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Sustainable Development

Oliver Parodi
Ignacio Ayestaran
Gerhard Banse

Part 1. Methodological Questions, Conceptual Debates and Frameworks

Three Steps towards a Culture of Sustainability

Oliver Parodi

Texte intégral

1This contribution was written to draw attention to elements which, in my mind, must be taken into account and put into effect on the way towards a culture of sustainability. I would like to take three steps in different directions, but all of them leading to a culture of sustainability.

2This first requires some basic thoughts to be spent on start and finish, on “culture” and “sustainability” and a “culture of sustainability”. A first step will then show the way out of an existing gap between the spheres of “culture” and “nature”, and point to culture-based misconceptions of our ‘environment’ which need to be corrected. Another step demands cultivation of technology and tries to incorporate this in the language of “functioning technology.” The third step then points in a clearly different direction, making reference to the individual, personal sides of sustainability and their relevance to achieving sustainable development.

1 Start and Finish: Culture and Sustainability

3First of all, the concepts of “culture” and “sustainability” as used here will be explained so that the distant finish of a “culture of sustainability” can be described at least in a vague outline.

1.1 On the Concept of Culture

4The concept of “culture” is used here in the sense of a contemporary understanding of culture in which culture is no longer defined as the opposite of nature, but the simultaneous existence of the basic cultural elements of collectivity, communication, and convention (cf. Hansen 2001). The size of, and the features connecting, these collectives can differ widely: Cultures can be seen in nations, companies, clubs, small families, etc.

  • 1 When reference is made below to “our culture”, this does not imply a homogeneous collective but, v (...)

5The term “culture” as used below is not primarily meant to refer to any distinction from other collectives, not to the culture of Americans, Chinese, Germans, etc., nor does it refer to that realm of “high culture” which comprises the arts, theatre, film, etc., but refers in a much more general and basic sense to culture as something characteristic of any (permanent) collective in conventions and communication, keeping that collective together, also relating to us and continuously permeating our everyday existence.1

1.2 On the Concept of Sustainability

6“Sustainability” will be used here in a narrow sense of the term as explained in detail by Jürgen Kopfmüller (cf. Kopfmüller, this publication) basing on the interpretation written down in the UN Brundtland report (cf. Hauff 1987), dealing with an intergenerational global justice linked with the care for and concern about our environment (not only) as our common natural livelihood. It should be emphasized at this point that this is not about differences in specific concepts of sustainability (such as strong or weak sustainability; one, three, or five pillars) but rather about the idea of sustainability underlying all these concepts, or the pool of ideas of sustainability (such as the permanence of mankind, globality, intergenerational justice interdisciplinary perspective), which became established in the wake of the Brundtland report (cf. Hauff 1987, Kopfmüller et al. 2001).

1.3 Culture and Sustainability – Some Links

7In a functionalist interpretation, culture can be seen as a program for permanent maintenance of a collective. “‘Culture’ is a common regulatory mechanism creating community […], established to secure permanence in time and space: This is the productive as well as conservative moment of ‘culture’” (Böhme 2001, p. 3).

8As a consequence, sustainability (in the original narrow sense of the term) would be the implicit nucleus and objective of any culture. Or, to put it differently, sustainability would be the explication and rational design of both a cultural programme and core cause per se formulated for the “collective” “mankind”.

9Realizing that our (global) way of life is not sustainable implies that our (modern Western) culture is – unable to sustain itself – a non-sustainable culture because it attacks its ecological, economic and social foundations.

10This association of culture and sustainability impressively shows how perverted, respectively wrong, our present way of life and our situation in life are. Sustainable development is not the basis of our culture; today, it is moreover its counterdesign. “Permanent existence”, the conservative, preserving moment of sustainability, has meanwhile become the new, irritating, even revolutionary element of our culture and our way of life. At this point, it becomes evident that the sustainability idea incorporates a fundamental criticism of culture.

  • 2 Two views can be distinguished here: (1) With a view to the modern Western cultural area it can be (...)

11In that functionalist interpretation, this simply means: Our modern culture does not work; it is a non-culture or no culture at all.2 And even from a humanistic point of view our modern culture is often a non-culture, failing in basic claims like freedom, solidarity, sympathy, generational and intergenerational justice. Moreover Klaus Töpfer (former head of UNEP) once said: “We are basing our entire Western way of life on three grand delusions: By living at the expense of our environment, the developing countries and the following generations.” This is neither permanent nor viable nor sustainable.

