Sustainability for All

Robert Kurz

The peace movement ended when Nicole sang ‘a little peace’ and Ronald Reagan and his family joined the human chain. Today, every arms industrialist and torturer is for ‘a little peace’ and democracy. The same goes for the socio-ecological movement and its arbitrary concept of ‘sustainability,’ which misses a fundamental critique of economic calculation by a hair’s breadth.

Since modernity has been given a postmodern facelift, anything goes because nothing means anything anymore. Against the background noise of the global market machine, nothing matters: expressed in monetary terms, all things and living beings in this world seem to be of the same interchangeable quality. And freedom is insight into the necessity of market conformity; Orwell didn’t even need to invent ‘new-speak.’ A voracious plastic discourse is taking hold, appropriating all terms and levelling all differences, the more it talks about ‘individuality’ and ‘diversity.’ Any social critique is swallowed up to become a market commodity alongside credit cards, panty liners and cell phones. Politics and the media stir up the ready-made soup of the zeitgeist, in which the latest buzzwords have to swim for the sake of saleability; even if they have no more substance than a Knorr or Maggi ‘chicken soup’ contains real chicken. It seems that the plastic term ‘sustainability’ has been invented for this fast food ‘discourse.’ This new word is ideally suited to merge hard-headed market interests with whispers of ecological responsibility, in order to feed the product, which is edible for everyone, into the endless operation of morsel journalism.

With the help of ‘sustainability,’ one can effortlessly act as an eco-social beacon without questioning the prevailing social order and its economic rationalization of the world. Every child knows by now that economic rationality permanently externalizes costs: to society as a whole, to the future, and also to nature. It has proved virtually impossible to internalize these externalized social and environmental costs back into the economic balance sheet through political regulation.

But this could have been foreseen, because the essence of business management is that particular calculation which, in the interest of economic self-preservation, literally doesn’t give a damn about the whole. If you don’t screw up the world, the markets will punish you. In any case, it would be an absurd procedure to continue to organize society according to a principle that systematically calculates out the social and ecological consequential costs, only to want to add them back in later. Why not simply use society’s resources wisely?

Unfortunately, this common sense can only be mobilized if society puts an end to the blind business calculation robot. But let us not get carried away. The socio-ecological debate of the 1970s and 1980s was obviously a luxury product of the world market winners. Now the fun is over. And precisely at a time when eco-dumping and social deregulation are accelerating the crisis, ‘sustainability’ is making a career for itself. It is the title for the certificate of surrender of socio-ecological social criticism.

The faster tropical forests disappear and drinking water is contaminated, the more dramatically global mass unemployment and mass poverty increase, the more general the commitment to ‘sustainability’ becomes. This is why even a free-market radical like BDI boss Olaf Henkel can appear as an authority in the sustainability debate. All the goats will become gardeners, and the victorious microeconomy will sustainably destroy the world.

Editor’s note: This text was first published in: Political Ecology January/2000, p. 10. The text could have been written today. Some names would have been different and the word climate catastrophe would have been added.

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