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Sustainability and the future: reflections on the ethical and political significance of sustainability

Sustainability and the future: reflections on the ethical and political significance of... Historically, concepts of sustainability have been articulated in response to a perceived crisis within modernist narratives about progress. As such, they are not just environmental concepts, but ethical and political ones. At the same time, they have often been accused of being too wedded to many of the same assumptions as these central narratives of modernity, and indeed inviting the hubristic mistakes of modernity to be resurrected in the form of pretentions to global stewardship or ‘managing the planet’. I respond to some recent critiques of key conceptual elements encountered within sustainability narratives by articulating an approach to imagining sustainability that draws on D. W. Winnicott’s concept of the ‘holding environment’, and which acknowledges the otherness of the future and of nature, while also affirming responsibilities towards both. Keywords Sustainability · Futures · Alterity · Care · Attachment Introduction specific weight, mediated by a rethinking of the relationship between humanity and nature that challenges many now- Ulrich Beck identifies a political project that he calls cosmo- traditional modernist narratives of material human progress. politanism as the only legitimate response to a political and Yet how far does this bring nature as such into our ethics social condition in which human flourishing and suffering is and politics, and under what framing? Does the concept of bound up with human caused risks that affect both humans sustainability enter onto the scene at the cost of misrecognis- themselves and the non-human world. Cosmopolitanism, he ing the otherness of nature, that is, of framing nature solely proposes, is primarily ‘a radical rediscovery and acknowl- in terms of its instrumental value for humans? This concern edgement of the other’, and, inter alia, of ‘the otherness of is mirrored by a similar concern about how sustainability the future’ and ‘the otherness of nature’ (Beck 2005, 285). frames the future in ways that still remain within the limi- Beck identifies here two barriers to, but also opportunities tations of modernist ways of thinking, in which the future for, imagining sustainability as a political and ethical ori- is imagined solely in terms of the continuation of present entation. How, as part of our conceptual construction of projects, which are then projected into the future in a way responsibilities and of political action, do we acknowledge that colonises future possibilities. (pay heed to, take care of, represent, recognise) the otherness An important distinction can be made here between two of nature and of the future? ways of orienting thought and action towards the future, The link between concern for the future and concern for between the future-for-the-present and the present-for-the- the earth is at the heart of sustainability thinking. In sustain- future (Adam and Groves 2007). The easiest way to under- ability thinking, a sense that the future matters takes on a stand the idea of the future-for-the-present is through the example of future discounting, in which economic calcula- tions are based on an assumed discount rate which ensures Handled by Anne-Katrin Holfelder, Institute for Advanced that the value of future benefits and costs is progressively Sustainability Studies, Germany. reduced, such that it appears to make economic sense to * Christopher Groves seek to realise the benefits of a decision as soon as pos- Grovesc1@cf.ac.uk sible, and to push costs further into the future for others to bear. A central question about the relationship between School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK Vol.:(0123456789) 1 3 Sustainability Science sustainability and futurity, then, is to what extent sustainabil- what is valorised is the survival of what is valued in and for ity thinking—as well as being potentially instrumental and, the present. The future—and nature—are defined through therefore, anthropocentric—is also present-centric. Perhaps and for the present. not in the same way as future-discounting is, but more in the Alternatively, concern for the future or for the natural way that its emphasis on preservation and/or conservation world may be expressed through a different temporal fram- privileges present evaluations of why non-human entities ing, the present-for-the-future. In some texts the future is and systems matter over the emergence of future ones. There imagined through an apocalyptic lens that is meant to moti- may, therefore, appear to be a tension between concepts of vate reflection upon values, practices and social structures sustainability on the one hand, and Beck’s vision of, cos- which are currently held to be ‘naturalised’—thus opening mopolitanism, if sustainability does indeed orient human up space for trying to conceive of how these accepted ele- agency towards nature as primarily a stock of resources that ments might change. The future is no longer defined for the must be preserved, and in addition towards dominant val- present; instead, the present is questioned for the future. ues in the present as a measure of what may matter to the Some suggest, however, that the limits of ethical concern future. The very idea of sustainability may, therefore, be here are once again ultimately limited to human survival: ethically and politically suspect. First, because it may pre- the addressee of apocalyptic narratives remains, it is argued, maturely curtail attempts to understand why nature matters the individual human subject, politically privileged by pre- (in itself as well as for us), and second because it may fail sent political rationalities, whose continuity must be assured to acknowledge how the recognition of whose values matter (Fagan 2017). now is shaped by power inequalities, before then consolidat- In this paper, I map out some aspects of the historical ing these inequalities by calling for the ongoing conservation emergence of these distinct ways of framing the future of present values for the future. and nature, and show how they relate to each other as spe- In particular, concern for the future is often translated cific ways of enacting a temporal relation between present, into the language of posterity, evoked by images of chil- past and future. I argue that these positions tend to rest on dren. The scientific, ethical and political uncertainties implicit misrepresentations of the relation between self and which circulate around arguments about sustainability may other and, therefore, between human subjects and nature. thus be domesticated through entreaties to extend what is At the same time, recent critiques of the alleged anthropo- essentially parental care to future people, as expressed in centrism of these positions (such as those made by Fagan) the statement that one only borrows the earth from one’s commit, I suggest, errors of their own. They tend to afford children. However, such images have particular political ethical privilege to an unknowable otherness (Beck’s abso- significance, insofar as they frame concern for the future in lute otherness of the future or nature) that, in its sublimity, a form that privileges the perspective of heterosexual par- cannot provide any concrete basis for orienting thought or ents as the sole legitimate one (Johns-Putra 2017), and thus action. As an alternative to both these dominant ways of make it harder to publicly represent other possible framings understanding sustainability and to critiques thereof, I sug- of future-oriented concern, particularly in a present where gest that a genealogy of concern for the future and for nature political cultures are commonly structured by heterosex- that draws on phenomenological, development-psychologi- ism and other forms of oppression (Seymour 2013). Such cal and feminist traditions of thinking about attachment and framings domesticate the otherness of the future, easing the care can provide a distinct basis for thinking about sustain- ‘terror of sublime infinity’ (Johns-Putra 2017, 2) stimulated ability. It allows the otherness of nature and of the future by its vastness and unknowability. At the same time, the into the sphere of concern as necessary ingredients of any intermediate object of care here—nature, conceived of as concernful engagement with the world, without at the same that fundamental ground on which posterity will continue to time positing either as purely other, as pure, unknowable depend—is also domesticated and drawn out of its unknowa- alterity. bility into a frame of concern that filters care through the image of imagined descendants (de Shalit 1995). Domesti- cation threatens to cross into instrumentalization, however. Progress and modernity: the future If nature is conceived of as that which sustains us—or our for the present children and their children—does this not mean that we will (given the limits on our attention and practical capabilities) Nature conceived of as a free input into socially-organ- only care for whatever in nature we can currently identify ised production processes formed what Marshall Berman as useful? Similarly, if we translate future-oriented concern represents as the modern ‘Faustian’ view of nature, as into concern for our posterity, are we not reducing the scope raw material for ceaseless human development (Berman of our supposedly cosmopolitan concern to what ‘we’ now 1983). This characteristically modern prometheanism is consider to be important for ‘our’ children? In either case, also reflected in more avowedly political and utopian ideas 1 3 Sustainability Science of an open future (Adam and Groves 2007), which centre Futures for the present versus presents on secularised promises of continually refounding com- for the future: conceptualising sustainability munity around a vision of a better world. A new ethical and political concern with the future, with ending the past The emergence of discourses of sustainable development and instituting something new and unheard of in its place and environmental management can be understood against has been invoked as a defining modern mode of tempo- this backdrop. While ideas of sustainable resource man- rality, in intellectual history (Schneewind 1984) but also agement have a long pedigree reaching back to the 19th in sociology (Giddens 1999). Modernity is thus seen as and even 18th centuries (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016), it unique because of its orientation towards the future, rather was arguably in this period that ‘the Environment’ as a than towards the past. This periodisation simultaneously whole became a new object of bureaucratic management constructs and excludes from the community of modernity (Cooper 1992), objectified and drawn into the purview of (Osborne 1995) other communities, such as the medieval the administrative state just as earlier the social had been. and the ancient, on the basis of their divergent past-ori- The knowledge practices of ecologists, zoologists, bota- ented or cyclical temporalities. nists and others became enrolled within this governance This modernist construction of the future is dependent project, to standardize knowledge practices for measur- on ideas of the transformability of the world, which repro- ing and comparing impacts of collective human activity duce idealist assumptions about the relationship between upon the natural world. The biophysical world is no longer imagination and material nature (Adam and Groves 2007). simply raw material for human progress, but becomes They draw upon particular historically-contingent knowl- conceived of as a complex entity, still set over against edge practices. Nature becomes gridded by calculative humanity (and thus isolable as an object of management) rationalities, defined as fuel for universal human ascent. but posited as an ensemble of essential support systems With the 19th century growth of the ‘social state’, respon- (Goodland 1995). sible for economic policy but also social policy, progress As environmental impacts are transboundary in nature became increasingly understood in material and, moreover, and occur within complex systems, they point towards the quantitative terms—what might be called the ‘mechanisa- creation of global governance institutions, like the Inter- tion [Technisierung] of the future (Hölscher 1999) along- governmental Panel on