By Joshua Headley / Deep Green Resistance New York

“Sustainability” is the buzzword passed around nearly every environmental and social justice circle today. For how often the word is stated, those who use it rarely articulate what it is that they are advocating. And because the term is applied so compulsively, while simultaneously undefined, it renders impossible the ability of our movements to set and actualize goals, let alone assess the strategies and tactics we employ to reach them.

Underneath the surface, sustainability movements have largely become spaces where well-meaning sensibilities are turned into empty gestures and regurgitations of unarticulated ideals out of mere obligation to our identity as “environmentalists” and “activists.” We mention “sustainability” because to not mention it would undermine our legitimacy and work completely. But as destructive as not mentioning the word would be, so too is the lack of defining it.

When we don’t articulate our ideals ourselves we not only allow others to define us but we also give space for destructive premises to continue unchallenged. The veneer of most environmental sustainability movements begins to wither away when we acknowledge that most of its underlying premises essentially mimic the exact forces which we allege opposition.

Infinite Substitutability

The dominant culture currently runs on numerous underlying premises – whether it is the belief in infinite growth and progress, the myth of technological prowess and human superiority, or even the notion that this culture is the most successful, advanced and equitable way of life to ever exist.

These premises often combine to form the basis of an ideological belief in infinite substitutability – when a crisis occurs, our human ingenuity and creativity will always be able to save us by substituting our disintegrating resources and systems with new ones.

And by and large, most of us accept this as truth and never question or oppose the introduction of new technologies/resources in our lives. We never question whom these technologies/resources actually benefit or what their material affects may be. Often, we never question why we need new technologies/resources and we never think about what problems they purport to solve or, more accurately, conceal entirely.

A big barrier to getting to these questions is the fact that most of us identify with this process even despite the fact that it is causing our own dispossession. A high-energy/high-technology culture has produced a multi-generational dependence on the ability of this culture to “progress” from one technology/resource to another, from one crisis to another. Without this continual process, our culture and entire way of living in the world today would imminently collapse and be unable to exist.

Isn’t the very presence of this culture a testament to this ideology? What is the progress of civilization but the (forced) substitution of other cultures for this one? A substitution of biological and cultural diversity for assimilation into a monoculture?

The path of progress is the path of infinitely substituting cultures, technologies, resources, and entire species and ecosystems for the maintenance of one specific way of life, for one specific species – humans. In only a few hundred years, industrial civilization has circled the globe and systematically destroyed the very fabric of life that ushered it into existence in the first place.

Entire peoples, languages, cultures, histories, stories, artifacts, medicines, tools, relationships, species, and ecosystems have been conquered, destroyed, and erased to give space and priority to a monoculture of violence, exploitation, domination and endless growth – all under the assumption that this is, progressively, the best that we can do as intelligent human beings.

Here we understand how this culture and its ruling classes pursue the principle of infinite substitutability for the purposes of “sustainability.” To sustain our standard of living, to sustain progress and growth, and to sustain the industrial economy. The principle is based on the premise that if we allocate our current resources towards the research and development of alternatives, we can solve all problems relating to shortages in energy and raw materials, infinitely – there is no limit to human ingenuity and creativity to problem solve.

A major problem of this principle though, despite its title, is that it is actually difficult to apply indefinitely. As discussed in Joseph Tainter’s The Collapse of Complex Societies, the marginal costs of research and development have grown so high it is questionable whether technological innovation will be able to contribute as much to the solution of future problems as it has to past ones.

“Consider, for example, what will be needed to solve problems of food and pollution. Meadows and her colleagues note that to increase world food production by 34 percent from 1951 to 1966 required increases in expenditures on tractors of 63 percent, on nitrate fertilizers of 146 percent, and on pesticides of 300 percent. The next 34 percent increase in food production would require even greater capital and resources inputs. Pollution control shows a similar pattern. Removal of all organic wastes from a sugar-processing plant cost 100 times more than removing 30 percent. Reducing sulfur dioxide in the air of a U.S. city by 9.6 times, or of particulates by 3.1 times, raises the cost of control by 520 times.” [1]

And for the most part, we already see this within the fossil fuel industry itself. Since 2005, global production of conventional oil and gas has plateaued – and has even begun to decrease in many parts of the world. This has forced the industry to substitute conventional methods of oil and gas production for extremely destructive “unconventional” methods, which have not only significantly increased the amount of expenditures required for production but has also increased its environmental risks and impacts.