12Where cultures do not develop sustainably (which is likely to be the case almost on a global scale), they are in a crisis of existence – or (as many presume) perhaps even dissolving. And what next? Perhaps a culture of sustainability.

1.4 Culture of Sustainability

13What can be said about such a future culture of sustainability? Not much – and only in speculative terms. In my view, a culture of sustainability theoretically would be the result of the sustainability concepts and, in practice, the implementation of sustainable development: a collectively supported, jointly agreed, and understandable sustainability which is institutionalized and internalized and is handed down through conventions, patterns, habits and even feelings.

14In the same way in which one swallow does not make a summer, concepts of sustainability do not produce a culture of sustainability. The current rational, scientifically based and political sustainability concepts (cf., e.g., Bundesregierung 2002; Kopfmüller et al. 2001; Ott/Döring 2004; UN-DSD 2009) are important milestones on the road to a culture of sustainability. However, that culture must go far beyond these concepts and political measures. Even the “cultural sustainability” discussed in some places (cf. Krainer/Trattnigg 2004; cf. also Kowalski/Schaffer 2010) should be superseded by a culture of sustainability because a “cultural sustainability” remains partial (like “ecological” or “institutional” sustainability) and limited in scope.

15In a culture of sustainability, this sustainability is lived every day. In the same way in which the former grand cultural achievements of democracy, liberty, autonomy, education, etc., nowadays are effective in the cultural background and only appear on the scene when endangered, sustainability in the future should withdraw into the cultural background as an idea and an achievement once fought for, and steer the collective from that background.

16In a first approximation, a culture of sustainability would be a translation and realization of the basic values and ideas of existing sustainability concepts into a lived culture. A culture of sustainability thus is not primarily a definition and implementation of the sophisticated rules, indicators, etc. of existing sustainability concepts but, in a more comprehensive and softer sense, the collective institutionalization of the continuation of those humanistic normative basic ideas underlying the concepts (such as globality, intergenerational justice, extended anthropocentrism, etc.).

  • 3 A culture of sustainability could overcome modern and post-modern times through synthesis, institu (...)
  • 4 This applies irrespective of influences which must be expected to act on a global culture of susta (...)

17Looking at the concepts of sustainability and taking their claims (global, integrative, at least anthropocentric, intergenerational) seriously reveals their full scope. Among other things, it is about nothing less than mankind, the community of all human beings, achieving the “all mankind become brothers” ideal or, expanded in an ecocentric sense, “all life becomes brothers”.3 It is quite possible to see sustainability as the (almost only) major design of the future which, at least in part, is being touted in societal debates and implemented. A culture of sustainability thus would constitute a link to the Western cultural area, while its implementation would show major differences from today’s modern way of life and everyday practice.4

2 Readjusting Basic Cultural Attitudes

18After this brief outline of the start and finish of a culture of sustainability, the following sections will focus on some elements of content on the way to such a culture of sustainability. This first step is to overcome an idea which is nearly constitutive of our (Western) cultural image and also of our concept of technology, namely: the polarizing division of nature and culture as well as of nature and technology. The instrumental relation of man and his “environment” based on this concept must be corrected and modified.

2.1 Prevailing Separation of Culture and Nature

19The basic concept of culture as counter-nature (cf. Großklaus/Oldemeyer 1983; Parodi 2008) underlies the modern concept of culture, is valid even today in broad areas of our cultural practice (and theory) and is effective largely without being queried. This can be briefly illustrated as follows:

  • Nature is considered the counter-concept of culture (dichotomic world formula): “The concepts of nature and culture are sufficient to describe this world” (Marschall 1993, p. 17).
  • The theory and philosophy of culture are often based on the separation of nature and culture (cf. Hansen 2000).
  • A common concept implies: “Culture is the transformation of nature by work.”
  • Another common concept is this: “Culture is what makes us different from nature.”
  • Even the sustainability debate is influenced by this separation; the ecological pillar is based on the natural sphere, while the economic and social pillars are rooted in the sphere of culture.3

2.2 Present Separation of Technology and Nature

20In an analogous way, technology can be regarded as counter-nature. This is associated with the concept of incompatibility of technology and nature. Throughout Western cultural history the concept of technology, with a few exceptions, has constituted the counter-concept of “nature”. When modern times began, technology closely associated with the natural sciences (and later on with the economic system) became the central cultural program. Its content is man’s greatest possible independence of nature, domination of nature, and exploitation of nature.

