Although “sustainable” has become a corporate buzzword, a term used to legitimize various socially and ecologically destructive practices, sustainable human development has a radically different meaning: it is guided by ecological principles and rests on the assumption that freely and openly communicating, conscious human beings can solve the social and ecological problems of our time, that is, have the collective power to create a (rightly termed) sustainable society. Alternatively, we can think of it as an awakener intended to restore our sense of urgency and remove our fear of using whatever means possible to put an end to capitalist destruction. As such, it is emancipating, but only as long as it provokes our thinking, encourages us to act as if we were free to rebuild society from below, unrestricted by capitalist institutions. Thus, it not only invites us to build new frameworks for social interaction: it challenges us to make these systems free from oppressive relations and structural inequality, free from “invisible hands” that work behind the backs of people. At its core, it is all about allowing us to live the ecological revolution.
In order to fulfill its promises, sustainable human development must replace “creative destruction” with a new paradigm, turning our attention away from the production and consumption of goods and services towards the reproduction and well-being of all species – the long-term healing of the biosphere. This shift of perspective does not deny human well-being, but frames it in such a way that it helps us to gain control of the social metabolism with nature, allowing us to determine how to interact with each other and our environment on a long-term basis. However, for this transformation to be a radical break with the present, it must foster sustainability in a dual sense: on the one hand, by respecting the integrity of ecosystems and the boundaries of the Earth system; on the other, by guiding the geographically complex interactions of social commons. Consequently, it does not suffice to minimize the unsustainable (and irrational): we must redefine the rules of human interaction, begin to act as conscious, self-mediating transformers of social and ecological relations. Deeply involved in the replacement of a rapidly changing mode of destruction with a sustainable mode of reproduction, we would then change – in the most encompassing sense – what it means to be interdependent beings on this planet. As bearers of hope and restorers of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, we would then live the revolution.
Our creative and collaborative potential is limited, however, not by the chains of wage labor or any other restriction imposed on us from above. Our capacity to imagine is one of the things that make us human, but evolutionarily and ecologically we still belong to nature. Whatever our conditions on this planet: how we perceive and socially determine this continually evolving relation to nature have immediate and delayed, real-world consequences; it is our future in the making. As individual and collective creators, we must therefore strive for a new kind of society, one not structured around artificial scarcity and monopoly markets, but explicitly defined by human needs and a variety of collaborative practices that respect the roots and limits of human creativity – that give hope to humanity through nature. From single molecules, genes, and epigenetic processes to whole ecosystems and biogeochemical cycles: nature in all its complexity is an unrivaled source of inspiration if we are to create an ecological society. The biological diversity of forest ecosystems, the water holding capacity of pond ecosystems, and the collective creativity of conscious human beings can easily replace the impervious surfaces of car-dependent cities and the monocultural landscapes of industrial agriculture, while minimizing the use of energy and the production of waste. The ongoing destruction of nature – be it through deforestation, unsustainable agricultural practices, water pollution, urban sprawl, or warfare – prompt us to act now. It is time to contribute to planetary sustainability, time to explore our social and ecological possibilities.
Here we must recognize the need for self-sufficiency, but do not confuse this with self-imposed isolation, falling into the trap of parochialism. More precisely, in a non-growing, materially closed system like the Earth system, self-sufficiency presupposes fully shared resources, fully shared experiences, and fully shared knowledge, which, in turn, presupposes openness of a kind that fosters curiosity and solidarity. In a similar way, sustainable communities must necessarily be extended communities, in that they ultimately depend on the functioning of the Earth system as a whole (that is, the complex interactions of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere, litosphere, pedosphere, and biosphere). To put it in other terms, sustainable human development is scale-dependent and intricately linked to all levels of ecological organization; in the long-term, the continual reproduction of any human society is impossible without the continual reproduction of nature in its entirety. The simple truth is that we are not alone.
A revolutionary practice, constantly in search of new ways to meet our needs and new ways to express solidarity, sustainable human development restores our sense of belonging, of being co-habitants on this planet. It is non-alienating in that it distinguishes between real and fictional dependencies – we cannot breathe, drink, or eat money, nor do weapons of mass destruction keep us alive – and it is non-alienating in that it gives us power to radically transform our lives, socially as well as ecologically. The ever more destructive reality of the vast majority of humanity makes self-determined activities and mutually beneficial interactions between individuals all the more important, challenging us to build a society for all.