How an obscure Austrian philosopher saw through our empty rhetoric about ‘sustainability’

5 07 2017

Hot Mess

Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

“Sustainability” is, ironically, a growth industry. Ever since the term “sustainable development” burst onto the scene in 1987 with the release of Our Common Future (also known as the Brundtland report), there has been a dizzying increase in rhetoric about humanity’s relationship with our planet’s resources. Glossy reports – often featuring blonde children in front of solar panels or wind turbines – abound, and are slapped down on desks as proof of responsibility and stewardship.

Every few years a new term is thrown into the mix – usually preceded by adjectives like “participatory” or “community-led”. The fashionability of “resilience” as a mot du jour seems to have peaked, while more recently the “circular economy” has become the trendy term to put on grant applications, conference notices and journal special editions. Over time journals are established, careers are built, and library shelves groan.

Meanwhile, the planetary “overshoot”, to borrow the title of a terrifying 1980 book, goes on – exemplified by rising concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide, warmer oceans, Arctic melting, and other signs of the times.

With all this ink being spilled (or, more sustainably, electrons being pressed into service), is there anything new to say about sustainability? My colleagues and I think so.

Three of us (lead author Ulrike Ehgartner,
second author Patrick Gould
and myself) recently published an article called “On the obsolescence of human beings in sustainable development”.

In it we explore the big questions of sustainability, drawing on some of the work of an unjustly obscure Austrian political philosopher called Gunther Anders.

Who was Günther Anders?

He was born Günther Siegmund Stern in 1902. While he was working as a journalist in Berlin, an editor wanted to reduce the number of Jewish-sounding bylines. Stern plumped for “Anders” (meaning “other” or “different”) and used that nom de plume for the rest of his life.

Anders knew lots of the big philosophical names of the day. He studied under Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. He was briefly married to Hannah Arendt, and Walter Benjamin was a cousin.

But despite his stellar list of friends and family, Anders himself was not well known. Harold Marcuse points out that the name “Stern” was pretty apt, writing:

His unsparingly critical pessimism may explain why his pathbreaking works have seldom sparked sustained public discussion.

While Hiroshima and the nuclear threat were the most obvious influences on Anders’ writing, he was also crucially influenced by the events at Auschwitz, the Vietnam War, and his periods in exile in France and the United States. But why should we care, and how can his ideas be applied to modern-day ideas about sustainability?

Space precludes a blow-by-blow account of what my colleagues and I wrote, but two ideas are worth exploring: the “Promethean gap” and “apocalyptic blindness”.

Anders suggested that the societal changes wrought by the industrial age – chief among them the division of labour – opened a gap between individuals’ capability to produce machines, and their capability to imagine and deal with the consequences.

So, riffing on the Greek myth of Prometheus (the chap who stole fire from Mount Olympus and gave it to humans), Anders proposed the existence of a “Promethean gap” which manifests in academic and scientific thinking and leads to the extensive trivialisation of societal issues.

The second idea is that of “apocalyptic blindness” – which is, according to Anders, the mindset of humans in the Age of the Third Industrial Revolution. This, as we write in our paper:

…determines a notion of time and future that renders human beings incapable of facing the possibility of a bad end to their history. The belief in progress, persistently ingrained since the Industrial Revolution, causes the incapability of humans to understand that their existence is threatened, and that this could lead to the end of their history.

Put simply, we don’t want to look an apocalypse in the eye, even if it’s heading straight towards us.

The climate connection

“So what?” you might ask. Why listen to yet another obscure philosopher railing about technology, in the vein of Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul? But I think a passing knowledge of Anders and his work reminds us of several important things.

This is nothing new. Recently, the very notion of ‘progress’ has come under renewed assault, with books questioning our assumptions about it. This is not new of course – in a 1967 short story collection about life at the United Nations, Shirley Hazzard had written:

About this development process there appeared to be no half-measures: once a country had admitted its backwardness, it could hope for no quarter in the matter of improvement. It could not accept a box of pills without accepting, in principle, an atomic reactor. Progress was a draught that must be drained to the last bitter drop.

The time – if ever there was one – for tinkering around the edges is over. We need to take stronger action than simply pursuing our feelgood preoccupation with sustainability.

This begs the question of who is supposed to shift us from the current course (or rather, multiple collision courses. That’s a difficult one to answer.

The hope that techno-fixes (including 100% renewable energy) will sort out our problems is a dangerous delusion (please note, I’m not against 100% renewables – I’m just saying that green energy is “necessary but not sufficient” for repairing the planet).

Similarly, the “circular economy” has a rather circular feeling to it – in the sense that we’ve seen all this before. It seems (to me anyway) to be the last gasp of the “ecological modernist” belief that with a bit more efficiency, everything can simply keep on progressing.

