Sustainability Needs Citizens but…

Sustainability Needs Citizens but do Citizens Need Sustainability?

 Academic Article

Abstract: This article introduces the importance of sustainability and citizenship by demonstrating that sustainability needs citizens, but also that citizens could benefit from the worldview that sustainability provides. It defines sustainability as a contested concept that nevertheless includes five basic principles: acknowledgment of ecological limits, long-term outlook, systems perspective, deliberative methods and reflexivity. These principles are shown to challenge current dominant political thinking, especially neoliberalism, which reduces citizens to passive consumers. Thus, sustainability can provide a new narrative for citizens to articulate their concerns with current political issues in Europe and point the way to potential solutions. At the same time, advocates should not take the appeal of sustainability as a given, but must do more to engage citizens and invite them to join the cause.


Sustainability is a multi-faceted and ill-understood concept that has motivated mostly environmental scholars to call for massive socio-political and technological transformation. However, although sustainability calls for massive change that requires the engagement of every living thing on the planet, sustainability advocates tend to be elites who state their case primarily in the closed rooms of their own (environmental) conferences and publications. Sustainability scholars call for increased deliberative processes, more engagement with the public, active citizens and civil society engagement. In short, sustainability needs citizens to function. At the same time, many expect certain outcomes  – protection of natural ecosystems, reduction of material throughput and a commitment to social equity – that are anything but certain in messy democratic processes, especially when it is unclear whether these goals enjoy majority support. Sustainability requires the active engagement of citizens. But do citizens need sustainability?

Maybe. This article argues that, although citizens may not need sustainability, the perspective it provides can help deal with current problems of urgent public concern. Although the centrality of sustainability’s environmental appeal is a strong but minority interest in Europe, I point out that sustainability understood more broadly could provide a framework with which to understand and address the various crises currently facing Europe (and the rest of the world). However, for sustainability to resonate, advocates need to do a better job of connecting the sustainability framework to urgent issues as well as explaining why we should care about the environment; there is important advocacy and educational work to be done. Indeed, advocates would be well served to ask themselves whether citizens need them at all.

Sustainability in Five Principles

Sustainability has been described as an ideal, a process, a contested concept and more (e.g. Connelly 2007; Kopfmüller et al. 2001; Victor 2006). As its use has proliferated from the confines of UN-commissioned reports (such as the 1987 Brundtland report Our common future) to BMW ads claiming “sustainable mobility”, some writers have argued that it has lost all meaning (e.g. Gunder 2007; Victor 2006). It is true that sustainability is contested in public discourse, with different interests seeking to imbue it with different – and at times incompatible – meanings. However, if it meant nothing, no one would use it; the discursive struggle that comes with defining sustainability indicates that its meaning is important. It is thus helpful to take Connelly’s (2007) suggestion to consider sustainability as what Gallie (1956) refers to as an essentially contested concept.

Sustainability has been described as an ideal, a process, a contested concept and more

Gallie’s essentially contested concept has five characteristics. 1) It signifies a “valued achievement”, which must be 2) composed of complex characteristics that are 3) weighted differently, with multiple interpretations having equal worth. 4) The achievement must be subject to changing circumstances that are unforeseen and 5) different actors acknowledge its contested nature (171-172). Sustainability clearly meets these criteria: it signifies a desirable future that requires change from a complex, uncertain present. The ubiquitous sustainability triangle even visualises the need to balance economic, environmental and social objectives, which people can understand and value differently.

If sustainability is a contested concept, it becomes possible to sketch out the general criteria that are acknowledged and whose significance is contested. Through a review of the English- and German-language academic literature on sustainability in the past 20 years, I have come up with five principles of sustainability (Pettibone forthcoming; see also Dresner 2002; Grober 2010). These are:

  • Acknowledgment of limits: We have overshot firm ecological limits (see e.g. Daly & Cobb 1989; Meadows et al. 2004).
  • Long-term outlook: We care about humans and the planet in the distant future (whether 50, 100, or 1,000 years from now) (see especially Daly & Cobb 1989).
  • Complex, systems view: The world is composed of dynamic, interconnected systems and is thus impossible to fully understand (see especially Ehrenfeld 2008; Meadows et al. 2004).
  • Deliberative: We must work together to determine the world we want and how to get there (see especially Dobson 2009; Fischer 2009; UN Conference on Environmental Development 1993).
  • Reflexive: We need to act quickly, learn from our mistakes, and constantly rethink our assumptions (see especially BUND & Misereor 1996; Voß, Bauknecht & Kemp 2006).

