Sustainability is a useful buzzword. Despite the current turbulence, it is one of the few things a vast majority of people seem to agree with; that we are not living sustainably. However, there is a nuanced and disturbing part to such a view. Not everyone consumes unsustainably. In the past decades, some had little to live by. Others have been starving while some consistently enjoyed being gluttons, stuffing our landfills with left-overs or just needlessly buying new versions of everything as a sign of opulence—pimp my wealth. Just check out the carbon footprint of the nations. Industrialization has occurred in large part as a result of using resources from other nations and through the overconsumption of fossil fuel, the CO2 emissions of which we are asking others to pay as a ‘minor’ price of progress.
Notwithstanding all this, it’s encouraging to have a unifying global framework around which we can discuss matters that affect our quasi-collective survival. That is all good until we realize that like all labels and human inventions, there are the imperfections and deeply troubling contradictions that don’t gain as much media or scholarly attention. As long as one stays in the safe zone of consumption and obedience, there is absolutely no problem. However, once critical scholars and activists begin to question both the questions and answers, it becomes a problem.
There is a way to get around these ideological and logical inconsistencies without inviting trouble. Never mention who is responsible for the wars, violence and excessive pollution. Don’t dig into the historical sources of the wealth some have accrued at the expense of others through exploitation, pillaging and total disregard for human rights. Camouflage it all by focusing on fancy innovations so that people’s attention will be far from the underlying issues that have been plaguing ‘developing nations’ for decades.
Long before sustainability became a fetish
The question well worth asking is: would the current innovations have come about anyway, without such labels as sustainability? Long before the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that morphed into Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), organizations were being forced by unions/stakeholders and civil society to change the way they dealt with employee safety and remuneration; medical scientists were looking for ways to make operations less invasive. Also, we knew that peace was a good thing. We looked for ways to pursue prosperity and happiness and substituted tyranny with democracy and freedom for all.
Indigenous people had a way of living in harmony with nature, and we called them primitive. They were already fighting against corporate takeover of their lands and fragile ecosystems. Now after much research, we are slowly realizing how right they were and that having more, per se, doesn’t translate into happiness. Nordic countries were using allemansrätten (every man’s right) in protecting and enjoying nature. Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso saw the encroaching Sahara desert and planted more trees, gave women more rights, immunized millions without external help and encouraged people to produce what they ate. Thriving communities by any other name was not invented in 1987 with the publication of ‘Our Common Future’. Of note, given the inequalities, we cannot have a common future because we’ve never had a common past, nor do we have a common present.
Is it still sustainability when Africa loses nearly 89bn every year through what Ahen refers to as International Mega-Corruption Inc? Who keeps the booty and why are we focusing on petty corruption that exists mostly as a by-product of mega-corruption?
Inequality.org, says mid-March 2020 and February 2021, the wealth of U.S. billionaires increased by a whopping $1.3 trillion. The wealth of the poor, less so. No patent waivers for vaccines because pharmaceutical companies and Western governments say so. Low-income nations are on their own. Is that sustainability? In the real world, everyone for himself; there is no ‘Our common future’.
How about food sovereignty? Why should any corporation decide what a people must eat and who gets to own the seeds as Vandana Shiva asks? Why do we launch drone strikes anywhere but can’t locate and deal with rebels in the Congo? Who sells the arms and creates more refugees? Did academia not replace human race with a racial caste system that is reflected in geopolitics? These and many more are the real issues which beg the question: is the sustainability train bound for nowhere?
Many scholars who refuse to worship at the altar of neoliberal capitalism are vilified for doing so. If one thinks inequalities or CO2 emissions must be limited, the other side partially agrees, but at the same time one must say nothing that upsets the system. One is ‘a socialist’ or ‘anti-corporation’ if one mentions the structures of accumulation and the deceitful craftiness of legalese gymnastics put in place to pillage resources belonging to indigenous peoples, provoking gruesome conflicts and underdevelopment. Packs of intolerant ‘hyenas’ have wormed their way into academic gatekeeping, journalism and policy-making to stifle open debate about the essentials. The dangerous underbelly of the intra-academic ideological warfare can’t be ignored.
The same intolerant folks keep mischievously multitasking; applying for funds in the name of sustainability that they hardly care about; wanting to save the planet while ganging up against the voices of some of its inhabitants who dare to speak for the voiceless. So, the question is, who sustains whose sustainability as Bobby Banerjee asks? Or whose sustainability is it? Is it for all humanity, for the self-righteous or those who are trying to make some superficial amends after endless planetary vandalism?
Moreover, when the intolerant academics/corporatists don’t directly participate in mobbing or trivializing the burning issues such as useless bureaucracy stifling entrepreneurship, their indifferent silence is horrendously loud. In the words of Julian Agyeman, is it just sustainability or a just sustainability? It can’t get more daringly hypocritical than that. The contradictions are nothing short of intellectual dishonesty, anti-reason and subversion of academic freedom from within.
Alienation in academia
Southern and critical scholars who don’t play the game are not new to the issue of alienation and loneliness. In more complicated terms, it is a form of liability of foreignness to the global stage which for long has been dominated by a few, both physically and intellectually. Physically, because they are not invited to take part in important strategy meetings (the global South hardly has a clout); and when invited, they are meant to be seen not heard—a photo-op. Intellectually, because some self-appointed, highly opinionated know-it-all individuals believe that others need their validation before they can bring up their experiences and perspectives to bear on the contextual meanings and framings of big issues in the global South.
Some claim expertise of places and peoples they know little about, and whose success they see, deep down, as a threat. It gets even worse; they explain away the facts they are uncomfortable with as conspiracy theories, while conveniently ignoring actual conspiracies, outright lies and perception wars. This attitude even spreads its tentacles into what gets published and what doesn’t, breeding distrust towards academia albeit it being a noble institution.
So, what must our response be?
It is one thing to raise these issues, but it is quite another to actually work on actionable processes for change. Raise your voice. The status quo keepers are not the only representatives of academia. Your silence gives them power. Join the Southern voices in The Hilltop Post, yes!, and several other outlets to engage society. Give voice to the voiceless because no special group gets to frame what it means to be sustainable. The SDGs will remain an optical illusion until they are democratized.