needs more thinking, but I'll stop here for now.

> I wonder whether the frustrating inability to come to grips with something
> satisfyingly solid behind the word may indicate that this is not a natural
> concept at all but the last futile gasp of the techno-utopian dream of
> instrumental control of the socio-natural dynamic. Eh?

As for this second point, I'm not sure anyone ever claimed it was a
"natural" concept -- unless it somehow relates to carrying capacity and
biological mechanisms which kick in under certain circumstances in certain

That aside, there may be some truth to the idea of control over nature. I
remember hearing Stephen J. Gould argue against another environmental buzzword,
the concept of "stewardship", precisely because it implied human control, and
a right or even duty of humans to exercise that control over "nature" -- as if
we were not part of nature to begin with. Sustainability also involves humans
setting up rules about resource use, and to that extent is similar. However,
I think sustainability also implies a greater degree of working with and as a
part of nature than does stewardship. So, I can't accept Chris Finalyson's
comments as more than partially on the mark in this case.

I will say, though, that the way sustainability and Basic Needs (World Bank
philosophy under McNamara) and "equity" (another hard to define term) and
beliefs about nature are all converging here seems to indicate an underlying
attempt to understand our place in the world and our relationship with the
rest of the ecosystem -- a time honored human activity. Are we all searching
for a new paradigm, perhaps? And does this mean I've just decided to agree
with Chris...? I'll get back to you on that.

Well, having opened up enough cans of worms, I'll sign off for now:)

Trish Clay
Patricia M. Clay NOAA/NMFS/NEFSC
Anthropologist 166 Water Street
National Marine Fisheries Service Woods Hole, MA 02543
Northeast Fisheries Science Center USA voice: 508-548-5123, x 415
fax: 508-548-5124
Favorite quote: "So what do you study? Social behavior of fish?"