These principles reveal sustainability not as a specific policy programme but a general framework or worldview. In this way, sustainability is a new way to understand and address urgent problems.

Why sustainability needs citizenship

These principles highlight the importance of public deliberation and citizen engagement for a sustainability transition. Sustainability calls for changes that advocates of a more engaged and active citizenry would applaud, such as more deliberative democratic processes, inclusion of non-scientific and local knowledge, and consideration of inter- and intra-generational equity. However, sustainability works from a normative premise that is more controversial than commonly acknowledged, and thus requires advocates to make a persuasive case to the public at large. Specifically, sustainability presumes that human beings have overshot fundamental ecological limits, that this will lead to ecological catastrophe in the next 50 to 100 years and that we must therefore dramatically change our personal lifestyles, economic and political systems and priorities in order to provide future generations a quality of life equal to our own. Although such a normative claim is persuasive, it should not be taken as a given: conservative pushback against climate action in the United States shows that neither acknowledgment of current ecological crises nor concern for future generations should be taken for granted.

Sustainability needs citizens to effect the large-scale transition called for to prevent ecological collapse. Dobson (2007, this issue) discusses a new model of environmental citizenship that “also requires daily vigilance by citizens themselves in regard to their impact on the environment. The form of citizens’ daily lives – their ‘participation’ in the widest sense – is what shapes the contours of sustainability itself” (133). This is linked to the attitudinal change seen as necessary and studied in Dunlap’s (2008) work on belief systems with the New Ecological Paradigm. The recent German Advisory Council on Global Change report on a societal contract for sustainability additionally calls for national and international political action (WBGU 2011). In short, sustainability cannot be realised in a vacuum, but requires major attitudinal and behavioural change from the individual to the societal level.

At the same time, much sustainability writing focuses too much on the big picture and not enough on people’s everyday reality or even concrete political issues. My own research into how US and German cities are incorporating sustainability into political processes demonstrates the critical gaps this leaves (Pettibone forthcoming): even if the mayor of Hamburg agrees that we must live within ecological limits, what does that mean for transportation planning or downtown development projects? Luks (2010) has argued that sustainability needs to get out of the university and into people’s heads; writing with Siemer in 2007, he suggests jokes as one way to bring sustainability thinking into the mainstream. We still have a lot of work to do to show citizens, policymakers and civil society actors that sustainability is a meaningful way to understand the world and effect change.

What sustainability offers citizens

Sustainability is not a concrete policy program; it is a worldview or – dare I say – a political ideology. It offers a set of premises through which one can understand political problems. This, I would argue, is precisely what makes it so valuable to citizens.

If we look back at the core principle of sustainability – ecological limits – it forces us to understand our consumption in a new light. It says that more is the problem. This poses a direct challenge to the political outlook that many of today’s protest movements have arisen in response to: neoliberalism. This is in contrast to numerous authors who contend that sustainability, especially in its manifestation as “sustainable development”, has been co-opted by neoliberal advocates (e.g. Davidson 2010; Gunder 2006; Krueger & Gibbs 2007). It is indeed true that political discourse is marked by attempts to redefine key terms in your favour, but I would argue that the pushback to redefine sustainability as, for example, ecological modernisation, is reflective of the discursive struggle surrounding any contested concept and may be an indication of how revolutionary it is in its undiluted form. More important is how advocates’ own definition actually challenges neoliberal principles in several important ways. Table 1 presents an overview of the main areas of contention.

Table 1: How sustainability challenges dominant political thought

Sustainability Neoliberalism
Key principle:Acknowledgment of limits: We have overshot firm ecological limits Challenges:Growth imperative (Hackworth 2007)
Long-term outlook: We care about humans and the planet in the distant future (whether 50, 100, or 1,000 years from now) The future is discounted based on market interest rates (Daly & Cobb 1989; Dietz & Neumayer 2009)
Complex, systems view: The world is composed of dynamic, interconnected systems and thus impossible to fully understand The world is a machine; broken parts can be dealt with in isolation by experts (Harvey 2005; Wheeler 2004)
Deliberative: We must work together to determine the world we want and how to get there Objective scientific facts should guide decision-making (Fischer 2009; Stedman Jones 2012)
Reflexive: We need to act quickly, learn from our mistakes, and constantly rethink our assumptions Decisions should be centralised to promote efficiency (Hackworth 2007; Harvey 2005)

Current dominant political thought in Europe comes from several strands of thinking, primarily neoliberalism, modernism and economic theory more generally. I would like to spend a moment specifically on neoliberalism, as it is a political ideology that has risen rapidly in Europe over the past few decades, and has come to influence much European policy-making in a way that is detrimental to citizens. Although neoliberalism, like sustainability, does not find universal agreement across major writers, politicians and activists claiming to promote it, it does follow several key principles, and includes a particular way of understanding the world.

