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What is Sustainable Culture?
Proceedings of debate held as part of The Great Debate Green Phoenix festival programme, 20 August 2010
by Caspar Hewett

What is Sustainable Culture? debate
This opening debate to the Green Phoenix festival programme, chaired by The Great Debate member Jon Bryan, captured well the spirit of the weekend’s proceedings. Each speaker brought a different understanding of the terms of the debate, opinion about the desirability of sustainable culture and approach to the discussion: Clive Lord, a founder member of PEOPLE, (later the Ecology Party, now the Green Party) is a long term environmental political campaigner and author of the 2003 book A Citizens' Income: A Foundation for a Sustainable World; Jonathan Dawson, a sustainability educator, author, story teller and consultant, was recent president of the Global Ecovillage Network and lives in the Findhorn ecovillage; and Alex Hochuli, an MPhil student at the University of Kent at Canterbury, was previously Institute of Ideas web editor and research assistant and is a member of the Battle of Ideas committee.

Clive Lord
Clive Lord made it clear that he sees the topic in political terms, emphasising that, for him, everything has a political angle. For him, politics is an essential element in the move towards sustainability, and politics in the form of the Green Party is a peg on which to hang a culture shift, without which even a Green government would be powerless to act as necessary. His take on sustainable societies was that they have and do exist all over the world, but they are usually dismissed as primitive. He wasn’t interested in defining what sustainable culture consists of, but wanted to take what he sees as a practical stance, arguing that there are lots of things that have got to stop, from the dredging of coral beds to frequent flying. Climate change is a key issue for Lord and he felt that people are not taking it seriously enough – they are not even linking climate change to what has happened in Pakistan recently.

Jonathan Dawson
Jonathan Dawson, as a story teller, preferred to think about the topic in terms of the stories we tell. For him a key problem is that we are caught up in the post-Columbus myth of humanity moving onwards and upwards: the myth of progress. Focusing on the climate change story, which he described as a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions, he said that nothing that happened in Copenhagen (the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference) made sense to him. He felt that we are in a real predicament with climate change and, drawing a parallel with the five stages of grieving (denial, anger, blame, negotiation and acceptance), argued that there was not much acceptance at Copenhagen. Following David Abram’s argument in The Spell of the Sensuous, Dawson thinks we should judge a culture's stories by how well and sustainably they enable us to live on this earth – by this measure our stories in the West are the ones that are clearly unbalanced. He argued that we are in a long descent that will go long beyond our grandchildren, yet our current stories do not lead us to acceptance. Thus we need new stories to tell – and this will be essential in moving towards a sustainable way of life. For Dawson an important element of this will be shedding our existential fear of death. A sustainable culture is thus one in which we relearn our humility and lose our fear of death.

Alex Hochuli
Alex Hochuli took a critical stance on the notion of sustainability, arguing that nothing humanity has ever done was or is sustainable and that limits have to be transcended; as he put it “the stone age didn’t end because we ran out of stones.” He drew attention to the way that material progress is increasingly seen as risky and was keen to counter its “bad rap.” The critics of material growth frequently call on dangers and risks associated with unknown unknowns and argue that we do need some level of development, but only to meet basic needs. For Hochuli this is not good enough. Analysing how we came to this point, he contended that there has been a loss of a sense of agency since the 1980s. It is out of this loss that the cult of sustainability has emerged, creating a new ethic around which public life has become organised. Thus he sees a need to push against the notion of sustainability as he thinks it conservative and dangerous: it is anti-political in that it naturalises social problems, and it is obsessed with the banality of social behaviour. The big problem for those who don’t buy in to this paradigm is that the notion of sustainability is hardly contested – all the political parties sign up to it and it has infiltrated almost every aspect of society.

Hochuli criticised environmentalists for their posturing about being radical – sustainability has been adopted by the elite because it is appealing to them. For him, the pretence that it contains any radical content obscures the real meaning of sustainability – the restraint of ambition. It is an argument to do nothing. Citing energy generation as an example he highlighted the way every energy source is discussed in terms of its problems, fossil fuels produce CO2, nuclear power produces waste which cannot be safely disposed of, wind farms are a blight on the landscape – thus we become frozen. The only conclusion that can ever be drawn from this view of the world is that we should reduce our consumption.

