books climate change sustainability

After Sustainability, by John Foster

after sustainabilityOver the years there have been a number of notable books on climate change that have bucked the trend and taken the view that the climate can’t be saved. Clive Hamilton’s Requiem for a Species is one, Hell and High Water by Alistair McIntosh is another. Paul Kingsnorth didn’t give us a book, but hung up his environmentalist hat altogether to focus on the Dark Mountain journal and conference. So far, none of these books has penetrated very far into the mainstream view that climate change can be stopped, and that to think otherwise is to despair.

John Foster’s After Sustainability is another attempt. “Sustainability, like the mirage it is, has failure to reach it built into the pursuit of it” he writes. “That, for the corporate power and the mainstream political charade, is its point – that’s why they invented it.” The trouble is that sustainability, and sustainable development in particular, approaches climate change as a ‘problem’. It is an imbalance, a market failure, an unforeseen consequence of our technology. If we can work out where we’ve gone wrong, crunch the numbers on atmospheric CO2 concentrations and identify key tipping points, we can write up blueprints and strategies to fix it. We just need everyone to sign up, and then development can continue.

Given the last thirty years of dire warnings and repeated failures to heed them, Foster argues that this is little more than pretence. Sustainability is a form of denial. And as a philosopher, he’s written the book to try and drill down to the core reasons for this denial.

It’s an interesting intellectual journey. We deny the tragedy of climate change because we are addicted to ‘progressivism’, he suggests. That is the idea that the human story is one of endless material progress. We were worse off in the past, things have progressed and will continue to do so in the future – a key metanarrative of modernity that is embraced by politics of all flavours. (And is a modern idea, as historian Ronald Wright ably charts in his book A Short History of Progress) Why are we so fixated on progress? Because in a post-religious culture, it gives us a project bigger than ourselves. It makes sense of our personal finitude by locating it in something infinite. Progress for Foster is a secular substitute for resurrection, a way of coping with our fear of death in a world that no longer believes in heaven.

Why are we afraid of death, even as secularists? Cue a lengthy chunk of the book dedicated to how “the deep structure of reflexive consciousness, the conditions of our epistemic power, occlude and screen us from our natural unity as finite organic beings” Or how, essentially, we perceive of the world in the first person, but understand our role in the environment in the third person, and these can never be quite reconciled.  “It is these central chapters that are most likely to try the patience of the reader without a philosophical background” Foster observes, quite correctly, in the introduction.

Having plumbed the psychological depths of the problem, what do we do about climate change then? Foster is adamant that he has no ‘solutions’. Rather, he suggests we need to start with “existential resilience”. That’s “the capacity to cope with the stress of involved in our necessary exposure to being an ego-self: that is, to the specifically human, reflexive-conscious condition.” From this reconciled self that no longer needs to live entirely for itself, we can build emotional resilience to the tragedy we face, and then community resilience. At its most practical, the book recommends Transition Towns as the most relevant movement for change.

Being a secularist, Foster bends over backwards to describe this necessary wholeness, this centred self at one with the organic world, in non-spiritual language. But it is inescapably spiritual, and he admits that it is “in some sense like religious awareness”. As a Christian, I find myself translating Foster’s thoughts back into spiritual terms, and being struck at the poverty of philosophical language when handling these sorts of topics – something Foster does acknowledge. Do we need to talk about ‘the dark self’, or can we just call it a soul? Living “in practical optionality from human wildness” sounds a lot like the notion of understanding ourselves as part of a created order. Isn’t overcoming the ‘”for-me of the ego-self” just a whisker away from living a life of love?

It’s interesting how close Foster’s conclusions come to Alastair McIntosh, who approaches the same questions with a generous diversity of religious language:

“The secular age is the age of the lie” he writes, “for consciousness itself has dimmed. Our sense of aliveness fades, and there’s only the ache left behind – the lacuna of the soul – the promise of what could otherwise be that it’s so tempting to try and attain through everyday addictions… The more I reflect on the culture of the lie in relation to what drives world problems like war and climate change, the more I’m convinced that the deep answer starts with trying to live truthfully. Along with gratitude, kindness, mindfulness and the love of beauty, truth is the grace that kickstarts our lacklustre spirits back into touch. And so, we must re-set the little battlefield of our lives on the great field of Dharma.”

My main problem with After Sustainability then, turns out to be a problem with secularism. By creating a no-go area around religion and addressing itself to an atheist readership, the book closes the door on all the insights of ancient wisdom and rules out its language. As it wrestles with the unknown, and the unknowable within ourselves, at times it reads like someone trying to describe a football match using only cricketing terms.

There are other problems, less personal to me and my own perspective. After Sustainability is not an easy read, despite Foster’s best efforts to keep it accessible. Neither is it a happy one. It assumes the worst for the future, and speaks of ‘retrieval’, of saving what we can, rather than staving off disaster. The author insists his view is hopeful, but most readers will struggle to find anything resembling hope in the tragedy he anticipates. It’s not a practical book either. Even the final chapter, which aims to apply the arguments in the real world, still has long digressions into the legitimacy of political authority or the question of whether knowledge is intrinsically valuable. Finally, the book raises some difficult questions throughout, but somewhat inexplicably raises the most controversial of them right at the end. This seems rather unwise, as it’s bound to leave some readers with a thoroughly negative impression and lead to some damning reviews.

Ultimately though, like most philosophical works, whether you find the book relevant or not is going to depend on your appetite for hard thinking. That and your patience for long answers to vital existential questions that 99.99% of people have never thought to ask. If you are prepared to work at it, there are a lot of original and profound ideas to chew on here – some to ponder and reject, others to reflect on and change the way we understand ourselves, our culture and our changing climate.


  1. Jeremy:
    Thanks for the review and looking forward to reading John Foster’s work.
    The biologist, E.O. Wilson, entreats the secular and significant non-secular population to collaborate in the mutual interest of caring for Creation.

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