21Even modern common “definitions of technology” clearly reveal this dichotomy of technology and nature and the exploitation of nature based on it. Indications of the prevailing technology/nature divide can be found, e. g., in philosophical definitions:

  • “Technology, after all, is nothing but overcoming nature by human consciousness. […] Technology being counter to nature is a principal characteristic” (Günter Ropohl, quoted from Huber 1989, p. 35).
  • “Technology [is considered] the opposite of nature” (Prechtl/Burkhard 1996, p. 512).
  • Technology “means exploiting natural resources and the forces of nature in the interest of satisfying human needs” (Brugger 1998, p. 393).
  • More proof (of a de-facto opposition to nature) can be found in prevailing technical practice:
  • The way in which mankind handles the world by technical means is the main cause of the disappearance of nature and living space.
  • Nature conservation and technology are diametrical opposites.
  • There is no such thing as “nature technologies” or “conservation technologies”–the very concepts give rise to linguistic uneasiness (at least in German).

2.3 Outdated Separation

22This polarized, exploiting relationship to nature via technology as counter-nature is no longer modern but outdated and dangerous. It is important to correct this relation between nature and technology, which is perceived as a wrong, dangerous attitude. This approach is supported by two things (among others):

  • First, the disappearance of nature in our world of life as a consequence of the ubiquitous introduction of technology into our natural living environment. Nature is cultivated, turned technical, disappears as such, merges with technical artefacts and culture. What remains are ecological connections. Technology and nature are merged into “ecofacts” (Parodi 2008, p. 194, after Karafyllis 2003). Where, “in an ecological context, technology and nature are blended inseparably and unforeseeably, it no longer makes sense to arrange phenomena by the distinction between technology and nature” (Luhmann 1997, p. 522).
  • Secondly, the ecological crisis which impressively shows that the current concept of technology as a practiced program of dominating and exploiting nature is now producing consequences which threaten the very existence of mankind. The ecological crisis, however, is the expression of a cultural practice based mainly on the man-culture-technology versus nature split.

2.4 Correcting Misconceptions

23History shows that sustainability designs were sparked off by ecological problems. In a cultural perspective, this means that they are ignited by the ecological deficits of the long-term, complete cultural practice of modern nature management. This, in turn, indicates that sustainability, if it is to go beyond the mere control of symptoms and beyond increasing efficiency, can be installed and implemented permanently only if the underlying cultural misconceptions are corrected. These misconceptions are fixed in the counter-natural position of culture and technology, are expressed in the ecological problem situation, but are not limited by dealing with nature. They even exist in the relation to our social, individual, and “generational” environment as well as to our living environment. The following misconceptions or outdated attitudes of men or a collective to their ecological, social, individual and generative “environment” have to be corrected:

  • Overemphasis on separation and being separate – neglecting connectedness with the environment.
  • Overemphasis on autonomy and independence – neglecting inclusion and dependence.
  • Overvaluation of individuality and difference – undervaluation of collectivity and what is similar.

24Separation, autonomy, and individuality expose human beings, take them out of their natural environment. They generate and suggest power. Overemphasizing this can be considered a misconception in two ways: on the one hand, in an ethical sense, because overvaluation and emphasis take value out of any environment, open the door to violence and exploitation; on the other hand, epistemologically, because emphasis, if it is only a theoretical suggestion without any reality, gives rise to wrong conclusions and failing actions. Irrespective of which aspect applies: Wrong actions also harm the whole and, in this way, directly or indirectly also those who (think they) are powerful and ruling – us as human beings. In this connection, it is irrelevant whether these misconceptions are adopted towards nature, the environment, or other persons. “It is the same misconception of persons relative to the whole which, on the one hand, exploits and destroys the natural environment and, on the other hand, impairs social order and development” (Meyer-Abich 1984, p. 264).

25The same culturally deep-rooted, wrong attitudes can be found behind today’s ecological and social misconceptions.

  • 5 After cosmological injury, Copernican removal from the center of the world, biological injury as p (...)

