Sustainability as a by-product of contentment?

By Joern Fischer

I’d like to reflect on some thoughts articulated in an essay that I recently came across. The essay is by Jorge Guerra González, Faculty of Sustainability, Leuphana University Lueneburg. It’s in German, but Jorge translated its title as: Sustainability is out of reach: Wrong paths, wrong beliefs—and yet… light at the end of the tunnel? (available for download here).

I’ll try to summarise some of the key points here. Because some of the arguments are nuanced, I will probably get parts wrong … but here is what I understood the key points to be. In a nutshell, this essay tries to analyse why sustainability efforts appear to be failing. One key argument is that people are ultimately driven by their emotions; and that they lack incentives to act sustainably because the emotional benefits of doing so are not obvious. The essay suggests that outside interventions will always be somewhat ineffective because they won’t create the kind of inherent or “pure” incentive that could ultimately self-sustain individuals in their efforts to act more sustainably. A conclusion is that aiming for sustainability as a goal in its own right therefore may be counterproductive. Instead, the kind of personal development that creates genuine contentment should be fostered, and sustainability would then emerge as a by-product.

The author cites, among others, Erich Fromm, and the rationale presented indeed has parallels with the narratives provided elsewhere by Fromm (among others, in his most famous book The Art of Loving)—who similarly conceptualized emotional or psychological development as beneficial not only for the individual, but for society as a whole. I found this essay also raises parallels with Buddhist thinking, in that the primary focus is on one’s own path to contentment, while benefits for the rest of the world accrue as powerful side-effects.

(I’ll apologise at this point because by now I have probably mis-represented Jorge González, Erich Fromm and Buddhism …! But assuming there are at least nuggets of correct interpretation in my summary, I’ll continue to reflect a bit what all this might mean.)

On the downside, one could criticize that this argument is very much centered on individuals, and is somewhat “blind” to institutions. It’s very difficult to focus on one’s own spiritual development, precisely because the customs and institutions around us (in the Western world anyway) do not encourage us to do so. So, at least to start with, it would seem that only the most contemplative or anyway-thus-inclined individuals would feasibly choose this path of searching “their inner core” (or enlightenment, or develop a productive personality orientation), while everyone else is more likely to respond to outside incentives.

Yet, at a deeper level, it seems quite true to me that this extreme version of a “bottom-up” approach to sustainability seems grossly under-explored in the mainstream literature. At most, sustainability scientists concern themselves with individuals, but rarely with the processes playing out within individuals … though those might be key to understanding systemic failures regarding sustainability (environmental psychologists are an obvious exception, but often seem to focus on more specific, less “spiritual” issues; and they are rarely part of mainstream sustainability science).

Assuming for a moment that Jorge is right, I wonder what this means for sustainability science and its focus on multiple “scales”. In an earlier comment on this blog, Jahi Chappell argued we should be thinking more to engage with ordinary people – citizens – not just with policy makers. Jorge’s argument goes one step further in terms of “down-scaling”, in suggesting we ought to engage with ourselves, or perhaps encourage others to do so as well.

I guess this “weapon”, if Jorge González, Erich Fromm and Buddha are right, ultimately would create a bunch of contented, universally loving and compassionate individuals who won’t seek pleasure in material comforts, or if they do, they’d know about the transient nature of such pleasures. It suggests that each and every one of us should start with ourselves; at least in parallel to seeking to change higher levels of the Earth System. Or in other words – the lowest level of the Earth system would not be the individual according to this world view, but the emotional and psychological processes playing out within individuals.

Food for thought, if nothing else!

3 thoughts on “Sustainability as a by-product of contentment?

  1. Yes, it’s time we focused more on the inner goings on. How do we on an individual level understand sustainability issues? And how do we arrive at these understandings?
    The whole sensemaking-process is complex and paved with emotion and automation processes. The latter ultimately spare most people the anxiety arising from thinking too much about the consequences of our never ending consumption. If humans automatically, and subconsciously, avoid the associations to the damaging effects of their actions, they can continue performing those actions.
    We need to make sustainable actions more desirable. On a right now, right here scale.
    We need to make the narratives and imaginations of the future less scary and undesirable. Thus less narratives of catastrophe and more narratives about the good life on the other side of the transition to sustainability are needed.
    And we need a public debate on the very concept of contentment. What does it take? What else can fill the space of consumption? And what, ultimately, makes us happy?

    I guess I’ll have to brush off those German skills. Thank’s for introducing the article!

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