If you were worried that the term “sustainability” was becoming irrelevant, those fears are unfounded. With some success, far-right activists have this spring managed to turn it into an inflammatory word that conjures fears of world government, lost freedoms, and economic decline. Depressingly, even the Republican National Committee is paying at least lip-service to this conspiracy theory. The argument may seem laughably paranoid, but it’s not a good idea to ignore this negative branding of a concept that undergirds critical thinking about nature, society, and our economies.
A raft of so-called “anti-sustainability” bills have been introduced in various state legislatures. These bills tie sustainability to a moss-covered, 20-year old United Nations document called Agenda 21. Agenda 21 is one of those aspirational, entirely voluntary initiatives that global institutions like the UN are known for. It calls for international action and cooperation to achieve poverty reduction and environmental protection. It also suggests the developed world’s resource consumption can cause environmental degradation in the developing world. All of which is beside the point. The point of the bills is to suggest that the sustainability agenda is a creation of the UN designed to undermine individual freedoms.
Consider Arizona bill SB 1507, approved by the state’s House. The bill stipulated that "Arizona and all political subdivisions of this state shall not adopt or implement the creed, doctrine, principles or any tenet" of the UN declaration. In addition to Arizona, seven other state legislatures have considered similar legislation in recent months. That several of these bills have already failed is cold comfort. Even in failure, the Arizona bill managed to energize a range of constituencies and generated extensive media coverage. A state legislator’s floor speech referred to the “occult of sustainability.” Another representative told MSNBC that Agenda 21 “will take away our rights as Americans by allowing the United Nations to mandate laws on our soil.”
The fact that you’ve (probably) never heard of Agenda 21, or that it’s 20 years old and governments aren’t exactly falling over themselves to implement its aspirations puts the “threat” in perspective. But again, that’s not the point. The point is to promote the meme that sustainability = global socialism.
I personally welcome less frequent use of the word “sustainability”. The word is vague, too all encompassing, and screams liberal intelligentsia. It’s not totally empty, but its value is limited, and it’s easy to co-opt. Try to go a whole week without using the word at all. You can do it! It’s better to talk about how nature is a source of wealth. The wealth comes in the form of goods and services (clean air and water, protection against disasters and disease) that benefit businesses, households, and communities. We can also talk about how nature is like a bank account: we can live off the interest – so the account grows – or we can eat into the principal and watch the account dwindle. Those are core sustainability concepts. They are also hard to argue with or re-frame.
Pro-environment voices should also squarely face deep suspicions of government and other institutions. That starts with acknowledging institutional failures, waste, and stupidity. The more environmentalists engage with “good government” movements, the easier it will be to build trust and undermine paranoia. After all, the sustainability agenda is hardly radical: all we’re trying to do is improve our economic and social well-being by acknowledging its dependence on ecological wealth.