Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

From 'Sustainable Development' to 'Ecological Civilization': Winning the War for Survival

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

From 'Sustainable Development' to 'Ecological Civilization': Winning the War for Survival

Article excerpt

'Let there be no illusions. Taking effective action to halt massive injury to the earth's environment will require a mobilization of political will, international cooperation and sacrifice unknown except in wartime. Yet humanity is in a war right now, and it is not too draconian to call it a war for survival. It is a war in which all nations must be allies'

Thomas A. Sancton, Time Magazine, 1989


The discourse surrounding efforts to face up to ecological destruction and to avoid a global ecological catastrophe has been dominated by the notion of sustainable development. Of course we want development, but we want this development to be sustainable. What could be more sensible? However, it should be clear to anyone who monitors global ecological destruction and the efforts to avoid it, that these efforts are failing dismally (Kovel, 2007, Ch.1). The struggle for survival is being lost. Could it be because our discourse has been constrained or even crippled by the notion of sustainable development? This is what I will suggest. 'Sustainable development' as a slogan functions to blind people to the gravity of the situation we face and the fundamental transformations in culture, institutions and social, economic and political organization that will be required to create a civilization that augments rather than undermines the life of the ecosystems of which we are part. 'Sustainable development' frames all debates over the environment in such a way that ecological issues are bound to be treated as of secondary importance to corporate profitability and marginalized (Lakoff, 1996; Lakoff, 2004). To inspire humanity to confront and overcome this threat to the future of life, to orient people to understand this crisis in all its complexity, to challenge the forces of destruction and to create a new social order, to reframe debates and then to provide the cultural foundations for this new order, requires a new vision of the future. This vision should be utopian in the sense that it does not yet exist, but reveals the contingency of current social order and inspires people to change it. As Paul Ricoeur specified it is a dream that wants to be realized (Ricoeur, 1986, xxi). 'Ecological civilization, I will argue, is such a dream, a dream that wants to be realized. It has the capacity to support the conceptual rethinking required to understand the present, to identify its problems and its potential, and to orient people to create the future. Formulated through an ecological process metaphysics, it has the potential to provide the cultural foundations for a new global civilization (Gare, 2017a).


What is wrong with 'sustainable development'? As Michael Redclift observed thirty years ago in his study of this concept, Sustainable Development: Exploring the Contradictions, 'sustainable development' combines two terms, each of which is problematic, and which are in tension with each other, at least as currently understood (Redclift, 1987). 'Sustainable' implies a possibility of 'holding out, at least for the time being, until relief is available. It could mean that we should not give up hope yet, and perhaps offer support for the sustainable situation. More optimistically, it implies the possibility of holding out indefinitely, although one might expect this to be based on considerable hardship. To say that one's situation in life is sustainable is to invite pity. It is not a term we associated with much hope, at least for that which is sustainable, although it could be the condition for something else. If I have an illness, for instance, my condition might be sustainable until I can finish what I have been working on. Development, could be applied to a number of situations, and generally implies an improvement of whatever it is that is developing, although not always. I could develop my understanding of someone; however in the process of doing this I might develop an intense dislike of this person. …

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