Climate Change (Beck 1995). The side the standardisation of nature. Metrics such as popu- more complex and daunting the project of drawing nature lation growth, average life expectancy, or gross domestic into the sphere of governance became, the more the need product (GDP) formed elements around which governance for legibility became urgent. As a result, the need for gov- regimes that enshrine governance by numbers gained legit- ernance by numbers became ever more central to establish- imacy. As states increasingly took responsibility for the ing a politics of the environment. Parts per million of C O , health and education of their citizens, the legibility and, the Simpson and Shannon indices of biodiversity (Spell- moreover, the standardisation of their territories become erberg and Fedor 2003), and the nine planetary bounda- more important. Qualitative differences between settle- ries (Rockström et al. 2009) became means through which ments and regions had to be rendered recordable, com- sustainability policies were articulated and justified. The parable and commensurable in terms of universal metrics institutions that characterise modernity, and the practices (Scott 1998). The contribution of industry and technologi- associated with them, have been said to have thus under- cal innovation to ensuring material betterment also gradu- gone a ‘reflexive’ moment (In Beck’s terms), striving to ally became more important. contain modernity’s own unintended consequences. Expectations of material improvement in quality of life reached a head in the period after WWII within industrial- ised nations. At the same time, however, earlier challenges Management narratives (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016) to the hegemony of concep- tions of material progress were being repeated. Concerns Taking the future into account, and orienting oneself about the unforeseen and unwanted consequences of tech- towards it as a central element in determining what one nological and economic development and particularly should do, is part of both progress narratives and what their impact both on the biosphere and non-industrialised we might call reflexive ‘conservation’ narratives. In each nations were widely voiced. Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) case, the moral weight accorded to the future is articu- and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1973) report lated in different ways, but in each case, the non-human both had significant cultural impact. The experiences of world (configured as ‘natural capital’ or more recently as people of colour and other groups living near polluting ‘ecosystem services’) becomes the fulcrum around which infrastructure were articulated through movements for this weight turns. Robert Solow responded to the moment environmental justice (Schlosberg and Carruthers 2010). 1 3 Sustainability Science of reflexive modernisation by defending the accumula- Valuing ecosystems in this way can be seen, however, tion of capital as the best way of ensuring that future gen- as still part of commodification, with the effective pricing erations inherited enough resources to fulfil their needs. of nature extending property rights further over it, rather Importantly, he argued that capital here could include than curtailing such developments. The commodification natural resources, financial resources but also technologi- of nature translates relationships of one kind (sui generis cal resources substituted for natural ones (Solow 1974). complex interdependence between non-human and also In other words, the development of technology should be human entities) into exchange value, with one arbitrarily seen as a way of providing additional resources that may demarcated ‘service’ treated as being effectively substitut- replace and even improve on natural ones in some cases able for any other in economic terms (Gómez-Baggethun (Northcott 2013). Such views are accompanied by an esti- and Ruiz-Pérez 2011). Conservation narratives have thus mate of the social discount rate that should be applied to been interpreted as modulating, but not ultimately restrain- expected costs and benefits of policies, given the assump- ing the drive to treat nature as an inert input. And even if tion that people in the future will be better off (thanks to economic valuation is just one input into a broader, more continued material progress). Complementary views are qualitative valuation, some object that this still defines the also expressed by some proponents of conservation, where value of nature predominantly through the lens of human conservation is seen as the preservation of natural capital interests. Nature is only made to matter insofar as it materi- for the benefit of people now and in the future (Pinchot ally supports the survival of our descendants. Elements of 1998, 76–77). natural systems that appear to have no material value for our Bryan G. Norton has named the animating spirit of own survival do not matter. such responses the ‘Grand Simplification’ (Norton 2005), Even if we shift from a Faustian to a managerial view of in which all potential future outcomes are both rendered nature, we thus remain caught within a set of social relations down into material amenable to one metric (measurement through which the meaning of nature is framed (Bookchin of capital) and weighed against the primacy of present 1980). Even if questions regarding responsibility shift focus interests. Continuation of current trends towards material to include the non-human world, sustainability remains a growth is seen as both natural and desirable, but this sim- human-centred concept, concerning the conservation of ply enshrines present pattern of consumption as unques- what we believe matters to our survival. As Fagan puts it, tionable so long as the future is like the present, but more the future is ‘occupied by the projection of the present’. The so, characterised by ever-increasing levels of economic future is extrapolated from what we know of the past (data, activity (Fioramonti 2013). The move Solow recommends trends) and present (interests). From modernist progress therefore projects futures from the perspective of the pre- narratives to sustainable management narratives, the future sent, based on the continuation of past trends and the pres- remains framed for the present—a present future (Adam and ervation of present interests. As Fagan (2017, 232) puts it, Groves 2007). such positions bring the future into the present only insofar as they ensure that the ‘future is instead occupied by the Apocalyptic narratives: revelation and judgement projection of the present and so is not futural [i.e. not other] at all’. Other attempts to present a managerial solu- The emergence of management narratives was also coeval tion to the unintended consequences of narratives of pro- with the emergence of more radical narratives regarding our gress run into similar difficulties, even if they are explicitly relationship to nature—and to the future. While both these critical of the kinds of position defended by Solow. kinds of narratives had historical antecedents (Bonneuil and More recent (and contested, as we shall see in the next Fressoz 2016), something novel about their late 20th cen- section) conservation narratives often seek to preserve tury forms was the conditions in which they emerged, a cul- what formerly may have been defined as natural capital tural moment of what I called earlier (after Beck) reflexivity by identifying productive powers of non-human nature towards the fundamental assumptions that underlie moder- that have economic value insofar as they contribute to nity. More radical narratives recognise within this moment a human wellbeing, a value which can be (speculatively) deeper crisis, and accordingly alter their orientation towards totalled in order to achieve a degree of considerability for the future and towards nature. nature (Costanza et al. 1997). In this way, it is hoped that Often, such narratives take on an apocalyptic form, planning futures could incorporate economic relation- employing prophetic language bolstered by scientific data on ships within a broader context of productive relationships potential destructive trajectories of socio-technical and bio- that sustain natural systems, rather than enforcing the physical change. Futures that disrupt or completely erase the separation between inert non-human nature and a human possibility of modernist progress are imagined. Biospheri- economy geared to material progress measured in terms cal collapse due to runaway climate change, biodiversity of financial value productivity. loss through species extinction, human population growth 1 3 Sustainability Science beyond supportable levels and other worst case scenarios are But in either case, straining to represent the present for the projected. Further, they typically embody the other central future, as responsible to the future, can be seen as returning, meaning of apocalyptic narrative, that of judgement as well once again, to representing the future as a continuation of as revelation (Northcott 2013). Dystopian future presents are the present by other means. constructed in the form of scenarios to shine a light on what Fagan (2017) argues that apocalyptic narratives neces- is wrong with the present, mirroring in the process some sarily fall short of recognising the otherness of the future trends in science fiction literature. and the significance this has for any ethical and political Stories such as John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up (1977) discourse of futurity in the present. The problem, she sug- describe near-futures in which a variety of rebound effects gests, is that any concrete normative guidance in the face of combine with social inequalities to degrade or destroy an uncertain future must inevitably reflect the constitution human civilisation. Such narratives limn what might appear of the ‘subject who is projected to inhabit this future’ (239), to be fundamental flaws in the relationship between humans and thus reflect also the conditions under which the subject and nature. The meaning of the present is here defined is produced in the present. Instead of hurriedly providing through future possibilities, not the other way around. Sci- new normative guidelines in the face of impending poten- ence fiction has been interpreted as reflecting aspects of the tial anthropogenic disaster, an appropriate alternative stance present, but also employing the estranging device of some would, in Derrida’s words quoted by Fagan, be to ‘let the novum (typically technological innovation) that enables cer- future have a future’ (239), and open ‘a space for respon- tain aspects of the familiar world to be reflected in a future sive engagement’ (238) with it. Insofar as there is an ethics mirror, revealing unacknowledged truths about the present involved here, it would be one which can be identified (fol- (Kitchin and Kneale 2001). Deep ecology echoes such narra- lowing Zygmunt Bauman) in ‘an ethics of self-limitation’. tives by prophetically articulating revelation and judgement This minimal normativity of humility in face of the future derived from the future as a call to lay bare and overcome (which mirrors the language of deep ecology) would thus culturally-embedded habits of mind in a ‘substantial reori- avoid the risk she sees as implicit in any attempt to codify entation of our whole civilisation’ (Naess 1990, 45). ethically and/or politically responsibilities to the future of A new ethics is then called for, to replace the anthropo- ‘erasing [the future] altogether’ (239). Uncertainty, she pro- centric orientations of contemporary societies with biocen- poses, will thus become the material for ethics, rather than tric egalitarianism, positioning humans as ‘plain citizens’ of a barrier to it. nature (Watson 1983). From this perspective, life itself in its multiplicitous expressions has intrinsic value, and no form of life (including humans) can be assigned superior moral Reconstructing sustainability: value, no matter what capacities it possesses. The human the non‑human world as constitutive power to transform the world does not in itself grant humans of a ‘holding environment’ any right to do so. What does mark humans as special is their ability to perturb the webs of mutual interdependence that One of the positions Fagan indicts with the charge of ‘nul- constitute the biosphere, creating destructive consequences lifying alterity’ by projecting the future into