The Sociology of Sustainability
I’ve been thinking of teaching a new Sociology course– the Sociology of Sustainability. This word, sustainability, is everywhere these days and it is an important concept that will be with us for some time. It seems new to us here in the United States, which, should be no surprise as our culture and economy haven’t embraced this idea.
Dictionary.com defines Sustainability as with being sustainable and rooted in the word “sustain”: To keep in existence; maintain; To supply with necessities or nourishment; provide for; To support from below; keep from falling or sinking; prop; To support the spirits, vitality, or resolution of; encourage; To bear up under; withstand: can't sustain the blistering heat; To experience or suffer; To affirm the validity of; To prove or corroborate; confirm; To keep up (a joke or assumed role, for example) competently.
Applied to society, sustainable suggests continuity over time, that is a society can be said to be sustainable if its structure and properties allow it to continue over the long-term. What is long term to a society? Suffice it to say that the U.S. hasn’t lasted long enough to claim that it is or can be sustainable as of yet. In fact, the structure of our society is currently not sustainable, especially in its economic structures. Karl Marx had said that capitalism will eventually exhaust its supplies of cheap resources in its globalized search for profit. A continual search for profit is virtually impossible since resources are not inexhaustible! We have run out of cheap labor to exploit and cheap resources to fuel our economy. Our economic short-term focus on profit has helped created the global recession (depression?) of the late 2000s.
Sustainability is a term used by the environmental movement to call attention to our dismal practices and policies relating to our environment and the pollution we create. For example, sustainable packaging has resulted in CDs and DVDs wrapped in plastic rather than those huge plastic encasements they used to be sold in. We have more recycling bins and more ”green” awareness campaigns to get us out of our cars – not so easy here in Los Angeles – and onto trains, buses, and bicycles. In some settings, such actions are easy while in others, not so much. When your job is miles away from where you live, and not on a public transportation route, trains, buses, and bicycles won’t get you there, no matter how environmentally conscious you might become.
Alternate power sources are part of the green sustainability movement. Since they are unlimited, wind and solar power are more attractive than fossil fuel sources of electricity. Nuclear and fuel cell power sources are also mentioned although their long-term sustainability is not fully clear and is often obscured. Nuclear power still produces tons of toxic radioactive waste that has to be stored somewhere for an inconceivable amount of time. Fuel cells are new and their safety has not yet been established.
Just as we must continually research and develop antibiotics to fight the ever-changing bacteria that plague us, we must continue the search for sustainable societal structures if we are to ensure our long-term survival as a nation. This is no easy task as our capitalist individualistic post-industrial society has raised us to be good competitive consumers. As a result, it is difficult for us to imagine our society without the pursuit of profit for profit’s sake. However, we must think more about how we can preserve our quality of life over the long term. Our sustainability depends upon it.