Sustainability – the revolution of impossibility

Lately I have been thinking about the transition to a low carbon economy in terms of it being a “sustainability revolution”. Although I am guilty of being slightly lax with my terminology by equating these two concepts, I find it a useful position to think from.

The sustainability revolution, should it come to pass, is comparable in scale to previous revolutions, like the industrial revolution, the green (agricultural) revolution, and the communications/internet revolution. However there is a very important distinction. These past revolutions were not driven by coherent visions of a better future being forced on a world that was reluctant to change. Perhaps visions did exist of how the world would be transformed by these technologies, but the visions were predictions, not blueprints. The revolutions were driven by new technologies and ideas that opened up new opportunities – more often than not, the driver was the potential for profit more than anything else.

So why should sustainability need a vision? Will it not just grow organically, riding on the back of a wave of new opportunities? Unfortunately no. Sustainability is not a revolution of possibility, but of impossibility. It is impossible to continue on our current path for much longer. Climate change, the stretching of natural limits and the availability of non-renewable resources mean that business as usual is no longer an option – one way or another, things are going to change. The sustainability & low carbon transition is driven but what is not possible.

That’s why this revolution, unlike previous ones, needs a coherent and credible vision of a sustainable future as a starting point.

Although if that statement is true, we have already fallen at the first hurdle. There seems to be as many conceptions of sustainability as there advocates. In general, such vision are caught between the pessimism that the world is coming to an end and the optimism of a brighter future. The schizophrenic nature of the debate has contributed to the ambiguous definition of the word “sustainable”, which can mean anything from the happy continuation of the status quo (e.g. “sustainable profits”, “sustainable growth”), to a complete transformation and downsizing of all of our human systems and impacts so that we can live in harmony with the earth.

Is this an impossible contradiction? Is sustainability, then, an impossible revolution, as well as being a revolution of impossibility?

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