Published: Cary Siress, ‘Sustaining What? The Discourse of Sustainability in Need of Re-invention’, Re-inventing Construction, (Berlin: Ruby Press, 2010) pp. 433-437. ISBN 978-3981343625
Out of the Loop The Discourse of Sustainability in need of Re-invention Cary Siress
Sustainability is the newly ascendant global policy issue of the 21st century. There is hardly a discipline or discourse today that is unresponsive to the cause of meeting present needs without compromising that very capacity for future generations. A reflexive loop is cast. Such an appeal serves to round up —in current terms and under one cause— not only our present, along with all that now exists, but also non-existent trajectories of space and time, including all that should come. The sustainability of the present is plotted in terms of some other condition to be, with the way our world is presently constructed held up against one that is better. As clearly circuitous as all of this might seem, we seldom ask why, but quietly assume that the future, by definitional promise of a hereafter, must somehow be better when measured out relative to the moment at hand. Appropriately, and given the rather gloomy diagnosis of our current predicament, the urgency accorded to translating our current way of life into one that can be sustained is fast becoming a bona fide planetary injunction on ways and means, including those that remain to be devised. The mandate of sustainability is therefore predominantly staged as unequivocal panacea for an admittedly daunting range of political, environmental, and social ills that only threaten to escalate with the worldwide advance of urbanization. Yet, despite the gravity it sanctions, sustainability is continuously plagued by programmatic ambiguity from any perspective considered. Who decides? Who enacts? Who benefits? For its part in the debate, the city itself tends to confound rather than clarify matters given that it is frequently bashed and backed simultaneously, cast as both scapegoat and stakeholder. That is, the city is presented as both the main source of environmental degradation and as vital resource for alleviating this condition. Those prone to dystopian views most often render cities indiscriminately as the chief perpetrator in placing unsustainable burdens on the environment, often forgetting the long history of vilifying the city that, while perhaps initiating necessary reforms in the past, also served in the end to reinforce then existing power interests governing urban society. Yet, such anti-urban bias is met by equally brazen calls at home and abroad for
more urbanity at all costs insofar as the city manifests not only the most accepted world emblem of all that is modern, but also stages the most lucrative density of channels for capital. But the loop does not stop here. In many a forum, there is a strong lobby for consensus among key players who promote cities as indispensable to further specifying the provisions of a green turn in urban practice and policy alike, whereas others argue just as passionately that the drive for consensus is ironically the source of ambiguity in the first place. Besides, agreement, it is pointed out, more often than not only caters to narrow partisan agendas of those served by going green. From another corner, we are reminded that seeking world consensus on what is green amounts to no more than Western shorthand for obliging the rest of the planet to accept our view of what counts as sustainable, and usually, to pay a high price for doing so. Such disputes are only intensified by uncertainty concerning how the twin conventions of progress and growth might, if at all, be reconciled with the now obvious imperative for moderating the inflated footprint of human civilization. Add this seemingly implausible balancing act to that of trying to formulate a core set of directives for sustainable development —still an oxymoron in its own right—and it is no wonder that, although compelling as a motive for altering our shared means and ends, sustainability remains a blurred project at best. How could it be otherwise? For no prototype of the finished outcome exists. We already inhabit a thoroughly constructed world. So, there is nothing out there that we can point to as a pure standard of ‘green’ that would ground a collectively sustainable way of life for everything existing today. There is not even a blueprint for what will be collected in realizing said goal, or for that matter, what will be discarded in the process. And if we were ever to accomplish such a task of collection, would all that is gathered be assembled in one or several compositions? But with such queries, we inevitably loop the loop to come upon that familiar bank of the circle once again. Who decides? Who enacts? Who benefits? You would think that having rehearsed such questions over and over in so many guises, we might first take the time to collect ourselves, so to speak, and consider turning that finger back toward us and wonder if we have not been looking (or pointing) in the wrong direction for the answer all along, namely, somewhere ‘out there’, be it to the Future, the Past, Nature, or where you will. Such an about face turn might trip up our path along the closed loop of sustainability debates, stirring us to begin thinking our constructed environments, if not ourselves, out of servitude to a monolithic Outside. Even if wagered long after the forums have convened, better late than never! Are we not tired of technological disenchantment and being forever distanced by a lifeless techné that makes us less human? Have we not been alienated long enough from that
