Sustainability is the New Christianity

The Crusades.
Image from Sergey Kohl/Shutterstock.

Once again the western world is attempting to dictate the actions of the whole world, this time through a lens of sustainability. Western culture began its crusade for world domination with religion and the propagation of Judeo-Christian values to all corners of the planet. It has continued through the spreading of western scientific discovery, industrial technology, and more recently social and cultural norms portrayed through the media. Our newest method of western proliferation is sustainability. 

As the article points out, sustainability is an English word (duh). However, the implications of this are impactful for understanding how the idea of sustainability is translated into actions across cultures, especially those that do not speak Indo-European languages. The example given by Maldonado et. al. takes place in Guatemala in a Mam-dominated village. There, western ideas of sustainability are not sustainable; they are destroying local ways of life and disrupting systems that have been built up over hundreds of years. 

The most unsettling aspect of this argument is that until reading this article I had never considered that sustainability (the word and the idea) would not translate across boundaries. I had always thought that sustainable practices should be implemented across the world (with changes to adapt to local cultures, of course) as a global solution to climate change. Using a different word, especially one from a non-English language, had never crossed my mind. It is time we step outside of our western way of thinking and look to other cultures around the world for sustainable practices instead of trying to fight western practices of capitalism and consumerism (and their associated negative impacts) with a western idea of sustainability.

Activists, philosophers, scientists, and other environmental scholars say we need a “World War II scale mobilization” or to “adopt a spiritual ecology” to fight climate change, but in a way is that not what we have already? Sustainability is the religion of western environmentalists, and we (western environmentalists) are the missionaries, spreading the practices and ideas of sustainable living to improve the health of the global citizens and the planet itself. However, as Maldonado et. al. discuss, the benefits of sustainability are not, in fact, beneficial for everyone. From this perspective, is the propagation of sustainability any better than the spreading of Judeo-Christian beliefs?

We Invented Everything, Right?

Taro Farming in Hawaii – Image provided by Kim Vukovich

In “Sustainability” from the series: Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen by Emily Yates-Doerr, Maria Garcia Maldonado, and Rosario Garcia Meza, Doerr and co. talk about the importance of a reference frame when addressing global topics, in this case the way in which sustainability is presented globally, and particularly the way in which the United States and the western world in general approach sustainability. While the western world has progressed rapidly in terms of technology and mass production, it tends to assume that it has many if not all solutions. When addressing the concept of sustainability, it goes to follow that the western development of this practice will be the ideal manifestation of sustainability, an example that should be used as a model for the rest of the world. Like science, religion, and philosophy, the western world now seems to be pushing it’s approach to sustainability on the rest of the world.

While Doerr and co. spend some time pointing out the ways in which western world’s approaches to sustainability do not apply ideally to the entire world, what I feel this article is really getting at is that each culture, each natural environment, each society has a form of sustainability that suits them best. There is no end all be all approach. Something that shows this well is the variation in dialect surrounding the concept of sustainability. While we have our terms, other cultures and languages have words which fit their styles of life, their approach to land use, their resources in ways that describe the practices which they employ. Sustainability is not a universal end all be all concept, it is an approach to the world around us which varies in practice from place to place. That said, it may not be our place, as the western world, to implement our views of sustainability onto other cultures and countries.

Our approach is shaped by large communities, big businesses, big agriculture, national and international commerce. It is far removed from the small scale practice of sustainability; ideas such as horticulture, local resource reliance, community gardens, and other small scale practices that we have historically dismissed, discouraged, and now no longer what shape our view of sustainability (for example look at the alteration of Hawaiian culture through the destruction of it’s local and sustainable practices during the time before the United States decided to invade). Our concept of sustainability is created to continue our way of life, and given the impact of our capitalist and consumerist mind state, it might be time that we think about learning from less developed countries for once.


Source: Alamy stock photos

“Sustainability” from the series Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen, brought to my mind a concept I had never before considered: the translation of sustainability. Though I had been introduced to the idea of a completely western-dominated lexicon before, where western words get brought into other languages, I had not considered the areas it did, or did not, cover. Before, I assumed that it was only western brand names that were carried over (ie Nike, Adidas, etc) or western inventions (ie the TV or WiFi). Until the reading mentioned that sustainability had two translations–“sostenible and sustentable”–I had not considered that sustainability was a western idea. The language(s) spoken by an individual influences their ideas by limiting the words available to describe an idea.  The fact that some languages may not have a direct translation for sustainability adds another layer into the complexity of the issues surrounding sustainability.

Not only does the article point out this issue, it also alludes to the idea that rural communities already practice sustainability, even though they do not have the vocabulary to properly define it. In the second half of the article, Marta’s community is described as one which works with the earth to both sustain it and themselves. Already sustainable practices had been put into use, like the storage bins or the use of feces instead of chemicals. Even though Marta’s community does not have a direct translation for sustainability, they are still concerned about it. Concern for the future of the planet transcends language and cultural barriers, affecting all humans. This gives me hope for the future, that we–as a species–can collectively make a change for the better.

