‘How fucked are we really?’: Perspectives on sustainability from the humanities

How we think about environmental catastrophe requires a philosophical change.

“So, how fucked are we really?”

That was the question two panellists joked should have been the name of this month’s sustainability-themed Outside the Square, which was instead titled “Are Humans the Only Beings that Matter? How To Be Sustainable: Perspectives from the Environmental Humanities”.

This was never a panel to teach us how to live a zero-waste life, or start our own veggie garden, or how to recycle and upcycle. What it did do was encourage us to step back and understand the shortcomings of these initiatives in an age of environmental crisis, as Professor David Schlosberg, Dr Astrida Neimanis, and Dr Alana Mann gave us reasons as to why these measures are prohibitive for many, given the systems and structural barriers that exist in our lives.

To start examining the relationship between nature and culture, Schlosberg reminded us that the issue isn’t that there isn’t enough science, or that the science isn’t good enough. Rather, the crux of the problem is that having good science doesn’t automatically mean good policy will follow. With the humanities and social sciences, he said that we can hope to look to alternative ways of thinking and of looking at our relationship with human and non-human beings.

To this end, Neimanis suggested that the social sciences can help us imagine a different way of living. Our imaginations have given us things like science fiction, which provides examples of an environmental future that can be both dystopian and entail radical new ways of living — realities which are already being lived out by certain communities around the world. But we can do more with imagination: it enables us to map out how we will arrive at these new ways of living. Instead of focusing on being “sustainable,” we should ask ourselves what it is that we want to sustain. We would then realise that we need radical transformation in the way we think, act, and make new structures.

One part of this is rethinking the idea of the individual. To Schlosberg, the systems and laws in our world are so based on the idea of the individual that we have forgotten that the individual doesn’t exist outside of the systems we live within. Change means looking at the system holistically, reconnecting with the landscape and the flow of materials through communities, following the supply chain, and remembering the geographical locality and seasonal nature of crops. There is a sense of stewardship: you work in a cooperative relationship, not an exploitative relationship, and only by achieving such symbiosis can we understand how to solve the environmental challenges of today.

Relating these concepts to recent developments in the real world, an audience member brought up Coles and Woolworths’ announcement to phase out plastic bags. While it’s a step in the right direction, Schlosberg pointed out that plastic bags are a very small part of the food value chain. More inspiring than a simple bag ban are those who imagine new ways of living. The City of Detroit, for example, intervened in the food system to fix food insecurity, unlike the City of Sydney’s individualistic approach. Detroit provided an incubator for new businesses coming out of vulnerable communities to provide food, to create different flows of food through a community, to work and train together, and to build a new community around a new food system that addresses food insecurity.

The need for a transformation in the way we see ourselves as part of the human and non-human world, and the need to imagine a new way of living, resonates deeply. After watching the ABC’s recent War on Waste program, I felt hopeful and encouraged by the uptake on reusable coffee cups and increased effort to reduce food waste. I couldn’t help but feel, however, apprehensive about the longevity of this enthusiasm. How long will it be until the appeal of convenience trumps the desire to reduce waste, and how long until the urge to shop cheap and fast fashion makes us forget the ethics behind its creation? We desperately need an overhaul of current systems of production and distribution.

As Mann pointed out, we’re often told we have the power to speak with our wallets, and that consumption is agency. What remains unsaid, then, is that structural elements exist which inevitably prevent us — and particularly those who are disadvantaged — from modifying our shopping patterns for the better of the environment and people involved. There needs to be structural change so that the farmers and businesses who are attempting to address systematic issues in the product value chain are able to remain viable. As individuals, we should exercise the little bit of control we have in supporting farmers and businesses trying to enact structural change, remembering that higher level change comes from all directions; at the grassroots level as well as the decision making level.

One of the aims of the Outside the Square series is to change the way we think. This session certainly changed the way I thought about our capacity to bring about change, and gave us more ideas to consider than straight-forward answers. Hopefully, in the not-too-far future, the ideas discussed will help change the way we act, and the way that systems operate, so that we can be, well, less fucked.