proverbial promised land lost to a time now gone? And, especially today, how much more mileage can we really expect to get from the divide that allegedly privileges us from the rest of the natural, non-human world when it is, after all, the world that we are trying to sustain? Can it be that sustainability, however worthy as a cause, intrinsically boils down to no more than sustaining our disenchantment, alienation, loss, lack, or any other deficit that deprives the human condition? If so, then sustainability as injunction serves to expatriate the majority of our lifeworld by decree of worn out habit, and everything comprising that world on which we now depend for survival. It should be clear by now that repeated petitions to an outside become more of a hindrance than an aid to assembling an environmental politics of constructed worlds —one that would draw on our shared condition for insight rather than withdraw from it— in that such petitions foreclose questions in advance which are necessarily collective, and thus political in the broadest sense. When we call out to a primal Nature, for example, this realm is often already held in timeless reserve, making it, in effect, irrelevant and thus unaccountable to decision-making in real time and space. Said realms are locked away as sacrosanct rather than dealt with opportunistically in their construction as such. The project becomes less blurry. Decidedly cut off from the Past, we contemporaries like to think we are impotent when faced, for example, with ‘Natural Laws’ even as we proceed to consult Nature in endless debate loops about our Future, only to exclude it again from the negotiating table. Were we to venture from this fateful circuit, however, perhaps we would risk letting go of our external grounds, those appeals to something beyond us that either categorically promises salvation or threatens extinction, yet in any case remains immune to negotiation or dispute. Still in the loop, we must nevertheless face an annoying question: if the global cause of sustainability does not boil down to a hushed inferiority complex about our world standing, then why are we not calling out to our constructed environments for key terms and conditions of becoming credibly and equitably sustainable? We have built them, so why can they not in turn inform us with their amassed material and metabolic résumés? In varying degrees of success, our constructed environments sustain us, so why can they not be afforded a more authoritative stake in the green deals made on their behalf? We survive by artifice, so why should nature not be tested more assertively for its competence as constructive equal along with those other more recognizable, more ‘human’ technologies of production when devising how to construct our way back inside to a sustainable coexistence with everything else on the planet? Of course, this would call for a controversial overhaul of how we view nature, to take just one
example. Imagine the scorn or amusement at the very premise that, in place of an eternal static backdrop to human evolution, the myriad collection of environments we attempt to round up with the term ‘Nature’ have in fact co-produced our civilization and have co-developed with it. But dispute about the terms of our coexistence is what sustainability is all about, no? And with the world rightly opened to debate, would it not follow that nature is as much co-product of our civilization as its constructs are of nature? This would mean that such qualifying terms as natural and artificial can no longer be so easily separated from each other in form or content when re-composing ourselves and surroundings, nor can such qualifications be conveniently distinguished by inherent differences in value according to some moral or divine pecking order. Moreover, if the natural and the artificial cannot be separated, then neither can the social and technical challenges we face in the collectively political project of constructing sustainable environments. For such challenges are wicked problems themselves. They cannot be reduced to singular criterion or values and thus, stun in its tracks again and again any categorical approach aimed at solving them. Indeed, when the environment itself becomes a project, the politics of its collection, assembly, and construction are necessarily hybrid by constitution, inseparably natural, technical, social, material, and so forth. But such an overhaul cannot stop with nature or any other transcendent figure, as this would only revise that nether side of a divide which remains a black hole for sustainability debates. How we view our built environments will also have to be revamped. This will entail first and foremost diverting more of the time and money spent on speculating about what constitutes a good or green city in abstraction, to understanding what the city is and has become in our time. To mine the city would require an ongoing analysis of forces, processes, behaviors, associations, materials, and any other compound agent generated in, and modified by, the entanglement of heterogeneous environments, including us. To mine the city would be to track translations across different spatial and temporal scales that work to sustain, if only provisionally, the tightly coupled natural-social-technological arrangements that make up our constructed world. To mine the city would be to recognize that cities are already the most prolific test-bed we have devised thus far to collectively engineer artifice in order to survive. Of course, such a stance would leave little room for the hubris of radical breaks, utopian no-places devoid of any resources to sustain them, or the view from a distance of expert systems, and so on. Instead, sustainability would finally have to refer to a view from somewhere on earth, and the means of life would have to become more tangible as a matter of concern for all. Sustainability, in other words, would pertain to a situated cosmology that hinges on sustaining being and being sustained as collective project by warding off the outside. When faced with such wicked
problems, it is imperative to know where you stand, for their solution hinges on first understanding the problems themselves. But if the grass still seems greener on the other side, perhaps it is only because of our continued reluctance to get out of the loop.