Discourses of Sustainability
in Today's Public Sphere
TARLA RAI PETERSON TODD NORTON
At the risk of being essentialist, we ground this chapter in the claim that the tradition of identifying human society and the natural environment as mutually exclusive is the most fundamental challenge facing decision makers—indeed, any stakeholders—who seek sustainability (Agyeman, Bullard, & Evans, 2003; Busch, 1996; Latour, 2004; Leopold, 1949; World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). That is, sustainability can develop only when humans begin to understand themselves as part of, rather than apart from, nature and use this rearticulated relationship to foster Aldo Leopold's (1949) expanding community of ethical responsibility. The concept of sustainable development (SD) was intended to facilitate this integration, but has fallen short (McGoldrick, 1996; T. R. Peterson, 1997). Given the expanding political power of the corporate sector in the twenty-first century, Leopold's expanded community cannot begin to develop without significant contributions from the public, private, and third sectors.
Sustainability is a systemic concept for suggesting how society might enable all beings to meet their needs and express themselves while preserving diversity, both within the human species and beyond it. In this chapter, we define sustainability as the careful nesting of human needs and desires within natural flows and processes of the biosphere so as to improve the quality of human life while conserving the vitality and diversity of the earth. Our definition is drawn largely from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (see Caring for the Earth, 1991). Currently, many corporate practices block attempts toward sustainability by rendering nature a wedge between social elites and the disenfranchised. As it matures, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement may enable a shift toward sustainability by encouraging both scholars and administrators to focus on problems that occur in the “space between” humanity and nature (Latour, 2004), the material and the symbolic (T. R. Peterson, 1997; Pezzullo, 2003a, 2003b), and the subject and object (Bradbury & Lichtenstein, 2000). That is, CSR could motivate critical examination of contemporary relations among individual humans, across human cultures, and between those cultures and the earth. For example, CSR should approach the conundrum created by the modern society's investment in technology that enables control over nature, while simultaneously degrading the earth's capacity to support human life. A responsible business should question the appropriateness of relying on myriad human bodies while simultaneously engaging in activities that objectify those bodies. It would appear that humans and their creatures, including, but not limited to, corporations, function both materially and symbolically and are both subject and object. Sustainable practice cannot afford to ignore these spaces.
Haraway (1991, 1997) argues that “sociotechno-bio bodies” shape our existence into