The dispute over sustainability: false solutions versus real alternatives

The dispute over sustainability: false solutions versus real alternatives

Customers buy televisions at a shopping centre during Black Friday (now a global shopping event), in São Paulo, Brazil, on 25 November 2021.

(AFP/Nelson Almeida)

There was a time when environmentalists concentrated their efforts on trying to make governments, businesses and public opinion understand the need to move towards sustainable economic activity. Today, political discourse and marketing narratives are awash with the term ‘sustainable’ – alternated with similar adjectives such as ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’. The environmental movement’s call was clearly heard, but it seems it was a pyrrhic victory.

The current debate is about the content of the term sustainability and whether the solution to the environmental problems caused by the capitalist market economy is more market mechanisms. It is important to clarify here that when we say environmental problems, we are referring not only to climate change but also to the loss of biodiversity; the pollution of oceans and territories; soil infertility and desertification; growing waste generation; the emergence of pandemics and other aspects of ecosystem collapse – which we shall refer to generically as the environmental issue.

But, what does sustainability mean? The term came to prominence with the Brundtland Report, published in 1987, for the United Nations. The text pitted the economic development approach against that of environmental sustainability, and defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations”.

Over the last 35 years, however, the content of the term has been diluted to the extent that anything, if backed by a good marketing campaign, can be called sustainable, whilst the outlook for future generations is increasingly uncertain.

Business marketing has been so excessive in its misuse of labels such as ‘green’, ‘sustainable’, ‘eco’ and ‘bio’ that the term greenwashing is now widely used to refer to companies that claim to care about the environment while continuing to pursue a business model that is highly polluting. The examples are countless: multinational electricity companies that boast of producing ‘green energy’ while having a hugely negative socio-environmental impact, especially in the countries of the Global South; ‘organic’ fruit transported over thousands of kilometres and packed in lavish amounts of plastic; ‘sustainable’ fashion based on the same fast fashion model that violates workers’ rights, uses chemicals that damage their health, pollutes territories and generates huge amounts of waste.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the dispute over sustainability, as it is about so much more than marketing. With the blessing of multilateral institutions and most governments, we are seeing the rise of a ‘green economy’ that maintains that the market can and should solve the environmental issue. The paradigmatic mechanism is the carbon market, which commodifies the emissions that accelerate climate change. Capitalism has finally succeeded in turning air into a commodity.

‘Green capitalism’ is an oxymoron

Sustainability understood according to the criteria of ‘green capitalism’ is enabling some of the most polluting companies on the planet to receive generous funding, for example from the so-called EU Green Deal and the Next Generation EU funds. This is particularly striking in the case of energy companies, such as Iberdrola, Enel Endesa and Naturgy, which market themselves as being committed to green energy while spearheading mega-projects with dire socio-environmental impacts in Latin American countries.

What is at play here is the environmental issue being turned into a massive business opportunity. But the very idea of green capitalism is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms: capitalism rests on endless capital accumulation; the planet, however, has finite resources.

It is very easy to succumb to the temptation of believing, as these companies tell us in their marketing messages, that we can change the planet simply by buying products from their new ‘green’ range, without changing anything else – neither our lifestyles nor the power structure that sustains the current socioeconomic order. There are no easy solutions to issues as complex as those raised here. If it seems easy, it is definitely not the solution. We are not, for instance, making any headway if we switch from oil palm monoculture to soybean monoculture, regardless of whether the EU considers one to be more ‘sustainable’ than the other. Nor are we going to solve the energy crisis by simply replacing conventional cars with electric cars powered by lithium batteries.

The challenging times we live in call for in-depth analysis about how we ended up where we are today. It is vital that we reach an accurate diagnosis if we want to draw up policies capable of remedying the problem. The environmental issue is directly linked to the logic of domination that has been shaping the world for centuries, and that rests on interconnected forms of oppression based on class, gender and racial discrimination. If we forget that the wounds of colonialism still run deep in contemporary societies and are kept alive by the neo-colonial mechanisms that update hierarchies established centuries ago, then we are misdiagnosing the problem and misconstruing the policies that are able to remedy it. Likewise, any historical vision that acknowledges the responsibilities of the Old Continent must recognise the climatic and environmental debt owed to the countries of the Global South.

Green economy solutions that avoid any mention of justice or rights deepen inequalities and environmental devastation, and fuel techno-optimism – the belief that technological breakthroughs will save us from disaster. But there will be no geoengineering capable of saving us from environmental collapse if we do not change the current predatory model of production, distribution and consumption.

Real alternatives and political imagination

In times when, as US critic and author Fredric Jameson said, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, avoiding easy solutions not only requires a major effort in terms of political imagination, but also a valuing of the experiences already in place. Those who are active in the social economy are often very aware of the extent to which their initiatives, however modest, are contributing to trying out new worlds, envisaging through praxis economic alternatives to a decadent system; new worlds where production, distribution and consumption are brought closer together, where awareness is restored of the human relations that underpin commercial exchanges, where ethics and justice regain their place; new worlds that can prevail over a world in which we have grown accustomed to thinking that the strongest are entitled to impose their will.

In contrast to those who strive to change something to ensure that everything stays the same, transformative and emancipatory collective processes promote community-based self-management. In contrast to the individualism promoted by advertising and marketing, social economy initiatives and food sovereignty and energy sovereignty movements emphasise the collective and community approach. The alternatives they promote go far beyond proposing individual alternatives to consumption needs – they build community, restore links, and invent new ways of doing and thinking together.

If we discard the easy solutions because they are false, then we are faced with a huge challenge that will involve technological changes but above all a profound transformation in collective imaginaries – the starting point for ethical and political change that places the reproduction of life, and not of capital, at the centre of economic activity and social life.

This article has been translated from Spanish by Louise Durkin

Nazaret Castro is co-author, together with Laura Villadiego and Brenda Chávez, of the essay ‘Consumo crítico. El activismo rebelde y la capacidad transformadora de la solidaridad’, (Critical Consumption. Rebellious activism and the transformative power of solidarity).