The ConversationOur problems go far deeper. We are going to need a rapid and fundamental shift in our values, habits, behaviours, and outlooks. Put in Anders’ terms, we need to stop being blind to the possibility of apocalypse. But then again, people have been saying that for a century or more.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.





Choosing between our economy and our future

12 02 2015

Christiane Kliemann

A guest post from Christiane Kliemann who writes on postgrowth, alternative economy and societal change. She is a member of the Degrowth 2014 team

The new year has just begun and we’re already inundated with horrible news: two new reports have collected further evidence that human economic activity puts life on Earth at risk, and another shocked us with the fact that the 85 richest people on the planet are as wealthy as the poorest 50% – and that the gap between them is still widening. Not to mention the brutal attack on the Charlie Hebdo office, the ongoing wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine and the devastating situation of refugees.

At the same time, a lot of effort is being spent to reassure us that economic growth and a capitalist economy are essential for solving what some call the “crisis of civilization”.

Growth is the perennial buzzword of the World Economic Forum – and this year is no exception. Delegates keep assuring us that their own profitability is vital for safeguarding humanity, while we ordinary people go about our day-to-day lives: we happily drive our cars, book flights to our next holiday destination and raise our children as we’ve always done.

It seems that we are in collective denial about the threatening implications of reality. We still trust in the old narratives that growth and competition are good, that technology and experts will fix it and that capitalism is history’s ultimate victor.

Not only ecological limits and growing social inequality, but also the increasing violence of fundamentalists of all sorts indicates that it is high time for a new economic and social narrative. An economy that is essentially based on competition will always perpetuate violence and hatred.

Wanted: new economic narratives

Before a new narrative – degrowth, for example – can gain ground, we have to accept that there are only radical options left. We have to choose between our economy and our future.

Even now, degrowth is already appealing to a growing number of people, as last year’s Fourth International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity in Leipzig proved.

It embraces many aspects that are common to a rising number of social and ecological grassroots-initiatives around the globe:

  • Integrating social and ecological issues instead of playing them off against each other
  • Replacing economic growth with a holistic idea of wellbeing
  • Turning away from resource-intensive production and industrial agriculture
  • Claiming more democratic participation and co-creation
  • Preferring small and decentralized solutions with short feedback-loops, re-localization of economic cycles and decentralization
  • Prioritizing sufficiency and resilience
  • Creating resilient livelihoods instead of unstable jobs in fragile globalized supply chains

In circles closer to the mainstream, I have personally observed that criticizing the dependence on economic growth and calling for a social-ecological transformation of the economy is welcomed by many.

Doubts and reluctance stem from the widespread perception that transforming the system is unrealistic, given the powerful interests of the elites.

Ordinary people feel subject to, rather than masters of, their circumstances.

In order for the vision of a degrowth society to become broadly accepted as a realistic option, we need to agree on the following points:

  • Growth and climate stability are incompatible
  • Continuous growth does not increase prosperity
  • Growth will soon come to an end anyway
  • After a certain point, the ecological and social price paid for keeping up growth becomes unacceptable
  • Growth and Western consumption patterns are increasingly resented in the Southern Hemisphere
  • The “trickle down” effect has been proven wrong
  • There is no such thing as “green growth
  • Degrowth does not only mean less, but differently, i.e. meeting everyone’s needs more sustainably and equitably with fewer resources
  • Degrowth is not against innovative technologies, but requires them to be administered democratically and “convivially” based on the precautionary principle

It is high time to shape a broad social movement

Despite what corporate interest groups say, we can all understand that a good life does not require ever more traffic, bigger houses, and greater quantities of waste. We cannot square the benefits of “more stuff” when it threatens our ecosystem and coincides with extreme poverty in some parts of the planet.

A good life requires long-term security in meeting everyone’s basic needs: food, shelter, affection, leisure, protection, understanding, health, participation, creation and freedom. All of these requirements are dependent on a healthy planet.

If we take our oft-cited Western values seriously, there is no doubt that we have to change our ways and ensure that our values come before any corporate or private profit.

It is high time to shape a broad social movement that pressures governments and businesses to help adjust consumption and production habits to allow the good life for everyone. We want cooperation instead of competition, common instead of corporate interest, solidarity instead of greed, strong social relationships instead of meaningless consumption, mindful resource stewardship instead of extractivism and compassion instead of indifference. We demand less traffic, fewer mega-projects and more community-based policy.

It is high time to take our future in our own hands and to realize that our current economy is part of the problem and cannot be part of the solution.

Originally published in the Guardian.