In conclusion Hochuli argued that sustainability is NOT about solving environmental problems. What it does is naturalise problems, closing off possibilities for solving them. For example the whole idea of fuel poverty is nonsense – it is just poverty! The environmentalists transform poverty from a social problem into a natural one. Hochuli is convinced that the idea of sustainable culture does not provide an alternative – rather the obsession with limits and responsibility are a form of madness. What he would like to see would be a return to real politics, which is about solving real social problems.

The chair invited the speakers to respond to each others’ introductory remarks.

Clive Lord picked up on Jonathan Dawson’s idea of a long descent and asked whether it would be a disappointment or something to look forward to. Dawson went for the disappointment, but Lord saw it rather differently – in the early days of the People Party they had a slogan “a recession can be fun” and in a similar way he felt that we should be upbeat about where we are now.

Lord agreed with Hochuli that the notion of sustainability tends to stifle innovation and that this is a problem. He would like to see us stay open to innovation and the growth ethos does encourage innovation, and thus we should be circumspect about dismissing it altogether. That said, he was against using growth as an excuse to avoid the necessary re-think in our ideas and actions if we are to preserve the planet.

In contrast, Dawson felt that innovation was at the heart of a culture of sustainability. He lives in a living lab (an ecovillage) built on the idea of a simpler, decentralized society. He was puzzled by Alex Hochuli’s take on the topic as for him sustainability is all about dynamic equilibrium, something that one cannot accept or reject. He thought Hochuli presented a caricature – Hochuli’s strong reading of Marx and leftists theories created a straw man.

Hochuli argued that his humanist perspective drew him to conclude that only through development can we have conservation. Humans were oppressed by nature in primitive societies and it is only when we created societies of greater abundance that we could afford the luxury of conserving nature. Clive Lord, in contrast, argued that primitive societies did not think of themselves as unhappy until they were exposed to the West.

Jonathan Dawson’s theme of narratives generated some interesting contributions from the floor. One suggestion was that a positive narrative would be that of the local which led to the question of how people could get it into public debate more given that public debate is dominated by existing narratives. One participant picked up on how we need stories, wondering how we can create a story that leads to a solution – for her descent had a negative connotation and so asked, what about a positive story? Another felt that descent was not necessarily negative – downsizing and a simple existence can be a pleasure. A fellow story-teller in the audience suggested a metaphor that put an entirely different slant on the long descent – that of a bicycle. Consumerism could be thought of as the climb up the hill and Dawson’s descent could be the ride downhill – one which could be immensely pleasurable. This is turn gave rise to the question on whether we were still going up the hill or had begun that descent. One contributor argued that it is a descent we are on but that we can’t inspire people unless we present positive ideas.

The Green Party, who were strongly represented in the audience, disagreed entirely with Alex Hochuli. One member argued that his ideas were a recipe for ruin and that the idea of the harsh conditions of nature is nonsense – nature makes life possible. What we are doing is turning the planet from habitable to inhabitable. Hochuli was accused of throwing out of the window all known science (for example entropy). Jonathan Dawson also rejected the idea that humans are oppressed by nature and argued that we need to feel deeply embedded in ecosystems - he thought Hochuli’s denial of limits extraordinary, arguing that we have hit the limits to growth. Clive Lord thought that there is a need for dialogue between those who do and don’t buy into the idea of limits – there should be a sharp debate about whether we are really moving towards sustainability or whether we are seeing a greenwash cover.

One Green Party member argued that the ruling classes were carrying out business as usual and that sustainability does not dominate current discourse. A number of participants picked up on this, pointing out how sustainability informs multiple disciplines today with specific mention of engineering and architecture (both in academia and in practice). Hochuli pointed out that 80% of CEOs say that sustainability is embedded in their practices and that this was not a ‘greenwash’ as some claim, but based on a genuine belief in the idea of sustainability. Another contribution from the Green Party cited Top Gear as an example of how consumerism and waste are still celebrated.

One participant had more sympathy with Alex Hochuli’s approach and described sustainability as a social movement. However Hochuli responded by saying that sustainability is not a social movement, but that there is a culture of sustainability and a culture of limits. He referred back to the Top Gear example, which he described as a funny cultural artefact, but even Richard Hammond says he feels guilty about driving around London and so uses a bicycle.

