books sustainability

Book review: Sustainability, by Maurie J Cohen

Polity Press have a series called ‘Short Introductions‘, which are academic overviews of various subjects in social studies. The sustainability entry is by Maurie J Cohen, professor of Sustainability at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

As you’d expect from an introduction, it looks at what sustainability is, where the idea came from and how it is defined, and how useful it is in the real world. It includes summaries of lots of lines of thought within sustainability, such as the Anthropocene, the Great Acceleration or the Planetary Boundaries. It’s also engages with ideas that challenge sustainability, such as degrowth.

One aspect of the book that’s particularly helpful is that Maurie recognises sustainability as a social problem, not just one of technology. Often acute environmental problems are considered “too difficult to resolve through processes of democratic governance. Policymakers then hand off the resultant problems to applied scientists and engineers to address as best they can through technological means.” This means that sustainability debates are often dominated by technical discussions about the merits of various technologies and how to scale them up or down. This is very limiting, and excludes lots of useful solutions that aren’t technology based. The book gives plenty of room to these social dimensions of sustainability, such as the sharing economy, localization, minimalism, and other movements. “Sustainability is primarily a social problem” writes Cohen, “and we should be wary of the ultimate effectiveness of purely technological proposals.”

As an overview for students rather than an environmental advocacy book, Sustainability is alert to both the potential and the shortcomings of the theory, in what is a rapidly changing global context. It recognises that the whole idea of sustainability is contested, Western-centric, and that in many ways it can be considered to be failing.

After all, sustainability is relatively young as a concept. It’s really only been around since the late 80s, defined in the famous Brundtland Report as a way of framing urgent environmental issues and guiding the world’s response to them. But there’s no great track record of success since then. One could legitimately argue that sustainability hasn’t worked. “Virtually across the board, sustainability indicators have continued to move since the early 1990s in the wrong direction.” Other academics have been saying this for a while, such as John Foster, who gets a mention here.

When I first read about sustainability as a student, this critical element wasn’t there – it still felt like the future. It’s interesting to see a much more nuanced view presented here, and it makes me wonder if in another ten years, students won’t be learning about sustainability at all.

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