We have to drill deeper and deeper for harder-to-reach resources, which are also dirtier and less desirable than their predecessors, requiring more and more processing and development in order for the final product to be sold on the market and used in our daily lives. The costs, economically and ecologically, are skyrocketing and the returns on these investments are marginally lower than their conventional counterparts. Eventually, it will not be economically feasible to pursue these resources either and more expenditures will be devoted to researching and developing yet another alternative at even higher cost and lower benefit.

It’s a vicious cycle that is turning the entire living world into dead commodities, and because it is based on a principle of infinite substitutability, it will never end unless we force it to stop.

Definite Sustainability

The principle of infinite substitutability permeates through our entire culture, beyond its usage by the ruling classes and fossil fuel industry. In fact, by analyzing the currently proposed alternatives discussed throughout the sustainability movement, we see that they are equally bound by the same logic – either subconsciously or consciously.

A typical conversation regarding a sustainable future will generally be backed by a few overarching premises: (1) our current society is inherently unsustainable; (2) we have the resources and technology to research and develop alternatives; and (3) renewable energies such as solar and wind power can provide enough energy to sustain current standards of living. Often, none of these premises are expounded upon, let alone critically assessed or challenged.

To even begin discussing sustainability in any definite, concrete way, we need to be clear with that we mean. Industries and governments routinely explain that the actions they take are concrete steps towards sustainability. But do we actually believe them? It’s obvious that the only thing they genuinely wish to sustain is their power.

So what does “sustainability” mean in the context of an environmental movement?

We quickly recognize that our current society is inherently unsustainable on the obvious reality that our society, in its quest for infinite growth on a finite planet, simply cannot last forever and is currently rapidly drawing down on the Earth’s capacity to support future generations of life.

From this conclusion, a useful definition of sustainability might be a way of life characterized by the conscious recognition of limits in such a way as to “minimize damage to the planets future ability to support not only ourselves and our posterity, but also other species upon whose coexistence we may be more dependent than we have yet learned to recognize.” [2]

In this definition, the goal of sustainability is not to figure out how to maintain current structures and ways of living into the future, but instead the goal is to figure out how to maintain the possibility of life for multiple future generations to come.  These are two distinct definitions with divergent implications and goals.

When our movement is based on a premise that we have the resources and technology to research and develop alternatives, we are essentially distracting ourselves from the real problems. This premise, left unchallenged, supports the idea that simply substituting dwindling, outdated and destructive resources for more equitable, beneficial and progressive resources (e.g. solar and wind) can solve the current ecological crisis outright. At face value, it’s hard to see how this premise differs from the fossil fuel industry and the principle of infinite substitutability.

Right now, the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) for nearly all “renewable” energies is significantly low compared to fossil fuels, even lower than most unconventional extraction processes such as deep-water drilling, hydraulic fracturing, mountaintop removal, and tar sands oil production. The industry can be expected to continue these practices until they become economically unfeasible or until the EROEI of these sources drops below that of “renewable” energies, a process we can see developing as some multinational corporations are already incentivizing this transition.

If we reduce our goals of sustainability to a substitution problem, and follow with a premise that renewable energies can provide enough energy to sustain current standards of living, we uncritically accept the idea that our current standards of living are acceptable and ideal for the future. Not only does this completely erase the history of violence that gives grounding to this way of living but also it ultimately suggests that this violence should continue in order to elevate the rest of the world to these standards.

We must fundamentally ask ourselves: are we trying to sustain our high-energy/high-technology standards of living (which are undoubtedly destroying the planet), or are we trying to sustain the ability of this planet to be conducive to all life?

The point here isn’t to state that we shouldn’t be looking for alternatives or working to build them, but that we should be careful not to fall into the logic of the dominant culture we allege to oppose. When our solutions begin to sound nearly identical to the solutions proposed by the ruling classes, we ought to be concerned. Perhaps the solution is not rooted in the substitutions of technologies/resources for others, but rather in the complete abandonment of these technologies/resources.

Will we find, as have some past societies, that the cost of overcoming our problems is too high relative to the benefits conferred? Will we find that not solving the technology/resource problem of our high standards of living is the most economical and just option?


[1] Tainter, Joseph. The Collapse of Complex Societies, pg. 212

[2] Catton Jr., William. Destructive Momentum: Could An Enlightened Environmental Movement Overcome it?

BREAKDOWN is a biweekly column by Joshua Headley, a writer and activist in New York City, exploring the intricacies of collapse and the inadequacy of prevalent ideologies, strategies, and solutions to the problems of industrial civilization.