Jonathan Dawson was looking for common ground, and tried to draw the discussion back to the topic of sustainable culture. He felt that there was a failure to examine power relations in the discussion that was taking place, stating that “we aren’t all in it together.” He agreed that the dominant narrative is sustainability. As a sustainability educator and consultant he found it difficult as people DO buy into the language. The idea that we are part of the solution runs through big business.

Alex Hochuli however was keen to repolarise the debate as he felt the search for common ground obscured real and important differences in understanding and approach. He talked of “rural idiocy” and drudgery and stressed that there were no points of contact between the proponents of sustainability and those with egalitarian tendencies. He was not interested in “sharing out the misery” and would welcome 3 billion more people. He agreed that we are part of nature, but emphasised that we also stand outside it.

Regular The Great Debate contributor Bill Colwell made a plea from the floor to approach sustainability from two directions – from the top down and from the bottom up. He argued that the sustainability paradigm has failed over the last twenty years largely because it has come from above. The Brundtland definition of sustainable development is immaculate but it has not been live up to. He argued that we need to go back to first principles and defend the notion of sustainability but take a fresh look at it.

There were a number of comments from the floor which did not get discussed more widely before the speakers were invited to make their closing remarks: It was noted that primitive and indigenous societies had been used in the discussion in a reductionist way – in fact such societies were neither battered nor oppressed by nature; It was argued that the entire point of being a species is to damage the environment for your own benefit; It was observed that there is much discussion about lifestyle change and yet there is little evidence of real change – for example the food in the shops comes from all over the world – often from places where there are increasing levels of poverty; it was asked whether we should start promising less given that, despite the dominance of the language of sustainability and sustainable development, we still live in a political culture that promises we will be better off next year; and it was pointed out that the rate of population growth is actually falling because women are choosing to have fewer children and that this was happening in places like Bangladesh. One participant argued that there is no future for civilisation or even our existence without taking our scientific knowledge with us – only through that knowledge did we find out what is unsustainable! They also noted that it is important to make a distinction between decentralisation of power and of populations, and asked “do we go out into the biosphere or bring the biosphere into the city?” Decentralisation could simply mean control over our own lives via the freedom to decide what we need for ourselves.

In his closing remarks Clive Lord took exception to Hochuli’s “rural idiocy” comment, arguing that there have been sustainable cultures. He was concerned about the tendency to fight against innovation in principle he had drawn attention to earlier and urged people to fight against it. Referring to Jared Diamond’s work on Easter Island and other ‘primitive’ cultures, he pointed out that what was typical of past human activity was that people moved in to somewhere new and trashed it, resulting in disaster for that population. However, the survivors ended up creating a sustainable way of life – some developing technology but many societies not doing so. He echoed earlier points from the floor, agreeing that people seemingly buy into sustainability but make no changes in their behaviour to go with it.

Jonathan Dawson also agreed that everyone buys into the language of sustainability – there is a widespread recognition that there is a problem but that is as far as it goes. He complained that money systems are completely based on growth, so we cannot have a steady state economy because that would mean collapse. For him, history was a cycle of empires reaching a level of energy use at which they collapse. He saw a recognition of the nature of the problems we face but that little headway was being made in doing anything about it. Citing Rob Hopkins’ of the Transition movement, who showed a peak in fossil fuel supplies, Dawson wondered whether we would see a population crash as fossil use declined. He likened our plight to us being invited, some 250 years ago, to dive into a black pool of crap in which the deeper we go the happier we become – but this did not reflect reality – increases in wealth do not lead to increased feelings of well-being. In conclusion he stated that he does agree with the idea of rural idiocy, but that is not what he would argue for. He thinks we should take the science we have with us. However, he argued that we have reached the limits to growth (for example there is only 20 years of tin left) and that finding new sources of energy would do us no good as would end up eating up the planet even faster!

Alex Hochuli wanted to defend progress, contending that all human history does show a story of continuing progress, resulting in more freedom. He agreed that there are temporary limits but that they are usually transcended. Challenging Dawson’s characterisation of sustainable culture he argued that it is not realistic to have a culture in which we take the science with us and accept the limits to growth – what is being proposed is a society of no culture.

Caspar Hewett, December 2010

The Great Debate in association with
RCE North East Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability Green Phoenix Festival


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© C J M Hewett, 2010