Sustainable Development: An Ideological Illusion

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By Oliver Matikainen, CEMUS, Uppsala University

This article was published in The Beam #6 —  Subscribe now for more on the topic.

The discourse of sustainable development has gained significant traction since the 1980s and can not, especially after the introduction of the UN 17 Sustainable Development Goals, be overlooked as one of the most important environmental discourses today. Sustainable development is built around the core belief that it is possible to achieve a prosperous, fair and environmentally sound future within the current economic system. It is necessary, however, to adjust that system: it must be ‘greened’.

Sustainable development takes a small step away from free-market fundamentalism and our faith in technology. But the step is small, indeed. According to mainstream sustainable development discourse, a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action is not needed to bring about transformational change. This can be achieved within the current political-economical paradigm.

“Green business is good business”, says UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, and continues: “it is not just the right thing to do. It is the smart thing to do (…) Those who fail to bet on the green economy will be living in a grey future.” The color-coded message of the Guterres shows us that sustainable development points towards green possibilities beyond grey industrial society. What, you may ask, are the possibilities sustainable development points towards?

An ideological basis

To begin with, it creates an image of a “have-it-all”-future where doing good is not just the right thing to do but also the smart thing to do. It assumes that there is a positive-sum relationship between economic growth, environmental protection and distributive justice. A simple tuning of the current economic paradigm will ensure that the three dimensions are in harmony to the joy of people across the world. Same instrument, same tune, but in an appealing green color.

But let us pause for a second. It is worth dwelling on the meaning of the “current economic paradigm.” When we talk about the current economic paradigm, or simply the economy, we do not talk about a purely economic paradigm. ‘The economy’ is always also an ideology which transcends the economic sphere and includes our most intuitive understanding of the world. This includes basic understandings of what the good life is, what motivates people, and how people relate to one another. The strictly economic paradigm is just a part of this larger ideological structure. If we accept this as true, it becomes clear that to create a truly different society, the task consists not only in adjusting an economic paradigm, but first and foremost in understanding the basic ideological structure in which it is embedded. This means that palpable, practical issues to a certain extent need to be understood through more abstract, ideological structures.

“We propose to look very serious”

This, of course, is a complex and difficult task. In the words of Oscar Wilde, it is so because “it is much more easy to have sympathy with suffering than it is to have sympathy with thought.” Consequently, practical issues at hand are often prioritized at the expense of ideological critique. “Accordingly,” Oscar Wilde continues, “with admirable though misdirected intentions, they very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see.”

The “they” Oscar Wilde refers to can here be understood as proponents of the sustainable development discourse. It is no surprise that remedies that are ‘founded on misdirected sympathy disguised in seriousness and sentimentality’ often fall short of what is required. George Monbiot echoed the voice of Wilde when he, in an article in The Guardian, described Theresa May’s 25-Year Environmental Plan like this: “We propose to nod sagely and look very serious.”

Romantic illusions

But Oscar Wilde also forces us to ask another question: is it wise to build a system that relies on charitable acts from those who have the resources to be charitable? Wilde answers the question in the negative by proposing a different strategy: “The proper aim is to try and reconstruct society on such a basis that poverty will be impossible.”

It is not hard to imagine the objections to this suggestion. What are the alternatives to an ecologically modernized capitalist system, the alternatives to green growth? Solutions that do not primarily base themselves on market mechanisms and a promethean belief in technology are, in the words of Pope Francis, automatically dismissed as “romantic illusions.” But perhaps the ultimate romantic illusion is to believe it is possible to create a qualitatively different society within a qualitatively unchanged political-economical system. The challenge is that we have so far not been able to vividly imagine, let alone coherently describe, a qualitatively different alternative.

A qualitatively different universe

To address the complex issues of sustainability and social injustices, the challenge today consists just as much in formulating sharp critiques of current ideology as it does in formulating a qualitatively different economic system. The discourse of sustainable development does neither. Ultimately, sustainable development often reinforces the established ideological landscape, where “(…) subjects as well as objects constitute instrumentalities in a whole that has its raison d’être in the accomplishments of its overpowering productivity. Its supreme promise is an ever-more-comfortable life for an ever-growing number of people who, in a strict sense, cannot imagine a qualitatively different universe of discourse and action” (Herbert Marcuse in One-Dimensional Man, 1964).

It is in this light we must understand why the Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, encourages people who want to create change to stop acting and start thinking. The justification of this apparently paradoxical suggestion lies in the premise that what is needed most today is critique of ideology; critique of the raison d’être and supreme promise of industrial, liberal capitalism — also of the “green” and “sustainable” kind.

In other words, the best way to have sympathy with suffering is to have sympathy with thought. Ultimately, by neglecting the importance of a strong critique of ideology, the project of sustainable development risks having sympathy with neither.

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