26Recognizing these misconceptions is mostly painful. In cultural history, this can be seen as the scientific “humiliation of people” mentioned by Johannes Rohbeck referring to Sigmund Freud (cf. Rohbeck 1993, p. 10).5 However, mere recognition is not sufficient to correct cultural practices.

27It should be emphasized at this point that I am not interested in relinquishing entirely the instrumental attitude of human beings vis-à-vis their environment, especially in technology, “cultivated” in an extreme sense up to the present time. I am more interested in diminishing the importance of that approach and supplementing and correcting it. The distant user’s attitude of man relative to his environment as an object of use must be reduced, and the instrumental attitude must be balanced more and more by an attitude of valuation and association. If one wants to follow Martin Buber and Ernst Oldemeyer, (technical) use of the co-world would have to be in the “humility of being part” of a larger, e. g. eco-natural, entity (cf. Buber 1960; Oldemeyer 2005; Parodi 2008). “This is no attempt to do away with technology but rather to release it from its opposition to nature, into which it has run” (Meyer-Abich 1984, p. 265).

3 Cultivation of Technology

28In this next step, the integrative idea of sustainability is to be strengthened and focused on one area which plays a key role in our present-day world of life and also with respect to sustainable development: technology. Let us then refer to another separation that needs to be overcome: that of technology and “culture”. “Overcoming” in this case is not meant to level out all differences and deny the possibility of analytical distinction, but rather functions as a link between the two areas and means the implementation of technology as a cultural enterprise.

  • 6 In German “begreifen”.
  • 7 In German “wahrnehmen”.

29First and foremost, it is safe to say that our world of life has to a large extent become a technical or technically dominated one (see Section 2.3). The world is increasingly turning into a technotope (cf. Erlach 2000). Also our way of handling the world and our environment, irrespective of whether this is natural, ecological, cultural, or social, in most cases is mediated technically. Technology more and more acts as a medium, linking man to his environment. Human beings nowadays grasp and understand6 this environment indirectly, by technology. In the dual sense of Jakob J. von Uexküll, human beings perceive and modify7 their environment increasingly by means of technology.

3.1 From Making Culture Technical to Making Technology Cultural

30Also cultures and cultural practices are not unaffected by technology. On the contrary: Culture is seen to become more and more technological, first of all, purely in the manner of an object: Our culture, our collectives, communication, and conventions more and more rely on technical equipment and processes. More and more technical artefacts permeate our everyday existence, connect us with the environment, or constitute it.

31Also mentally, our culture (again and again) is subject to technology. This is not about technical artefacts but rather about things technical (also transported in those artefacts) in the form of technical fitness and rationality for a purpose. Today our culture is permanently threatened by being reduced to that instrumental attitude explained in the previous chapter.

32Reducing culture to technology can be counteracted by introducing culture into technology. This is to imply the full programmatic incorporation of technology into (the respective) culture, which is the complete permeation of technology by culture.

33In this program, technology must not be considered, evaluated, and designed as a sphere autonomous and separate from culture. On this side, there is technology (cars, TV, telephone), on the other side, there is our culture, there are movies, communication. On this side, there is the purpose of our technical activities, our work, and detached from this, on the other side, there is the sense of our life. (This is commonly referred to as “alienation”.) Instead of making the purpose sense, as is the case when culture is made technological, which also reduces human beings and their culture to homo faber or homo oeconomicus, the purposes would be embedded in the relationships of the respective culture, thus providing sense and meaning.

34In a concrete way, making technology part of culture means the pro-active inclusion of culture in the development and use of technology. Technology development is to be pursued with culture in mind, i. e. many more and, above all, cultural aspects should be included in designing technology.

3.2 Functioning Technology

35The omnipresence of technology, its power, and its role in our everyday world make it important that culture and, with it, sustainability also infuse technology – not only in theoretical ideas, but in a very specific sense, in technical systems, structures, and equipment. In the interest of this development, a soundly based, profound linguistic rearrangement will be proposed here first.

36Where only manufacturing and using very specific technical artefacts is referred to (cars, mobile phones, dams, power plants), first of all a catalogue of requirements can be compiled which such technical products ideally should meet (see Table 1).

