Initial Publication Date: October 4, 2019

All Shall Be Judged Politically: Seeking Consensus for a Sustainability-Literate Dialogue

Eric Pyle, James Madison University

One of the most critical educational needs that I perceive is the development of consensus on the what the term "sustainability" actually means. For some, it is a doctrine through which society can live within its means, establishing some sort of equilibrium between the demand for resources necessary to survive and development, the impact on the environment from the extraction and processing of those resources, and the management of the waste that is inevitably produced as a result of the production and use of those resources. For others, the term invokes a rejection of the notion that such an equilibrium is possible and that the solution to waste management is to simply and radically reduce the rate at which resources are extracted and processed. A third narrative rejects the notion of sustainability as irrelevant, that resources should be extracted as quickly and efficiently as possible in support of growth, and that wastes are mere externalities. Such a tripartite distinction of definitions of sustainability invites a richer discussion, and recognition of the complexity of the attainment of consensus of the definition. In short, sustainability not a "We vs. They" binary distinction, but a domain in which context is as important as content.

In representing the educational aspects of sustainability, therefore, one need consider far more than the content ideas, science & engineering processes, and cross-cutting concepts (as represented by the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012)), but also the social and economic aspects of sustainability, which drive towards a broader political discussion. Multiple dimensions are not a problem for geoscientists, used to thinking in both spatial and temporal terms, but also in relative influences of such dimensions. Ternary diagrams are frequently used to depict the relationship between three separate variables. The narratives described above invite a ternary representation, inasmuch as Kevin Phillips in Wealth and Democracy (2002) broadened the political dialogue from Liberal v. Conservative to a ternary interaction of Liberal x Conservative x Progressive, with these perspectives occupying the vertices of the ternary plot Using environmental ethical positions as a proxy for these political positions as biocentric, anthropocentric, and ecocentric.

Garrett Hardin's seminal work, The Tragedy of the Commons (1968), casts a shadow of pessimism over humanity's capacity to live sustainably within its means. He recognizes that society in general is invested deeply into a development ethic, such that individuals will continue to exploit resources from the expectation of continual growth and acting as though resource degradation was not a concern. Hardin argues that the expectation that technology will save us from the crises we create will eventually reach an insurmountable barrier, and that other solutions require unpalatable political decisions. Applying the ternary approach defined above yields a plot that resembles a feldspar composition plot (CaO-Na2O-K2O), whereby a "miscibility gap" exists between the anthropocentric development perspective and the biocentric preservation ethic. These two endpoints have no correspondence and cannot co-exist. Short of developing such a dialog, Hardin contends that the future is bleak.

In contrast to Hardin's dark future, Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues (Ostrom, Burger, Field, Norgaard, & Policansky, 2003), offers a somewhat more optimistic outcome, dependent upon dialogue about common goals for access and use of common-pool resources (CPRs), and mutually enforced sanctions for misuse. Participants to the dialogue must enter it having examined their own motives and interests first, but with the understanding that the goal of such a dialogue is to develop local means of implementing broader scale goals. In some ways, the intent of the Paris Climate Accord was based on this premise, but without the sanctions component. Through such dialogue, locally meaningful solutions can be developed from an evolving trust. Every participant gets at least some of their needs met in reaching a non-zero consensus on what sustainability represents. In terms of the ternary analogy, evolution within a QFL (quartz-feldspar-lithics) ternary makes an appropriate representation. The conversation can evolve to reflect the local environment, working towards a mature dialogue.

A critical underpinning of Ostrom's approach is the education necessary to: (a) reach a consensus of definition of sustainability, (b) acceptance of broad rational regional, national and international policy, with (c) actions related to CPR of production and waste management consigned to local rule-making and solutions. Lacking such an education, participants will continually be on unequal footing, which creates zero-sum attitudes unlikely to reach anything resembling a consensus on sustainability. One side will always reject the terms of the other side of any discussion. A deep understanding in the relationships between humans, the local context, and broader environment is a necessary first step in reaching consensus on the definitions of sustainability. These relationships represent a complex system, subject to all of the defining characteristics of systems. Through the understanding of these characteristics, a common language on sustainability might emerge. As Metzger and Curren (2017) point out, language and ethics matter in discussions of sustainability.

Hardin, G., 1968. The Tragedy of the Commons. Science, New Series, 162(3859), 1243-1248.

Metzger, E. P., and Curren, R. R., 2017. Sustainability: Why the Language and Ethics of Sustainability Matter in the Geoscience Classroom, Journal of Geoscience Education, 65:2, 93-100, DOI: 10.5408/16-201.1

National Research Council, 2002. A framework for K-12 science literacy: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. 320 pp.

Ostrom, E., Burger, J, Field, C. B, Norgaard, R. B., and Policansky, D., 1999. Revisiting the commons: Local lessons, global challenges. Science 284, 278-282 DOI: 10.1126/science.284.5412.278

Phillips, K., 2002. Wealth and democracy: How great fortunes and government created America's aristocracy. New York: Broadway Books. 474 pp.

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Pyle Sustainability Essay (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 18kB Oct4 19)