Reply To: 3rd November: Joseph Tainter

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Markus # Posted on January 8, 2015 at 14:09

Comment on Ellen’s reflection

I think you are right, Ellen: yours and my reflections are similar. But you add one more important aspect, I think, and that is criticizing Tainter’s definition of sustainability. I never got around to doing that.

For an anthropologist, Tainter is surprisingly “scientifically cold” in how he chooses to define sustainability. He calls other definitions “fuzzy”, meant of course to be derogatory, but I believe it is in the fuzzyness that a lot of the most important aspects of sustainability can be found, just like you imply. Qualitative interpretations and goals with sustainability are found here, in the fuzzyness, not in the actually rather stupid assumption that what the sustainability movement is about is to simply maintain current state of affairs. I call it stupid because it misses the point, and because, as a scholar of great knowledge of the development of societies, it is surprising that Tainter would choose to use such a rigid definition. In large part, from the very early days of Rachel Carsen and “Limits to growth” (1972), the aim of what could be refered to as the sustainability movement has, at least in my opinion, been trying to change the “cultural system” of our complex society by criticizing dogma like scientific farming and economic growth. How many scholars and writers within the field of sustainability have not argued and worked on system change rather than swapping components?

Maybe Tainter is not the one to blame, though. He simply went to the most stringent, and therefore most easy-to-work-with definition. Maybe the fault lies in the very use of the word sustainability? Do we really want to sustain our society, or change it?