Sustainability as a Key Idea for Change

tl;dr: Sustainability is a social phenomenon of political, economic and ethical struggles to change social practices towards more ecological and societal equity with care.

Why on Earth another scholarly book, an introduction even, on Sustainability? Because most introductions focus on a list of definitions, principles, and cases for Sustainability and sustainable development. They present a panopticum of »everything sustainable« but lack the focus on its social and political nature. This is often reserved for more advanced texts but we – Thomas Pfister, Martin Schweighofer, and I – were deeply convinced that you have to introduce Sustainability as essentially political and thus essentially contested. We also have chosen to follow Andy Stirling to capitalize Sustainability in order to distinguish it from more common say uses like »sustainable finance« and the likes.

Sustainability needs to be thought of as embedded in different social practices, for example, practices of writing academic papers, newspaper articles or blog posts, giving speeches, or holding debates is the material one has to investigate what specific actors mean when referring to Sustainability. In the words of Ludwig Wittgenstein, ‘the meaning of a word is its use in language’ (1953 no. 43) – how it is used in practice. Hence, if we are speaking about meanings and practices of Sustainability, we still assume that meanings are part of and embedded in practice.

With this book we want to help readers from various backgrounds – be it undergraduate or graduate students, lecturers and researchers new to the topic, but also the interested public – to make sense of the plurality of uses of Sustainability and enable them to navigate more comfortably between them. At the same time, we place our endeavor firmly within social practice theory. The key idea of Sustainability is approached with a focus on how it operates in practice, from the greater landscape of connected practices forming institutions and infrastructures to the common practices of everyday life. Rather than seeking a single most appropriate definition of Sustainability, our interest is more on how specific Sustainability problems are defined by actors themselves, what historic process brought them there, what solutions are pursued to tackle them, and which effects these have on practice and social order.

We especially pay attention to potential transformative projects in the areas of climate change, energy, and food. Transformative here means transforming social practice and thus order under the normative framework of Sustainability. The materiality of Sustainability challenges will be emphasized as materiality and social practice (as well as order) recursively influence each other.

In the book, we proceed from giving a genealogical accord of Sustainability to presenting climate change, energy, and food as grand Sustainability challenges. We analyze the main problems in these contexts, illustrate how certain transformative projects respond to them, mobilizing specific ideas of Sustainability and putting them into practice. In the final chapter we reconstruct Sustainability from its composite, fragile and contested nature into a dynamic and open-ended social process providing an important source for reflexivity (in the sense of Ulrich Beck). Our most conclusive insight: »Whoever wants to promote Sustainability and realize it in practice has to actively care for this cause investing time, energy, and passion.« Ultimately, Sustainability is about caring: for transforming unsustainable situations into more sustainable ones in an on-going, open and reflexive social process.

By Thomas Pfister, Martin Schweighofer, André Reichel
© 2016 – Routledge


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