Vol 5, No 1 (2014): Who Cares About Sustainability?
The term “sustainability”, like so many terms in our political language, is both fashionable and vague. It is not difficult to see its appeal: who is not for sustainability? Likewise, different actors are fond of sustainability because it is vague enough to suit their own aims, and can mean everything from making an industrial process more cost-effective to protecting natural habitats and resources.
This allows numerous, often contradictory meanings to flourish. Though there is sometimes overlap – politicians can agree with industry that sustainability requires new technologies and green energy sources, and academics can agree with civil society that it calls for new methods of participation and civil action – these bright areas of agreement are surrounded by darkness and confusion, with different actors talking past one another and citizens barely involved at all in the discussion. With so many conversations about sustainability happening, with so many different meanings employed, it is difficult (if not impossible) for citizens to see what import the term has, and how it can be central to every discussion in our political lives.
This makes “sustainability” a difficult term for civil engagement and activism. By allowing the significance of the concept for citizenship to be obscured, and by not agitating for our own definition of sustainability linked to citizenship, we as citizens risk losing our very notion of citizenship itself.
In this issue of Open Citizenship “Who Cares About Sustainability?” we investigate what sustainability means in the European context, and how current debates within sustainability can address European challenges, particularly when linked to citizen action. The conclusions may be startling. The authors in this issue argue that sustainability challenges current political arrangements and discourses, which limit citizenship involvement in decision-making. The articles also describe ways in which sustainability is central to participation and dialogue in our political systems and can lead to greater justice and social equity when considered as a political process, not merely a political aim. Furthermore, sustainability can cause us to reflect upon our own actions and take into account personal considerations about our own current quality of life, as well as the quality of life of future generations; it can provide citizens with a set of effective political responses to social and natural crises, as well as highlight the importance of small-scale, local solutions.
What all the authors in this issue assume is that citizens have roles to play; we are not simply passive consumers. By bringing citizen roles into the equation our authors raise some very difficult questions, including ones about individual reflection and consumption. The articles herein demonstrate that sustainability can be a way of considering our short-term desires and actions against their long-term impact, and a way of working with industry, academia and government to develop collaborative solutions to problems. Once we make the decision to consider sustainability as a way of thinking, our authors argue, it allows us to put our priorities in order: Is the long-term well-being of the planet more or less important to us than short-term economic growth? Is it important for us to have a part in local decision-making through dialogue, or are we content with letting our elected representatives make decisions on our behalf? Even our lifestyles, political leanings and attachments come under scrutiny. Is a cosmopolitan citizenship – such as the one this journal encourages – good for the flourishing of sustainability? Are we deluding ourselves in thinking our current democracies allow for our involvement?
No matter how difficult the question considered, sustainability offers us a positive way of testing our beliefs against a standard with an ultimately optimistic aim: to leave our democracies and our planet in good shape for future generations. The articles here frequently show how citizens, organisations and academics are doing work to demonstrate that sustainability is not simply a way of limiting negative impact on the planet and our democracies, but of actively promoting positive impact.
Considered in this way, this issue presents a hopeful vision for citizens, EU institutions and national governments: that we are in a unique position to change our current perspectives on productivity and the future, and to change our trajectory from one of “growth at all costs”, to one that places less strain on the planet and more responsibility in the hands of citizens. With Europe still in the throes of an economic crisis and many EU nations once again turning to dangerous energy activities such as fracking and nuclear power, sustainability linked to citizenship can rally civil society, academics, industry, politicians and citizens together to discuss their impact on society and create a shared, long-term vision for the future. The key element here is dialogue between state and citizens. Such dialogue will allow us to redeem the term sustainability, reinvesting it with full significance and committing ourselves to take responsibility for our actions as citizens.
Having such a dialogue is vital not only to the creation of a shared political language, but also to our ability to see that we are able to create and express new meanings of the word, on our own terms, and not accept one single definition offered by a multiplicity of actors and interests. We as citizens risk losing a significant concept “out there” – to industry, academia and government – if we accept definitions of sustainability at face value; we risk losing a way of thinking, a set of resources and a frame of challenges that would support our notion of citizenship itself. Instead, we should aim to bring the term “in here” – to let it become part of our values and ideals.
The bright spots of overlap and agreement in our discussions are only made apparent through dialogue. We hope this issue is able to act as one such bright spot, and we hope it inspires you to become more involved with debates about sustainability, and to consider your own and your communities’ decision-making and environmental impact. As always, we invite all of our readers to approach us so we can discuss ways forward together – and of course we encourage you to take action in your own way.
Your CFE team.
Table of Contents
- Sustainability needs citizens, but do citizens need sustainability? Introduction to a disruptive worldview, Lisa Pettibone
- Education For Sustainability Citizenship In Europe, John Huckle
- Going Out of the Town Hall: the Benefits and How They Can Be Achieved, Susanne Langsdorf, Ania Rok, Katharina Umpfenbach, Julia Wittmayer
- Sustainable Technoscientific Development and the Innovator Citizen – Way Out or Deeper into the Crisis?, Thomas Pfister, Mark L. Flear
- Extreme climate events as opportunities for radical open citizenship, Beatrice John, Sacha Kagan
- Sustainability citizenship, Andrew Dobson
- Stakeholder Dialogues: A way to engage stakeholders for sustainability, Jade Buddenberg
- Civis Tardus, Jerrold Spencer Freitag
- Why sustainability is not a stool or a pretzel, but a Möbius strip, Laurie Kaye Nijaki
- The Club of Rome, Graeme Maxton
- Conservatism and sustainability, Roger Scruton
- Sustainability and social change, Angelika Zahrnt
- Building a movement for sustainability, Bill McKibben
- SchülerUni Nachhaltigkeit + Klimaschutz: Schools at University for Sustainability and Climate Protection, Karola Braun-Wanke
- Infostelle Klimagerechtigkeit, Judith Meyer-Kahrs
- VeloCityRuhr, Albert Hölzle
- The Global Ecovillage Network, Leila Dregger
- Green House, Brian Heatley
- SustaIN: Festival concept inspires citizen involvement for sustainable development, Molly Durham, Anna Hinrichsen, Pernille Vindberg
- Fossil Free Europe, Melanie Mattauch, Tim Ratcliffe