By Joern Fischer
Nearly 70 years ago, Erich Fromm argued that individual people as well as society at large had much to gain from developing their capacity to love. Love, he argued, was a universally important ingredient to the human journey – and actively developing a loving character orientation was both possible and beneficial (Fromm 1956).
In this short essay, I interpret some key tenets of Fromm’s seminal work in the context of sustainability. I highlight the relevance of four key ingredients of love proposed by Fromm for sustainability. Following this, I argue that some developments within sustainability science are already pointing at the importance of better understanding and working with love in order to foster sustainability – even though scientists have so far shunned away from actually using the term “love”. I suggest that much could be gained from more explicitly incorporating the concept of love in sustainability research, not least because it may be humanity’s single most powerful boundary object.
Love towards someone or something, according to Fromm, entails four components: knowledge, respect, responsibility, and care. To foster sustainability, I believe these four components are relevant towards interactions with the planet as a whole, interactions with other people (both within and between communities), and interactions with oneself.
Knowledge is critical, clearly, to understand the entities we are dealing with. Respect is a further necessary (but on its own insufficient) ingredient if we are to love someone or something – we need to deeply recognise her, his or its importance in some way. Responsibility suggests a normative link between the person who loves and the entity being loved, which suggests that interactions with this entity somehow have a moral component. And finally, to really love something or someone is reflected in care; that is, in some kind of action that benefits the loved entity.
All of these four components resonate strongly within a sustainability context. With respect to knowledge, Fromm’s definition of love quite clearly invites the pursuit of science – first of all, it is indeed critical that we understand the world and accumulate knowledge about it. The other three components of love are less well represented at present, but all have gained prominence within sustainability science in recent years. Most prominently, calls for planetary stewardship embody implicit respect towards our planet as well as recognising that in the Anthropocene, it is the responsibility of the dominant species on the planet to take care of the planet as a whole (Folke et al. 2021). Similarly, the rapid growth in literature on relational values signals a deepening of agendas within sustainability science to account for the manifold interlinkages within and between the human and non-human world, including the need to better understand its ethical dimensions (Chan et al. 2016; Norström et al. 2022). Phrases such as “ethos of care” (Staffa et al. 2021) or “empathy” (Brown et al. 2019; Kansky and Maassarani 2022) are increasingly entering the keywords of articles on sustainability matters because they influence sustainability outcomes in the real world.
James Gustave Speth famously noted that “I used to think the top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.” (https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/James_Gustave_Speth; based on his interview at on BBC Radio in 2013). While this may be true, it could be that science is in fact on the way to fostering precisely the type of transformation that Speth thought was missing. Rational enquiry in pursuit of sustainability has led to the recognition that multiple facets must come together to bring about positive outcomes, including all four components that Fromm used to define love. Quite curiously thus, the rigorous and rational pursuit of science has effectively led to calls for more love – which his strikingly consistent with Fromm’s observation many decades ago: “Society must be organized in such a way that man’s social, loving nature is not separated from his social existence, but becomes one with it. If it is true, as I have tried to show, that love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence, then any society which excludes, relatively, the development of love, must in the long run perish of its own contradiction with the basic necessities of human nature.” (Fromm 1956)
A last thought that I wish to touch upon is that, if the above is indeed true, it could be worthwhile to spell out at which scales love ought to be investigated and fostered. I propose three scales as a starting point, noting that these could be broken up much more finely – the scale of the planet, the scale of human interactions, and the scale of interactions with oneself. All three matter at the same time, and thus I would argue, it is important to address all three at once rather than think we can deal with any one scale on its own, and address the rest later. Put differently, we cannot save the planet without fostering loving relationships between people; and we cannot foster loving relationships with others if we do not love (i.e. know, respect and care for) ourselves. Unsustainable personal journeys or lifestyles, therefore, are unlikely to add up to sustainable communities or a sustainable planet. As such then, the entire spectrum from self to planet would benefit, specifically for the pursuit of global sustainability, from more attention to love in both research and practice.
Brown, K., Adger, W.N., Devine-Wright, P., et al. 2019. Empathy, place and identity interactions for sustainability. Global Environmental Change 56, pp. 11–17.
Chan, K.M.A., Balvanera, P., Benessaiah, K., et al. 2016. Opinion: Why protect nature? Rethinking values and the environment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113(6), pp. 1462–1465.
Folke, C., Polasky, S., Rockström, J., et al. 2021. Our future in the Anthropocene biosphere. Ambio 50(4), pp. 834–869.
Fromm, E. 1956. The art of loving. New York: Harper.
Kansky, R. and Maassarani, T. 2022. Teaching nonviolent communication to increase empathy between people and toward wildlife to promote human–wildlife coexistence. Conservation letters.
Norström, A.V., Agarwal, B., Balvanera, P., et al. 2022. The programme on ecosystem change and society (PECS) – a decade of deepening social-ecological research through a place-based focus. Ecosystems and People 18(1), pp. 598–608.
Staffa, R.K., Riechers, M. and Martín-López, B. 2021. A feminist ethos for caring knowledge production in transdisciplinary sustainability science. Sustainability Science.