the present is that also eventually rebound back upon them. Humans the one I set out in Groves (2014), which explores how phe- therefore require nothing less than a cultural revolution in nomenological, developmental-psychological and feminist consciousness, one which promotes humility in the face of accounts of attachment and care can reorient discussions nature, to avoid destroying themselves and possibly also the about the place of futurity (and sustainability) away from rest of life on Earth. futures-for-the-present. I wish now to revisit this argu- ment in responding to the problem on which this paper has focused—the ways in which sustainability appears to repro- The future (and nature) as wholly other duce certain features (anthropocentrism and present-focus) of modernity while also claiming to escape its limitations. The concept of sustainability is the result of a reflexive push Independently, Johns-Putra and Fagan point out how sustain- back from within modernity against modernity itself. Sus- ability discourses respond to the reflexive moment within tainability acknowledges but also tames the threat of apoca- modernity by seeking to reform the culture of modernity lypse, offering the promise of refounding a coming global itself. However, they claim mere reform must necessarily be political community on a renewed narrative of qualitative. inadequate. Fagan (2017) calls instead for an ethics and poli- Things may continue to get better—so long as we are care- tics that acknowledges the radical alterity of the future, and ful. Deeper reformation or even overthrow of present habits, the ways in which imagining the future inevitably reduces practices and institutions is called for by other narratives, as this alterity to a reflection of the present, even if straining in stories of apocalypse or the perspectives of deep ecology. towards imagining the present for the future. In rehearsing 1 3 Sustainability Science here some key aspects of arguments from Groves (2014) I is dialectical, expressed in the way that attachment objects want to outline what I believe Fagan, and Johns-Putra, get come to matter to the self. The other here is valued by and wrong about the difficulties of bringing futurity and uncer - valuable to the self in a particular way. As attachment object, tainty into ethics, and to suggest why following Beck in pos- the other is constitutive of the self. But it is so only insofar iting the radical alterity of the future as the basis of ethics as it remains other in the sense articulated by Fagan when and politics is a step it is not necessary to take. An alterna- she describe Levinas’ concept of the other ‘completely other tive way of understanding the interdependence of humanity and impervious to my powers of comprehension and control’ and nature that concepts of sustainability try to articulate (Fagan 2009, 7), as ultimately unknowable to the subject can give us a basis for understanding the ethical and politi- and uncontrolled by it, as a source of surprise (Sayer 2011, cal significance of sustainability differently. The concepts of 123). In this sense, an evolving attachment relationship attachment and care are important here, but rehearsing their is structurally similar to that of friendship as analysed by precise connection is important to avoid associating them Aristotle, which embodies a category of value central to the too closely with images of parental relationships, which, as I Greek concept of eudaimonia (‘flourishing’). The other as explicitly argue in Groves (2014, 221–222, n.7), are actually friend is recognised by Aristotle as of constitutive value to inappropriate for understanding the ethical significance of the subject. The other is of constitutive value in this sense futurity and of nature. if its wellbeing is ingredient in the wellbeing of the subject (O’Neill 1993, 23–24). It continues to endure as uncontain- Attachment and care beyond the human sphere ably other within the relation and only insofar as it does so is it valued by the subject. The relation between human subjects and the world expe- It is important to appreciate how attachment enacts rela- rienced as outside, other to, or not reducible to the lived tionality to understand the ethical and political significance experience of the subject cannot be assumed to be a simple, of both futurity and the non-human world. This relationality fixed binary one. Developmental accounts of subjectivity, is asymmetrical, yet also two directional, in a sense I shall and in particular those produced from object-relations and return to in a moment. It also extends further than to human attachment psychology, show how differentiation from but others. The Other as conceived of in Levinas’ philosophy is also identification with the external environment are central a human individual. The radical responsibility not to kill or dialectical elements in the gradual emergence of subjectiv- harm the Other he places at the foundation of ethics is sup- ity. Further, they recognise that physical and psychic vul- posed to undercut the indifference to the other that Levinas nerability, together with interdependence and dependence traces in modern ethics and politics. This, however, already are fundamental aspects of the finitude of human beings—a assumes a certain model of subjectivity (Fagan’s ‘modern human condition (in Hannnah Arendt’s sense) rather than subject’), and in responding to and critiquing such a version a human essence. Vulnerability is physical and psychic, a of subjectivity, it inevitably defines itself partially through dynamic which involves bodies and selves. Attachments to it (Gottlieb 1994). A genealogical and historical account of others—beginning, developmentally speaking, with caregiv- attachment puts us on a different track. If we follow this ers—form the flexible and relational armature within which track, then the isolation and indifference that is often seen subjects are constituted (Groves 2014, 99). For psychologists to characterise the modern subject is shown to be only a of attachment like Winnicott (1991) die ff rentiation and iden - contingent and culturally particular achievement of certain tification are moments which resolve out of affective transac- subjects—for example, as a withdrawal response to attach- tions conducted through a transitional or shared space which ment loss, or to attachments that are felt to imperil the self is neither fully subjective nor objective, but out of which the (Benjamin 1990). meaning of self and other is produced. Attachment connects, from an early developmental stage For infants, good attachments help create ontological onward, places, non-humans, and things (possessing, for stability and security by assisting with the development of Winnicott, the capacity to ‘enchant’ the human world) to emotional regulation, transforming potentially disruptive human subjects. These also become part of the ‘convoy’ of and uncontrollable affect into emotions directed at defined attachments (Antonucci and Akiyama 1994) amidst which objects. Stability and security here do not denote rigidly selves emerge early in life, except of course where such fixed boundaries for the self. Instead, for there to be subjec- attachments are made unavailable—due to displacement, tivity at all there needs to develop an emotionally-contoured violence, or lack of care. Attachments as constitutive val- space—a holding environment—in which affects can be ues establish what might be called an ‘implicit solidarity’ transformed and played with, thus forming the basis of crea- (Groves 2015, 857) between subject and the human but also tive transformation of the world and self, conducted through non-human world, one which means that the subject of good the disruption and remoulding of the boundaries between the attachment is not ‘cast into the world’ as an isolated indi- two. The structure of this dynamic self-other relationship vidual but is instead ‘cradled’ within it (Bachelard 1969, 7), 1 3 Sustainability Science held together by it. Later in the developmental process, other space that is the object of care itself, which keeps the future attachment objects—e.g. practices, institutions and ideals— open (and, therefore, to some extent unknowable). can become important ingredients of the shared space or Attachment and care are not just the connective tissue holding environment of implicit solidarity between self and of ethical life. They also open up a difficult path between world. private and public life, between ethics and politics. Attach- None of these others confront the subject simply as static, ment objects are—implicitly or explicitly—public things, sublime Levinasian other who embodies an infinite—and constitutive of a holding environment that is shared more infinitely terrifying—demand. Care is both disposition and widely and which shape the (not necessarily universally) practice (Engster 2007; Ruddick 1980), a response to the shared commitments through which we enter into political fundamental relationality of the human subject and its atten- life, into a life where public objects of attachment need tend- dant psychic and physical vulnerability that renders itself ing (Honig 2012, 65). Care, in the sense outlined here, is concrete in attentive and respectful taking care of the needs thus not simply a motivational slogan addressed to individu- of the other. But it is also thereby an attempt to sustain the als (pace Fagan 2017). Care is a morally but also existen- web of attachments that create the relationality of a shared tially necessary component of interdependence and vulner- transitional space, in which the production of meaning is ability (Engster 2007). It may not always be exercised, or possible (Groves 2014, 117). As such, it cannot be imagined even be exercisable, given surrounding conditions. But its as primarily parental, in contrast to what Johns-Putra (2017) necessity remains. To tend to private or public objects of maintains, as it extends beyond relations between humans. attachment enjoins us to follow paths that criss-cross back This shared space is made from relationships that are asym- and forth between the private and public realms, in the forms metrical, yet which also run in two directions: attachments in which they have been historically constituted. Speaking are constitutive of subjects; subjects are called to respond up for urban parks connects us back to the individual and to their attachments. The shared space is one of uneven and personal meanings through which the common fate of these non-symmetrical interdependence. It through this shared places and those who enjoy them are woven together. Car- space that the psychological components of processes of ing for a sick relative connects us to health institutions, to recognition (and indeed the relational logic of recognition the practices and rules that define how professionals within itself) are laid down, though this subject lies beyond the them operate, and to the funding decisions which shape scope of this paper. how these institutions themselves (for which we may feel Within the shared space, futurity is the horizon of the a sometimes angry and frustrated affection, as is often said still-to-be-determined collective fate of subjects and their of the National Health Service in the UK) are materially attachments—which first introduces the primary ethical sustained. It enjoins us to know and critically examine the and political question, ‘how shall I/we live?’ Attachment wider structures we rely on. Care, as a moral and existential implicitly contains within it a wish for a future that may necessity, requires us to sustain private and public holding or may not be possible to fulfil (Berlant 2011), a wish to environments, and in doing so, extend ourselves deeper into sustain the shared space as a source of meaning, and thus relationships between those others for whom we care and also orients the self towards the future flourishing of signifi- further out into the material and psychic relations that sus- cant others. These others—including places, objects, prac- tain them. It requires attentiveness to attempt to understand tices, institutions and even ideals—have to be understood the needs of others. This implies restraint insofar as one as dramatis personae within linked narratives, for whom should not assume one already knows the other’s needs, but things can turn out better or worse. Understanding what ‘bet- also assumes these needs can be understood, if never per- ter’ and ‘worse’ mean here is impossible without relying fectly. The difference between the other’s past and his/her/ on knowledges of various kinds, expert and lay. Without its future represents a gap within which a response can be determinate ways of imagining the future, it is impossible improvised. Care thus represents a programme of ethical and to actually respond to the otherness of the other who is the political enlargement, not self-limitation (Baier 1995, 19). object of care. The other person who I nurse through ill- How does this orientation towards futurity, born ness, the landscape I fight to protect, the ideals of justice or of attachment, connect us to nature, and thereby to the equality I struggle to see realised—all these are constitutive future beyond our own personal lives and the attachments of a common space that is productive of the meaning of the which sustain them? Care begins from human concerns world. But this meaning only emerges because for all these and what experience has taught us to value. The fact of attachments, things could go better or worse in determinable attachment is thus contingent. But attachment and care ways (recovering or sickening, being despoiled or flourish- themselves are not. Insofar as there is ethical or political ing, being vindicated or betrayed). The future as horizon of motivation at all, they revolve around private and public meaning is projected through the shared space of attachment things which are generative of meaning and which call relationships. Ultimately, it is the possibility of the shared us to individual and collective action. Just as better and 1 3 Sustainability Science worse forms of attachment, and better and worse forms evaluate them, is necessary. Violence towards the other is of care in response to attachment, can be identified by the risk of response, but to not respond, and instead sim- understanding individual biographies, better and worse ply shrink back from an otherness to which we are always forms of collective attachment that enable or deny ethical already related is also violence (Lloyd 2008). and political agency to specific actors can be identified In this way, drawing on the account of attachment and through an understanding of history. The question is then care given in Groves (2014) the non-human world does not to what extent these succeed in recognising others’ needs, occupy the same position as it does in the various ways of given that recognition is never perfect, as McLaren (2017) thinking about sustainability we have explored. It is not con- points out, and also to what extent they acknowledge the ceptualised solely as the material basis for sustaining the wider interdependencies that sustain those who are their human future (futures for the present). Nor are its possible subjects (Marris 1996). Nature enters into the sphere of futures the material for worst-case scenarios through which value defined by care, not primarily as an instrumental judgement can be passed on (some) present values (presents resource, but as a constitutive other. The dependence of for the future). Instead, it the ultimate support for human human society on this other is primarily and experien- care, but also a meaningful and meaning-conferring other tially felt through processes like place attachment, not within the sphere of human care that also exceeds its reach. through more abstract forms of knowledge that confirm its As the latter, it is thus ingredient in the holding environment instrumental value. The meaning of the non-human world through which the future first becomes an issue for human comes from repeated singular encounters, and only later beings, and which existentially places us in a position that perhaps is broadened through attachment to ideals that demands our care. The common fate of selves and others articulate background reasons about why the non-human related through the holding environment makes the intan- world matters. gible future tangible and actionable, while also commend- The non-human biosphere is thus a constitutive other ing to us a humility that is nonetheless attentive and active, within the holding environment in which subjectivity first committed to translating care for the needs of the irreducibly emerges. It can only provide this ‘service’ to the subject, other into action. however, insofar as it remains other, i.e. is encountered in forms that reveal themselves but also, as living and non- The holding environment as relation to the future living entities, recede and remain within themselves and in their complex relations to the rest of the biosphere, never This presents us with a different way of beginning to articu- wholly graspable. Possessing their own good, the enti- late a politics and ethics of the futurity which sustainability ties and relationships of which the biosphere is composed needs to embody. If the future is wholly other in the sense can be tended—and shaped. How they should be tended that no determinate relation to it is possible or legitimate, and shaped is dependent, first, on situated practices that then the only relation to it can be a static one, frozen in the embody (or fail to embody) the virtues or dispositions of face of an infinite demand to hold back. All imagination care. Second, it is dependent on norms. But determining and representation extended forward to grasp the future are what norms apply is a project of innovation and experi- indicted, meaning that the only ethically appropriate actual mentation, as it is dependent on the outcome of a transac- response would be to ‘decreate’ the self (Rose 1993, 217), tive play of boundaries of knowledge and action that can to disavow thought and agency in face of the Other to whom be more or less attentive and respectful. But the outcome all representation must necessarily do unjustifiable violence. of such interactions has to be judged according to how they But if the otherness here is an intrinsically unimaginable actually enhance or degrade the narratives, as we struggle future which cannot be represented in any way without ille- to understand them, to which belong the things tended and gitimately capturing it in the discursive grids that frame the for whose needs we claim to speak. The very otherness of present, then all that is left is to disavow the political cul- these others means that, ultimately, the sphere of tending tures of modernity and simply await the future, in the hope will be more or less radically circumscribed, even if we of an ‘absolute beginning’ (Bauman 1993, 93), waiting for aim to extend it, as our knowledge will necessarily become a new ethical and political community to be founded. This, more limited the further it seeks to extend in space and however, is a stance which ironically remains caught in that time. But such a response is demanded by both our attach- characteristically modern way of relating to the future that ments and the systems and structures, human and non- treats it as the end of the past and the coming of the unheard human, on which they in turn depend. Responsibility is of novum (Babich 2013)—only at the same time forswear- not infinite in the sense Bauman (1993) stipulates. Infinite ing all agency, and instead simply awaiting this end and new responsibility is simply responsibility without response- beginning. ability. A determinate response, enacting practices which By contrast, the holding environment of attachments may fall short of the norms we use to make sense of and and their supporting conditions embodies connective tissue 1 3 Sustainability Science of an always contested and partially articulated world, but Rose has argued, to experiences where practices and norms in doing so, gives us the capabilities to anticipate not only no longer fit with each other (Rose 1996). Disruptive expe- the futures of those things we care about, but to extend and riences of this kind are exemplified by bereavement, typi- transform the scope of what we do care about as we come cally understood as a loss of attachment which lays waste to understand the dependencies of the objects of our care. the relationship between self and world, requiring each to In doing so, private and public things serve as the material be reconstructed (Nussbaum 2003). ‘How should one live’, for narratives out of which private and collective identities and ‘what is permitted’ are collective questions and anxieties emerge. They offer us the basis for a ‘political morality of at the same time as personal ones, questions which demand uncertainty’, of anticipating, not the specific objects which that practices evolve and norms be articulated around them future people will care about, and thus simply reducing the in ways that fit together once more, after an experience of future to the projection of the present, but of anticipating loss. Sustainability contains within it conflicts between the instead the kinds of structuring relations through which any limits of knowledge and the need of ethics and politics which care can be expressed as good enough care, to attachments appear irresolvable. which promote genuine modes of self-determination and I have advocated in this paper that to recognise and work solidarity with the human and non-human worlds (Groves through this anxiety cannot be done by doing as Beck advo- 2014, 161–62). This positions future people, neither as cates and simply positing the future as alterity, as this effec- submerged within the otherness of the future, nor as sim- tively denies the relationship to the future that is already ple reflections of us, but as potential and always other co- part of our historical experience. Instead of articulating creators of something ethically and politically valuable (de sustainability as the basis of a new, abstract global com- Shalit 1995, 118–119), a world composed of things mean- munity somehow united in self-restraint or in a new, techno- ingful both privately and publicly. While these things and logically-mediated commitment to progress, it is necessary the holding environments that contain them are historically to recognise that present subjects are related to the future contingent, some such worlds are nonetheless necessarily unevenly and differentially through attachments and commit- better than others. ments that anchor them in the political field here and now. This is why Fagan is incorrect when she states that a care- These commitments to private and public things shape and based ethics and politics of futurity is based on a concept orient their individual and collective capabilities for action. of interdependence that ‘is nonetheless predominantly uni- It is only by asking to what extent these attachments build directional’ (2017, 236). Caring about the future is asym- relationships that can sustain enlarged care for others now metrical, but then so is all care. The future remains, however, and in the future that sustainability can be fleshed out. Mak - the dimension of the present in which the narratives of what ing sustainability a concrete way of working through the we care about shall be played out, and where their continu- multi-decadal collapse of progress narratives requires the ing worth (and the meaning of our own lives) will also be improvisation of shared practices that effectively embody evaluated (O’Neill 1993). Anticipating the care of others is care for the world and solidarity with future people, and also trying to anticipate what our legacy will mean to them, the articulation of norms that will help us both locate our- a difficult but necessary task. Again, simply reverting to an selves as performers of these practices, and trouble us with ethics of self-restraint that seeks to avoid positing any future their insufficiency as ways of expressing our responsibility for fear of illegitimately representing the unrepresentable to whoever comes after us. Responsibility is irresponsible here is simply to accept the violence that has already been unless it is transformed into an actual response. done to the future in the name of the present. Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Crea- tive Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creat iveco mmons.or g/licenses/b y/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribu- Conclusion tion, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. 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Sustainability and the future: reflections on the ethical and political significance of sustainability

Sustainability Science , Volume OnlineFirst – May 6, 2019

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Springer Journals