One sided critique

In their essay “Sustainability”, Doerr & co. seek to challenge the idea of a universal concept for “sustainability”. This reminds me of Yusoff’s book we read a few weeks ago. Both tries to challenge a universal conception of the Anthropocene, and both demonstrate the unequal distribution of harm and suffering caused by the ecological crisis that disproportionately affect black and brown folks across the world. Unlike Yusoff’s book which was much more abstract, this article uses a specific and concrete example of Doña Marta to illustrate the problem. Doerr & co.’s description of “U.S corn came rushing in to feed them, family after family returned this gift with their sons and daughters”, reminded me of the wave of Mexican immigrants coming to the United States in the 1990s. After NAFTA was signed, many farmers struggled to survive due to the privatization of communal land and competition from larger U.S corn producers. As such, many sold their land and moved into the cities or up north across the border to find work. However, I do find myself disagreeing with Doerr & co. on some points. Although they present a more nuanced understanding of sustainability, they present Western conception of progress as one dimensional. For instance, they contrast Marta’s understanding of sustainability with “the destination-oriented future of modernity’s progress or the never-satisfied longing of industrial capitalism” (Doerr et al. par. 4). However, progress in modernity have not always looked the same. The classical enlightenment notion of progress is not one that is “destination-oriented”. On the contrary, it is precisely the lack of destination that makes freedom possible. This was what caused the philosopher Immanuel Kant to write “when we ask, Are we now living in an enlightened age? the answer is, No, but we live in an age of enlightenment” (par. 9). I am also perplexed as to what Doerr & co. might mean when they write “the objective is rather to care for the stratified reproductions between not-so-global global languages and the various strategies of world making”. If it is to mean that we should take the world making strategies of people like Marta as against the “global” language of sustainability, then I would disagree. From the description of Marta’s world view, it appears to me that her concern was surviving the ravages of ecological degradation and as such contains no better guide for tackling the ecological crisis than the “global” language of sustainability. This is to repeat the false dichotomy between Main Street and Wall Street. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek once wrote “the solution is neither Main Street nor Wall Street, but to change the system where Main Street cannot function without Wall Street” (par. 5).

1. Kant, Immanuel. What Is Enlightenment. Columbia University,

2. Žižek, Slavoj. “Occupy Wall Street: What Is to Be Done next? .” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Apr. 2012,

everyone needs a seat at the table

Climate change is a major problem we as a society are having to face. But it is something that is and will continue to affect people at disproportionate rates. As of right now the way we have been going about discussing and trying to tackle climate change seems to leave several important voices out. In the article Sustainability, it highlights the importance of acknowledging and learning about different cultures and people’s way of life in the context of sustainability. 

Like we have discussed in class, climate change is going to affect the most vulnerable first and yet we as a society continue to leave them out of our conversations. Major nations are talking to each other about climate change, but they are leaving out some of the smaller nations who are already feeling the disastrous effects of climate change. These nations are making life altering decisions assuming that their views and ideas will match up with everyone else’s. It is so easy to forget or ignore things that are not in our day to day lives, but like the article states “we might also pay attention to whose practices of time and space dominate the discussions and whose go ignored”. We miss valuable insight when we fail to include everyone in the conversations. How are we possibly going to limit the devastating effects of climate change if we fail to acknowledge everyone around us? 

Image from Creative Commons

Creator: Hey!Cheese Photography

Sustainability, Who?

“Sustainability,” an article included in the series “Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen,” details the relationship between those responsible for climate change, and those who are going to be most impacted by it. “Sustainability” is written in part almost as an anecdote, detailing the effects of climate and health policy on Doña Marta’s life (as a resident of Guatemala). Climate policy at a national level has impacted her life personally, exemplified by the presence of “silver silos,” “goats for milk,” and “surplus corn flour, red beans, and a nutrient powder that came with a recipe for pancakes” brought by US Agency for International Development. This example brings up two major issues with climate policy: it is developed and written by those responsible for the majority of effects of climate change, and is simply pushed on those who are going to be hit the hardest. Additionally, climate and health policy is global (as led by the United Nations). In this capacity, climate and health policy is written as a one size fits all goal, when it is not. 

It would be illogical to assume that all countries follow the western ways of life, and speak the same language(s) found in the countries that do. While English may be the Lingua Franca, it is not the language of a large portion of the global population. By writing our policies in English, and by adapting them to fix what western living individuals do wrong, we are ignoring the languages and cultures of the world. We are ignoring the way other individuals live; how they sustain themselves, how they raise their children, and the values that they hold dear. We need to become a unified world, that has knowledge about cultures, and have respect and regard for every human. We need to take into consideration the opinions and possible solutions presented by the people who don’t have the western way of thinking, who have ideas to help their own communities and countries. One line in “Sustainability” reads, “Sustainability (and, we might add, becoming and emerging, since these terms often go hand-in-hand) may too easily connote the progressive transition of a singular, causal system, leading us toward the project of developing a better future that has long been modernity’s destructive lure.” We need to be inclusive, because one solution isn’t going to fix the variety of problems that have arisen due to climate change. And we need to help those who are going to be affected the most, the most. Because they have less time (they will feel the effects sooner) than we do.