First, neoliberalism arose as a challenge to collectivism; its central guiding principle is focused on guaranteeing individuals’ freedom from government intervention (Harvey 2005; Stedman Jones 2012). In particular, neoliberal ideology asserts that free markets can more effectively allocate goods and services than governments (Stedman Jones 2012). Because its proponents primarily use economic theories to understand the world, neoliberals generally adhere to economic truisms such as the discount rate, which devalues the future by using market interest rates (Daly & Cobb 1989; Dietz & Neumayer 2009) and suggests that free markets can properly resolve issues of distribution and environmental pollution (Simon’s argument in Myers & Simon 1994). As implemented politically, neoliberalism is primarily a growth agenda (Hackworth 2007): economic growth is seen as the panacea to most policy programs. These assumptions are precisely what have led to the numerous crises in Europe.

But what does this mean for citizens? Due to the ideological features mentioned above, neoliberalism invites a specific vision of citizens that strips us of our complex humanity. Specifically, neoliberalism adheres to economic theories of rational choice, in which humans are understood to make decisions on a consistent rational basis that serves their individual interests. In laymen’s terms, it means I only care about myself. This theoretical model has been disproven by every social movement throughout history, as well as at the individual level on a daily basis, such as when you hold a door open for a stranger. Beyond being empirically false, the rational choice model relegates citizens to the role of consumers (and perhaps producers). Expert scientists and politicians are to decide for us whether genetically modified food is healthy, nuclear energy is safe and the euro is sound. All we as citizens have to do is earn money in the labour market and spend it on goods and services that keep the economy growing. The neoliberal model, in other words, has no room for citizens whose thoughts and feelings extend beyond their wallets.

Beyond being empirically false, the rational choice model relegates citizens to the role of consumers (and perhaps producers)

Sustainability gives citizens a new understanding of basic problems that have driven many to the streets. In a way, it gives a narrative to our discontent. Problems of inequality, unemployment and debt come from a “more” mentality that seeks economic growth at all costs. Many protesters understand this, but sustainability expresses this in a compelling narrative that also includes solutions.

Thus, in addition to helping citizens to understand the problems they face, sustainability offers a way out. One problem those frustrated by the status quo have is that they do not know how to proceed. If coal, petrol and nuclear energy pollute the environment and our lungs, how can we wean ourselves off them? If corporate greed caused the financial crisis, how do we prevent it from happening again? If Europe is losing its young people to unemployment and political malaise, how do we incorporate them into a society marked by austerity politics? From a sustainability perspective, these problems are reframed as the undue emphasis of a short-term, individualist economic outlook at the expense of the community’s long-term stability. Sustainability does not provide answers, but it does offer tools to find them.

Here, calls for active engagement, critical thinking and policy-making away from a growth imperative can serve as first steps to solutions. The entire system must be changed, but we should be pragmatic and reflective in initiating these changes. We need to think more about the future, the environment and our social bonds rather than just the economic bottom line. Some movements have begun to use sustainability thinking to reconsider politics in Europe: the massive degrowth conference organised by ATTAC and others in Leipzig this summer presents one example. Also, small-scale initiatives have taken up sustainability in the form of urban gardens, Transition Towns and lending libraries. Connecting existing efforts to social protest movements and each other could help build the sustainability coalition and aid individual change efforts.

Conclusions and next steps

This article has argued that sustainability needs citizens, but also that citizens can benefit from sustainability. Sustainability is an emerging worldview that directly challenges aspects of dominant political thought (i.e. neoliberalism) that have led to several crises in Europe that have harmed citizens. Sustainability can thus help reframe problems in a way that highlights problematic false assumptions such as a need for growth, a preference for centralised decision-making led by experts, and a discounting of the future and dismissal of environmental problems. In addition, sustainability can also point the way forward by advocating for a transformation towards a European politics that is concerned with ecological limits, interested in the long term, systems-oriented, reflexive and deliberative. In this way, sustainability both points out the disease and suggests a cure.

At the same time, proponents of sustainability must acknowledge the normative position of their work and do more to convince the broader public of the urgency of the ecological, social and economic problems we face and the usefulness of a sustainability framework to resolve these problems. A key task in the sustainability transition is to win over hearts and minds. This will be accomplished only through the diligent efforts of both sustainability advocates and citizens.


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