Copyright
Copyright © 2019 by The Author(s)
Subject
Environment; Environmental Management; Climate Change Management and Policy; Environmental Economics; Landscape Ecology; Sustainable Development; Public Health
ISSN
1862-4065
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1862-4057
DOI
10.1007/s11625-019-00700-0
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Abstract

Historically, concepts of sustainability have been articulated in response to a perceived crisis within modernist narratives about progress. As such, they are not just environmental concepts, but ethical and political ones. At the same time, they have often been accused of being too wedded to many of the same assumptions as these central narratives of modernity, and indeed inviting the hubristic mistakes of modernity to be resurrected in the form of pretentions to global stewardship or ‘managing the planet’. I respond to some recent critiques of key conceptual elements encountered within sustainability narratives by articulating an approach to imagining sustainability that draws on D. W. Winnicott’s concept of the ‘holding environment’, and which acknowledges the otherness of the future and of nature, while also affirming responsibilities towards both. Keywords Sustainability · Futures · Alterity · Care · Attachment Introduction specific weight, mediated by a rethinking of the relationship between humanity and nature that challenges many now- Ulrich Beck identifies a political project that he calls cosmo- traditional modernist narratives of material human progress. politanism as the only legitimate response to a political and Yet how far does this bring nature as such into our ethics social condition in which human flourishing and suffering is and politics, and under what framing? Does the concept of bound up with human caused risks that affect both humans sustainability enter onto the scene at the cost of misrecognis- themselves and the non-human world. Cosmopolitanism, he ing the otherness of nature, that is, of framing nature solely proposes, is primarily ‘a radical rediscovery and acknowl- in terms of its instrumental value for humans? This concern edgement of the other’, and, inter alia, of ‘the otherness of is mirrored by a similar concern about how sustainability the future’ and ‘the otherness of nature’ (Beck 2005, 285). frames the future in ways that still remain within the limi- Beck identifies here two barriers to, but also opportunities tations of modernist ways of thinking, in which the future for, imagining sustainability as a political and ethical ori- is imagined solely in terms of the continuation of present entation. How, as part of our conceptual construction of projects, which are then projected into the future in a way responsibilities and of political action, do we acknowledge that colonises future possibilities. (pay heed to, take care of, represent, recognise) the otherness An important distinction can be made here between two of nature and of the future? ways of orienting thought and action towards the future, The link between concern for the future and concern for between the future-for-the-present and the present-for-the- the earth is at the heart of sustainability thinking. In sustain- future (Adam and Groves 2007). The easiest way to under- ability thinking, a sense that the future matters takes on a stand the idea of the future-for-the-present is through the example of future discounting, in which economic calcula- tions are based on an assumed discount rate which ensures Handled by Anne-Katrin Holfelder, Institute for Advanced that the value of future benefits and costs is progressively Sustainability Studies, Germany. reduced, such that it appears to make economic sense to * Christopher Groves seek to realise the benefits of a decision as soon as pos- Grovesc1@cf.ac.uk sible, and to push costs further into the future for others to bear. A central question about the relationship between School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK Vol.:(0123456789) 1 3 Sustainability Science sustainability and futurity, then, is to what extent sustainabil- what is valorised is the survival of what is valued in and for ity thinking—as well as being potentially instrumental and, the present. The future—and nature—are defined through therefore, anthropocentric—is also present-centric. Perhaps and for the present. not in the same way as future-discounting is, but more in the Alternatively, concern for the future or for the natural way that its emphasis on preservation and/or conservation world may be expressed through a different temporal fram- privileges present evaluations of why non-human entities ing, the present-for-the-future. In some texts the future is and systems matter over the emergence of future ones. There imagined through an apocalyptic lens that is meant to moti- may, therefore, appear to be a tension between concepts of vate reflection upon values, practices and social structures sustainability on the one hand, and Beck’s vision of, cos- which are currently held to be ‘naturalised’—thus opening mopolitanism, if sustainability does indeed orient human up space for trying to conceive of how these accepted ele- agency towards nature as primarily a stock of resources that ments might change. The future is no longer defined for the must be preserved, and in addition towards dominant val- present; instead, the present is questioned for the future. ues in the present as a measure of what may matter to the Some suggest, however, that the limits of ethical concern future. The very idea of sustainability may, therefore, be here are once again ultimately limited to human survival: ethically and politically suspect. First, because it may pre- the addressee of apocalyptic narratives remains, it is argued, maturely curtail attempts to understand why nature matters the individual human subject, politically privileged by pre- (in itself as well as for us), and second because it may fail sent political rationalities, whose continuity must be assured to acknowledge how the recognition of whose values matter (Fagan 2017). now is shaped by power inequalities, before then consolidat- In this paper, I map out some aspects of the historical ing these inequalities by calling for the ongoing conservation emergence of these distinct ways of framing the future of present values for the future. and nature, and show how they relate to each other as spe- In particular, concern for the future is often translated cific ways of enacting a temporal relation between present, into the language of posterity, evoked by images of chil- past and future. I argue that these positions tend to rest on dren. The scientific, ethical and political uncertainties implicit misrepresentations of the relation between self and which circulate around arguments about sustainability may other and, therefore, between human subjects and nature. thus be domesticated through entreaties to extend what is At the same time, recent critiques of the alleged anthropo- essentially parental care to future people, as expressed in centrism of these positions (such as those made by Fagan) the statement that one only borrows the earth from one’s commit, I suggest, errors of their own. They tend to afford children. However, such images have particular political ethical privilege to an unknowable otherness (Beck’s abso- significance, insofar as they frame concern for the future in lute otherness of the future or nature) that, in its sublimity, a form that privileges the perspective of heterosexual par- cannot provide any concrete basis for orienting thought or ents as the sole legitimate one (Johns-Putra 2017), and thus action. As an alternative to both these dominant ways of make it harder to publicly represent other possible framings understanding sustainability and to critiques thereof, I sug- of future-oriented concern, particularly in a present where gest that a genealogy of concern for the future and for nature political cultures are commonly structured by heterosex- that draws on phenomenological, development-psychologi- ism and other forms of oppression (Seymour 2013). Such cal and feminist traditions of thinking about attachment and framings domesticate the otherness of the future, easing the care can provide a distinct basis for thinking about sustain- ‘terror of sublime infinity’ (Johns-Putra 2017, 2) stimulated ability. It allows the otherness of nature and of the future by its vastness and unknowability. At the same time, the into the sphere of concern as necessary ingredients of any intermediate object of care here—nature, conceived of as concernful engagement with the world, without at the same that fundamental ground on which posterity will continue to time positing either as purely other, as pure, unknowable depend—is also domesticated and drawn out of its unknowa- alterity. bility into a frame of concern that filters care through the image of imagined descendants (de Shalit 1995). Domesti- cation threatens to cross into instrumentalization, however. Progress and modernity: the future If nature is conceived of as that which sustains us—or our for the present children and their children—does this not mean that we will (given the limits on our attention and practical capabilities) Nature conceived of as a free input into socially-organ- only care for whatever in nature we can currently identify ised production processes formed what Marshall Berman as useful? Similarly, if we translate future-oriented concern represents as the modern ‘Faustian’ view of nature, as into concern for our posterity, are we not reducing the scope raw material for ceaseless human development (Berman of our supposedly cosmopolitan concern to what ‘we’ now 1983). This characteristically modern prometheanism is consider to be important for ‘our’ children? In either case, also reflected in more avowedly political and utopian ideas 1 3 Sustainability Science of an open future (Adam and Groves 2007), which centre Futures for the present versus presents on secularised promises of continually refounding com- for the future: conceptualising sustainability munity around a vision of a better world. A new ethical and political concern with the future, with ending the past The emergence of discourses of sustainable development and instituting something new and unheard of in its place and environmental management can be understood against has been invoked as a defining modern mode of tempo- this backdrop. While ideas of sustainable resource man- rality, in intellectual history (Schneewind 1984) but also agement have a long pedigree reaching back to the 19th in sociology (Giddens 1999). Modernity is thus seen as and even 18th centuries (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016), it unique because of its orientation towards the future, rather was arguably in this period that ‘the Environment’ as a than towards the past. This periodisation simultaneously whole became a new object of bureaucratic management constructs and excludes from the community of modernity (Cooper 1992), objectified and drawn into the purview of (Osborne 1995) other communities, such as the medieval the administrative state just as earlier the social had been. and the ancient, on the basis of their divergent past-ori- The knowledge practices of ecologists, zoologists, bota- ented or cyclical temporalities. nists and others became enrolled within this governance This modernist construction of the future is dependent project, to standardize knowledge practices for measur- on ideas of the transformability of the world, which repro- ing and comparing impacts of collective human activity duce idealist assumptions about the relationship between upon the natural world. The biophysical world is no longer imagination and material nature (Adam and Groves 2007). simply raw material for human progress, but becomes They draw upon particular historically-contingent knowl- conceived of as a complex entity, still set over against edge practices. Nature becomes gridded by calculative humanity (and thus isolable as an object of management) rationalities, defined as fuel for universal human ascent. but posited as an ensemble of essential support systems With the 19th century growth of the ‘social state’, respon- (Goodland 1995). sible for economic policy but also social policy, progress As environmental impacts are transboundary in nature became increasingly understood in material and, moreover, and occur within complex systems, they point towards the quantitative terms—what might be called the ‘mechanisa- creation of global governance institutions, like the Inter- tion [Technisierung] of the future (Hölscher 1999) along- governmental Panel on Climate Change (Beck 1995). The side the standardisation of nature. Metrics such as popu- more complex and daunting the project of drawing nature lation growth, average life expectancy, or gross domestic into the sphere of governance became, the more the need product (GDP) formed elements around which governance for legibility became urgent. As a result, the need for gov- regimes that enshrine governance by numbers gained legit- ernance by numbers became ever more central to establish- imacy. As states increasingly took responsibility for the ing a politics of the environment. Parts per million of C O , health and education of their citizens, the legibility and, the Simpson and Shannon indices of biodiversity (Spell- moreover, the standardisation of their territories become erberg and Fedor 2003), and the nine planetary bounda- more important. Qualitative differences between settle- ries (Rockström et al. 2009) became means through which ments and regions had to be rendered recordable, com- sustainability policies were articulated and justified. The parable and commensurable in terms of universal metrics institutions that characterise modernity, and the practices (Scott 1998). The contribution of industry and technologi- associated with them, have been said to have thus under- cal innovation to ensuring material betterment also gradu- gone a ‘reflexive’ moment (In Beck’s terms), striving to ally became more important. contain modernity’s own unintended consequences. Expectations of material improvement in quality of life reached a head in the period after WWII within industrial- ised nations. At the same time, however, earlier challenges Management narratives (Bonneuil and Fressoz 2016) to the hegemony of concep- tions of material progress were being repeated. Concerns Taking the future into account, and orienting oneself about the unforeseen and unwanted consequences of tech- towards it as a central element in determining what one nological and economic development and particularly should do, is part of both progress narratives and what their impact both on the biosphere and non-industrialised we might call reflexive ‘conservation’ narratives. In each nations were widely voiced. Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) case, the moral weight accorded to the future is articu- and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1973) report lated in different ways, but in each case, the non-human both had significant cultural impact. The experiences of world (configured as ‘natural capital’ or more recently as people of colour and other groups living near polluting ‘ecosystem services’) becomes the fulcrum around which infrastructure were articulated through movements for this weight turns. Robert Solow responded to the moment environmental justice (Schlosberg and Carruthers 2010). 1 3 Sustainability Science of reflexive modernisation by defending the accumula- Valuing ecosystems in this way can be seen, however, tion of capital as the best way of ensuring that future gen- as still part of commodification, with the effective pricing erations inherited enough resources to fulfil their needs. of nature extending property rights further over it, rather Importantly, he argued that capital here could include than curtailing such developments. The commodification natural resources, financial resources but also technologi- of nature translates relationships of one kind (sui generis cal resources substituted for natural ones (Solow 1974). complex interdependence between non-human and also In other words, the development of technology should be human entities) into exchange value, with one arbitrarily seen as a way of providing additional resources that may demarcated ‘service’ treated as being effectively substitut- replace and even improve on natural ones in some cases able for any other in economic terms (Gómez-Baggethun (Northcott 2013). Such views are accompanied by an esti- and Ruiz-Pérez 2011). Conservation narratives have thus mate of the social discount rate that should be applied to been interpreted as modulating, but not ultimately restrain- expected costs and benefits of policies, given the assump- ing the drive to treat nature as an inert input. And even if tion that people in the future will be better off (thanks to economic valuation is just one input into a broader, more continued material progress). Complementary views are qualitative valuation, some object that this still defines the also expressed by some proponents of conservation, where value of nature predominantly through the lens of human conservation is seen as the preservation of natural capital interests. Nature is only made to matter insofar as it materi- for the benefit of people now and in the future (Pinchot ally supports the survival of our descendants. Elements of 1998, 76–77). natural systems that appear to have no material value for our Bryan G. Norton has named the animating spirit of own survival do not matter. such responses the ‘Grand Simplification’ (Norton 2005), Even if we shift from a Faustian to a managerial view of in which all potential future outcomes are both rendered nature, we thus remain caught within a set of social relations down into material amenable to one metric (measurement through which the meaning of nature is framed (Bookchin of capital) and weighed against the primacy of present 1980). Even if questions regarding responsibility shift focus interests. Continuation of current trends towards material to include the non-human world, sustainability remains a growth is seen as both natural and desirable, but this sim- human-centred concept, concerning the conservation of ply enshrines present pattern of consumption as unques- what we believe matters to our survival. As Fagan puts it, tionable so long as the future is like the present, but more the future is ‘occupied by the projection of the present’. The so, characterised by ever-increasing levels of economic future is extrapolated from what we know of the past (data, activity (Fioramonti 2013). The move Solow recommends trends) and present (interests). From modernist progress therefore projects futures from the perspective of the pre- narratives to sustainable management narratives, the future sent, based on the continuation of past trends and the pres- remains framed for the present—a present future (Adam and ervation of present interests. As Fagan (2017, 232) puts it, Groves 2007). such positions bring the future into the present only insofar as they ensure that the ‘future is instead occupied by the Apocalyptic narratives: revelation and judgement projection of the present and so is not futural [i.e. not other] at all’. Other attempts to present a managerial solu- The emergence of management narratives was also coeval tion to the unintended consequences of narratives of pro- with the emergence of more radical narratives regarding our gress run into similar difficulties, even if they are explicitly relationship to nature—and to the future. While both these critical of the kinds of position defended by Solow. kinds of narratives had historical antecedents (Bonneuil and More recent (and contested, as we shall see in the next Fressoz 2016), something novel about their late 20th cen- section) conservation narratives often seek to preserve tury forms was the conditions in which they emerged, a cul- what formerly may have been defined as natural capital tural moment of what I called earlier (after Beck) reflexivity by identifying productive powers of non-human nature towards the fundamental assumptions that underlie moder- that have economic value insofar as they contribute to nity. More radical narratives recognise within this moment a human wellbeing, a value which can be (speculatively) deeper crisis, and accordingly alter their orientation towards totalled in order to achieve a degree of considerability for the future and towards nature. nature (Costanza et al. 1997). In this way, it is hoped that Often, such narratives take on an apocalyptic form, planning futures could incorporate economic relation- employing prophetic language bolstered by scientific data on ships within a broader context of productive relationships potential destructive trajectories of socio-technical and bio- that sustain natural systems, rather than enforcing the physical change. Futures that disrupt or completely erase the separation between inert non-human nature and a human possibility of modernist progress are imagined. Biospheri- economy geared to material progress measured in terms cal collapse due to runaway climate change, biodiversity of financial value productivity. loss through species extinction, human population growth 1 3 Sustainability Science beyond supportable levels and other worst case scenarios are But in either case, straining to represent the present for the projected. Further, they typically embody the other central future, as responsible to the future, can be seen as returning, meaning of apocalyptic narrative, that of judgement as well once again, to representing the future as a continuation of as revelation (Northcott 2013). Dystopian future presents are the present by other means. constructed in the form of scenarios to shine a light on what Fagan (2017) argues that apocalyptic narratives neces- is wrong with the present, mirroring in the process some sarily fall short of recognising the otherness of the future trends in science fiction literature. and the significance this has for any ethical and political Stories such as John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up (1977) discourse of futurity in the present. The problem, she sug- describe near-futures in which a variety of rebound effects gests, is that any concrete normative guidance in the face of combine with social inequalities to degrade or destroy an uncertain future must inevitably reflect the constitution human civilisation. Such narratives limn what might appear of the ‘subject who is projected to inhabit this future’ (239), to be fundamental flaws in the relationship between humans and thus reflect also the conditions under which the subject and nature. The meaning of the present is here defined is produced in the present. Instead of hurriedly providing through future possibilities, not the other way around. Sci- new normative guidelines in the face of impending poten- ence fiction has been interpreted as reflecting aspects of the tial anthropogenic disaster, an appropriate alternative stance present, but also employing the estranging device of some would, in Derrida’s words quoted by Fagan, be to ‘let the novum (typically technological innovation) that enables cer- future have a future’ (239), and open ‘a space for respon- tain aspects of the familiar world to be reflected in a future sive engagement’ (238) with it. Insofar as there is an ethics mirror, revealing unacknowledged truths about the present involved here, it would be one which can be identified (fol- (Kitchin and Kneale 2001). Deep ecology echoes such narra- lowing Zygmunt Bauman) in ‘an ethics of self-limitation’. tives by prophetically articulating revelation and judgement This minimal normativity of humility in face of the future derived from the future as a call to lay bare and overcome (which mirrors the language of deep ecology) would thus culturally-embedded habits of mind in a ‘substantial reori- avoid the risk she sees as implicit in any attempt to codify entation of our whole civilisation’ (Naess 1990, 45). ethically and/or politically responsibilities to the future of A new ethics is then called for, to replace the anthropo- ‘erasing [the future] altogether’ (239). Uncertainty, she pro- centric orientations of contemporary societies with biocen- poses, will thus become the material for ethics, rather than tric egalitarianism, positioning humans as ‘plain citizens’ of a barrier to it. nature (Watson 1983). From this perspective, life itself in its multiplicitous expressions has intrinsic value, and no form of life (including humans) can be assigned superior moral Reconstructing sustainability: value, no matter what capacities it possesses. The human the non‑human world as constitutive power to transform the world does not in itself grant humans of a ‘holding environment’ any right to do so. What does mark humans as special is their ability to perturb the webs of mutual interdependence that One of the positions Fagan indicts with the charge of ‘nul- constitute the biosphere, creating destructive consequences lifying alterity’ by projecting the future into the present is that also eventually rebound back upon them. Humans the one I set out in Groves (2014), which explores how phe- therefore require nothing less than a cultural revolution in nomenological, developmental-psychological and feminist consciousness, one which promotes humility in the face of accounts of attachment and care can reorient discussions nature, to avoid destroying themselves and possibly also the about the place of futurity (and sustainability) away from rest of life on Earth. futures-for-the-present. I wish now to revisit this argu- ment in responding to the problem on which this paper has focused—the ways in which sustainability appears to repro- The future (and nature) as wholly other duce certain features (anthropocentrism and present-focus) of modernity while also claiming to escape its limitations. The concept of sustainability is the result of a reflexive push Independently, Johns-Putra and Fagan point out how sustain- back from within modernity against modernity itself. Sus- ability discourses respond to the reflexive moment within tainability acknowledges but also tames the threat of apoca- modernity by seeking to reform the culture of modernity lypse, offering the promise of refounding a coming global itself. However, they claim mere reform must necessarily be political community on a renewed narrative of qualitative. inadequate. Fagan (2017) calls instead for an ethics and poli- Things may continue to get better—so long as we are care- tics that acknowledges the radical alterity of the future, and ful. Deeper reformation or even overthrow of present habits, the ways in which imagining the future inevitably reduces practices and institutions is called for by other narratives, as this alterity to a reflection of the present, even if straining in stories of apocalypse or the perspectives of deep ecology. towards imagining the present for the future. In rehearsing 1 3 Sustainability Science here some key aspects of arguments from Groves (2014) I is dialectical, expressed in the way that attachment objects want to outline what I believe Fagan, and Johns-Putra, get come to matter to the self. The other here is valued by and wrong about the difficulties of bringing futurity and uncer - valuable to the self in a particular way. As attachment object, tainty into ethics, and to suggest why following Beck in pos- the other is constitutive of the self. But it is so only insofar iting the radical alterity of the future as the basis of ethics as it remains other in the sense articulated by Fagan when and politics is a step it is not necessary to take. An alterna- she describe Levinas’ concept of the other ‘completely other tive way of understanding the interdependence of humanity and impervious to my powers of comprehension and control’ and nature that concepts of sustainability try to articulate (Fagan 2009, 7), as ultimately unknowable to the subject can give us a basis for understanding the ethical and politi- and uncontrolled by it, as a source of surprise (Sayer 2011, cal significance of sustainability differently. The concepts of 123). In this sense, an evolving attachment relationship attachment and care are important here, but rehearsing their is structurally similar to that of friendship as analysed by precise connection is important to avoid associating them Aristotle, which embodies a category of value central to the too closely with images of parental relationships, which, as I Greek concept of eudaimonia (‘flourishing’). The other as explicitly argue in Groves (2014, 221–222, n.7), are actually friend is recognised by Aristotle as of constitutive value to inappropriate for understanding the ethical significance of the subject. The other is of constitutive value in this sense futurity and of nature. if its wellbeing is ingredient in the wellbeing of the subject (O’Neill 1993, 23–24). It continues to endure as uncontain- Attachment and care beyond the human sphere ably other within the relation and only insofar as it does so is it valued by the subject. The relation between human subjects and the world expe- It is important to appreciate how attachment enacts rela- rienced as outside, other to, or not reducible to the lived tionality to understand the ethical and political significance experience of the subject cannot be assumed to be a simple, of both futurity and the non-human world. This relationality fixed binary one. Developmental accounts of subjectivity, is asymmetrical, yet also two directional, in a sense I shall and in particular those produced from object-relations and return to in a moment. It also extends further than to human attachment psychology, show how differentiation from but others. The Other as conceived of in Levinas’ philosophy is also identification with the external environment are central a human individual. The radical responsibility not to kill or dialectical elements in the gradual emergence of subjectiv- harm the Other he places at the foundation of ethics is sup- ity. Further, they recognise that physical and psychic vul- posed to undercut the indifference to the other that Levinas nerability, together with interdependence and dependence traces in modern ethics and politics. This, however, already are fundamental aspects of the finitude of human beings—a assumes a certain model of subjectivity (Fagan’s ‘modern human condition (in Hannnah Arendt’s sense) rather than subject’), and in responding to and critiquing such a version a human essence. Vulnerability is physical and psychic, a of subjectivity, it inevitably defines itself partially through dynamic which involves bodies and selves. Attachments to it (Gottlieb 1994). A genealogical and historical account of others—beginning, developmentally speaking, with caregiv- attachment puts us on a different track. If we follow this ers—form the flexible and relational armature within which track, then the isolation and indifference that is often seen subjects are constituted (Groves 2014, 99). For psychologists to characterise the modern subject is shown to be only a of attachment like Winnicott (1991) die ff rentiation and iden - contingent and culturally particular achievement of certain tification are moments which resolve out of affective transac- subjects—for example, as a withdrawal response to attach- tions conducted through a transitional or shared space which ment loss, or to attachments that are felt to imperil the self is neither fully subjective nor objective, but out of which the (Benjamin 1990). meaning of self and other is produced. Attachment connects, from an early developmental stage For infants, good attachments help create ontological onward, places, non-humans, and things (possessing, for stability and security by assisting with the development of Winnicott, the capacity to ‘enchant’ the human world) to emotional regulation, transforming potentially disruptive human subjects. These also become part of the ‘convoy’ of and uncontrollable affect into emotions directed at defined attachments (Antonucci and Akiyama 1994) amidst which objects. Stability and security here do not denote rigidly selves emerge early in life, except of course where such fixed boundaries for the self. Instead, for there to be subjec- attachments are made unavailable—due to displacement, tivity at all there needs to develop an emotionally-contoured violence, or lack of care. Attachments as constitutive val- space—a holding environment—in which affects can be ues establish what might be called an ‘implicit solidarity’ transformed and played with, thus forming the basis of crea- (Groves 2015, 857) between subject and the human but also tive transformation of the world and self, conducted through non-human world, one which means that the subject of good the disruption and remoulding of the boundaries between the attachment is not ‘cast into the world’ as an isolated indi- two. The structure of this dynamic self-other relationship vidual but is instead ‘cradled’ within it (Bachelard 1969, 7), 1 3 Sustainability Science held together by it. Later in the developmental process, other space that is the object of care itself, which keeps the future attachment objects—e.g. practices, institutions and ideals— open (and, therefore, to some extent unknowable). can become important ingredients of the shared space or Attachment and care are not just the connective tissue holding environment of implicit solidarity between self and of ethical life. They also open up a difficult path between world. private and public life, between ethics and politics. Attach- None of these others confront the subject simply as static, ment objects are—implicitly or explicitly—public things, sublime Levinasian other who embodies an infinite—and constitutive of a holding environment that is shared more infinitely terrifying—demand. Care is both disposition and widely and which shape the (not necessarily universally) practice (Engster 2007; Ruddick 1980), a response to the shared commitments through which we enter into political fundamental relationality of the human subject and its atten- life, into a life where public objects of attachment need tend- dant psychic and physical vulnerability that renders itself ing (Honig 2012, 65). Care, in the sense outlined here, is concrete in attentive and respectful taking care of the needs thus not simply a motivational slogan addressed to individu- of the other. But it is also thereby an attempt to sustain the als (pace Fagan 2017). Care is a morally but also existen- web of attachments that create the relationality of a shared tially necessary component of interdependence and vulner- transitional space, in which the production of meaning is ability (Engster 2007). It may not always be exercised, or possible (Groves 2014, 117). As such, it cannot be imagined even be exercisable, given surrounding conditions. But its as primarily parental, in contrast to what Johns-Putra (2017) necessity remains. To tend to private or public objects of maintains, as it extends beyond relations between humans. attachment enjoins us to follow paths that criss-cross back This shared space is made from relationships that are asym- and forth between the private and public realms, in the forms metrical, yet which also run in two directions: attachments in which they have been historically constituted. Speaking are constitutive of subjects; subjects are called to respond up for urban parks connects us back to the individual and to their attachments. The shared space is one of uneven and personal meanings through which the common fate of these non-symmetrical interdependence. It through this shared places and those who enjoy them are woven together. Car- space that the psychological components of processes of ing for a sick relative connects us to health institutions, to recognition (and indeed the relational logic of recognition the practices and rules that define how professionals within itself) are laid down, though this subject lies beyond the them operate, and to the funding decisions which shape scope of this paper. how these institutions themselves (for which we may feel Within the shared space, futurity is the horizon of the a sometimes angry and frustrated affection, as is often said still-to-be-determined collective fate of subjects and their of the National Health Service in the UK) are materially attachments—which first introduces the primary ethical sustained. It enjoins us to know and critically examine the and political question, ‘how shall I/we live?’ Attachment wider structures we rely on. Care, as a moral and existential implicitly contains within it a wish for a future that may necessity, requires us to sustain private and public holding or may not be possible to fulfil (Berlant 2011), a wish to environments, and in doing so, extend ourselves deeper into sustain the shared space as a source of meaning, and thus relationships between those others for whom we care and also orients the self towards the future flourishing of signifi- further out into the material and psychic relations that sus- cant others. These others—including places, objects, prac- tain them. It requires attentiveness to attempt to understand tices, institutions and even ideals—have to be understood the needs of others. This implies restraint insofar as one as dramatis personae within linked narratives, for whom should not assume one already knows the other’s needs, but things can turn out better or worse. Understanding what ‘bet- also assumes these needs can be understood, if never per- ter’ and ‘worse’ mean here is impossible without relying fectly. The difference between the other’s past and his/her/ on knowledges of various kinds, expert and lay. Without its future represents a gap within which a response can be determinate ways of imagining the future, it is impossible improvised. Care thus represents a programme of ethical and to actually respond to the otherness of the other who is the political enlargement, not self-limitation (Baier 1995, 19). object of care. The other person who I nurse through ill- How does this orientation towards futurity, born ness, the landscape I fight to protect, the ideals of justice or of attachment, connect us to nature, and thereby to the equality I struggle to see realised—all these are constitutive future beyond our own personal lives and the attachments of a common space that is productive of the meaning of the which sustain them? Care begins from human concerns world. But this meaning only emerges because for all these and what experience has taught us to value. The fact of attachments, things could go better or worse in determinable attachment is thus contingent. But attachment and care ways (recovering or sickening, being despoiled or flourish- themselves are not. Insofar as there is ethical or political ing, being vindicated or betrayed). The future as horizon of motivation at all, they revolve around private and public meaning is projected through the shared space of attachment things which are generative of meaning and which call relationships. Ultimately, it is the possibility of the shared us to individual and collective action. Just as better and 1 3 Sustainability Science worse forms of attachment, and better and worse forms evaluate them, is necessary. Violence towards the other is of care in response to attachment, can be identified by the risk of response, but to not respond, and instead sim- understanding individual biographies, better and worse ply shrink back from an otherness to which we are always forms of collective attachment that enable or deny ethical already related is also violence (Lloyd 2008). and political agency to specific actors can be identified In this way, drawing on the account of attachment and through an understanding of history. The question is then care given in Groves (2014) the non-human world does not to what extent these succeed in recognising others’ needs, occupy the same position as it does in the various ways of given that recognition is never perfect, as McLaren (2017) thinking about sustainability we have explored. It is not con- points out, and also to what extent they acknowledge the ceptualised solely as the material basis for sustaining the wider interdependencies that sustain those who are their human future (futures for the present). Nor are its possible subjects (Marris 1996). Nature enters into the sphere of futures the material for worst-case scenarios through which value defined by care, not primarily as an instrumental judgement can be passed on (some) present values (presents resource, but as a constitutive other. The dependence of for the future). Instead, it the ultimate support for human human society on this other is primarily and experien- care, but also a meaningful and meaning-conferring other tially felt through processes like place attachment, not within the sphere of human care that also exceeds its reach. through more abstract forms of knowledge that confirm its As the latter, it is thus ingredient in the holding environment instrumental value. The meaning of the non-human world through which the future first becomes an issue for human comes from repeated singular encounters, and only later beings, and which existentially places us in a position that perhaps is broadened through attachment to ideals that demands our care. The common fate of selves and others articulate background reasons about why the non-human related through the holding environment makes the intan- world matters. gible future tangible and actionable, while also commend- The non-human biosphere is thus a constitutive other ing to us a humility that is nonetheless attentive and active, within the holding environment in which subjectivity first committed to translating care for the needs of the irreducibly emerges. It can only provide this ‘service’ to the subject, other into action. however, insofar as it remains other, i.e. is encountered in forms that reveal themselves but also, as living and non- The holding environment as relation to the future living entities, recede and remain within themselves and in their complex relations to the rest of the biosphere, never This presents us with a different way of beginning to articu- wholly graspable. Possessing their own good, the enti- late a politics and ethics of the futurity which sustainability ties and relationships of which the biosphere is composed needs to embody. If the future is wholly other in the sense can be tended—and shaped. How they should be tended that no determinate relation to it is possible or legitimate, and shaped is dependent, first, on situated practices that then the only relation to it can be a static one, frozen in the embody (or fail to embody) the virtues or dispositions of face of an infinite demand to hold back. All imagination care. Second, it is dependent on norms. But determining and representation extended forward to grasp the future are what norms apply is a project of innovation and experi- indicted, meaning that the only ethically appropriate actual mentation, as it is dependent on the outcome of a transac- response would be to ‘decreate’ the self (Rose 1993, 217), tive play of boundaries of knowledge and action that can to disavow thought and agency in face of the Other to whom be more or less attentive and respectful. But the outcome all representation must necessarily do unjustifiable violence. of such interactions has to be judged according to how they But if the otherness here is an intrinsically unimaginable actually enhance or degrade the narratives, as we struggle future which cannot be represented in any way without ille- to understand them, to which belong the things tended and gitimately capturing it in the discursive grids that frame the for whose needs we claim to speak. The very otherness of present, then all that is left is to disavow the political cul- these others means that, ultimately, the sphere of tending tures of modernity and simply await the future, in the hope will be more or less radically circumscribed, even if we of an ‘absolute beginning’ (Bauman 1993, 93), waiting for aim to extend it, as our knowledge will necessarily become a new ethical and political community to be founded. This, more limited the further it seeks to extend in space and however, is a stance which ironically remains caught in that time. But such a response is demanded by both our attach- characteristically modern way of relating to the future that ments and the systems and structures, human and non- treats it as the end of the past and the coming of the unheard human, on which they in turn depend. Responsibility is of novum (Babich 2013)—only at the same time forswear- not infinite in the sense Bauman (1993) stipulates. Infinite ing all agency, and instead simply awaiting this end and new responsibility is simply responsibility without response- beginning. ability. A determinate response, enacting practices which By contrast, the holding environment of attachments may fall short of the norms we use to make sense of and and their supporting conditions embodies connective tissue 1 3 Sustainability Science of an always contested and partially articulated world, but Rose has argued, to experiences where practices and norms in doing so, gives us the capabilities to anticipate not only no longer fit with each other (Rose 1996). Disruptive expe- the futures of those things we care about, but to extend and riences of this kind are exemplified by bereavement, typi- transform the scope of what we do care about as we come cally understood as a loss of attachment which lays waste to understand the dependencies of the objects of our care. the relationship between self and world, requiring each to In doing so, private and public things serve as the material be reconstructed (Nussbaum 2003). ‘How should one live’, for narratives out of which private and collective identities and ‘what is permitted’ are collective questions and anxieties emerge. They offer us the basis for a ‘political morality of at the same time as personal ones, questions which demand uncertainty’, of anticipating, not the specific objects which that practices evolve and norms be articulated around them future people will care about, and thus simply reducing the in ways that fit together once more, after an experience of future to the projection of the present, but of anticipating loss. Sustainability contains within it conflicts between the instead the kinds of structuring relations through which any limits of knowledge and the need of ethics and politics which care can be expressed as good enough care, to attachments appear irresolvable. which promote genuine modes of self-determination and I have advocated in this paper that to recognise and work solidarity with the human and non-human worlds (Groves through this anxiety cannot be done by doing as Beck advo- 2014, 161–62). This positions future people, neither as cates and simply positing the future as alterity, as this effec- submerged within the otherness of the future, nor as sim- tively denies the relationship to the future that is already ple reflections of us, but as potential and always other co- part of our historical experience. Instead of articulating creators of something ethically and politically valuable (de sustainability as the basis of a new, abstract global com- Shalit 1995, 118–119), a world composed of things mean- munity somehow united in self-restraint or in a new, techno- ingful both privately and publicly. While these things and logically-mediated commitment to progress, it is necessary the holding environments that contain them are historically to recognise that present subjects are related to the future contingent, some such worlds are nonetheless necessarily unevenly and differentially through attachments and commit- better than others. ments that anchor them in the political field here and now. This is why Fagan is incorrect when she states that a care- These commitments to private and public things shape and based ethics and politics of futurity is based on a concept orient their individual and collective capabilities for action. of interdependence that ‘is nonetheless predominantly uni- It is only by asking to what extent these attachments build directional’ (2017, 236). Caring about the future is asym- relationships that can sustain enlarged care for others now metrical, but then so is all care. The future remains, however, and in the future that sustainability can be fleshed out. Mak - the dimension of the present in which the narratives of what ing sustainability a concrete way of working through the we care about shall be played out, and where their continu- multi-decadal collapse of progress narratives requires the ing worth (and the meaning of our own lives) will also be improvisation of shared practices that effectively embody evaluated (O’Neill 1993). Anticipating the care of others is care for the world and solidarity with future people, and also trying to anticipate what our legacy will mean to them, the articulation of norms that will help us both locate our- a difficult but necessary task. Again, simply reverting to an selves as performers of these practices, and trouble us with ethics of self-restraint that seeks to avoid positing any future their insufficiency as ways of expressing our responsibility for fear of illegitimately representing the unrepresentable to whoever comes after us. Responsibility is irresponsible here is simply to accept the violence that has already been unless it is transformed into an actual response. done to the future in the name of the present. Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the Crea- tive Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creat iveco mmons.or g/licenses/b y/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribu- Conclusion tion, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made. 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Sustainability ScienceSpringer Journals

Published: May 6, 2019

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