37The question from what point in time on technology or a piece of equipment is said to function, will barely extend to the second point of the catalogue of requirements to be mastered for that purpose. A car functions when it runs, can be steered and, perhaps, also braked. A power plant functions when it produces electricity, a genetically modified plant functions when it produces the desired chemical substance, etc. “Functioning” can now be used to draw a line between points 2 and 3 exactly marking the well-known, criticized split between nature and culture.

38So, in common usage and, consequently, in culturally accepted convention, technology simply functions when it meets the purpose of dominating nature and controlling situations in accordance with the laws of nature. This can also be supported theo-retically.

Table 1: Catalogue of Requirements

Table 1: Catalogue of Requirements

Author’s archive

3.3 Luhmann’s Effective Isolation

39According to Niklas Luhmann, technology can also be understood as “functioning simplification”. Accordingly, technology arises in a “process of effective isolation”, in “excluding the rest of the world”. “Functioning can be ascertained when the world excluded can be kept from impacting the intended result.” “The major distinction determining the ‘technology’ form is that between controllable and uncontrollable situations” (Luhmann 1997, pp.524f.).

40This “process of effective isolation” of technology, this “exclusion of the rest of the world” occurs in the development of technology mainly along the line dividing nature and culture. This initially leaves out the entire “cultural” hemisphere of the world. Technology is designed with respect to nature and the control of it. Technology functions when it is able to correctly model and control natural conditions.

41This concept of technology may have been adequate and acceptable at the time of incipient agriculture, may be even at the time when railroads were built in the Wild West. However, in our present cultivated life full of technology, in which more and more people, ecology, technology and culture, and less and less nature, are encountered as technology becomes increasingly more powerful, this concept is outdated and, as explained above, in summary even very dangerous.

42One question comes to mind: Does technology really function if it is realised in accordance with the laws of nature but, at the same time destroys the eco-natural foundation of existence of mankind and human society? Does technology really function if it violates fundamental cultural achievements (such as democracy, humanrights, private sphere, dignity) while observing the laws of nature? Does the three-gorge dam function if it makes millions of people homeless and dooms hundreds of thousands to poverty? Does gene food function if consumers do not want it? Does “developed” technology function in the “developing” third world if this technology is not used in that part of the world because of cultural peculiarities?

43According to Luhmann, the “‘successful’ reduction” occurring with functioning technology “boils down to harmless ignoring” (Luhmann 1997, p. 525). Ignoring cultural aspects in technology here and now is seen no longer as harmless. Effective isolation, “exclusion of the rest of the world”, must no longer (at the latest as of today) occur along the dividing line of nature vs. culture. A successful reduction of complexity is no longer possible by leaving out the cultural side and, in this way, the main human aspect. In this regard, the interpretation of technology must be expanded in the same way as the concept of functioning technology.

44The term functioning technology should henceforth be used only when that technology is able to model correctly, and control, not only natural situations (or those obeying the laws of nature), but also cultural aspects (social, economic, culture-specific ones, etc.). Technology functions only when it meets the societal functions it is expected to fulfil and, ultimately, makes sense within the framework of that respective culture.

45According to the catalogue of requirements above, this would mean: Functioning technology is the correct term only when this technology also meets at least basic requirements under points (3) to (8). Technology does not function, thus the necessary agreement, if it is not desired, creates social unrest, causes intra-or inter-generational injustice, violates the law or human rights, fails to meet sustainability requirements, or has major aesthetic deficits. Such comprehensive view should be addressed already in the design phase of technology. Specifications could be complemented with these categories (items (3) to (8)) in the very design of technical products, thus further institutionalizing cultured technology.

3.4 Implications of Functioning Cultured Technology

46Implementing this kind of technology functioning also in the cultural sense would have far reaching practical implications. Here is one example: A large hydroelectric dam accordingly would function in Central Europe, while a plant with the same (physical and engineering) units would not function in a developing country where dams are often associated with displacement, corruption, dependency, and hunger, thus violating human rights.

47An expanded catalogue of requirements of this kind certainly would not make it any easier to design functioning technology for the world. However, would this not point to the very challenges today associated with technology on a large as well as on a small scale? Enhanced requirements would not lead to a (further) acceleration of technical innovation, but perhaps it is this decelerating element which could work as a module in a culture of sustainability.

48Moreover, the often suggested or assumed “contextual independence” of technology would be finished once and for all. Technology is dependent on a context: Its conditions, impacts, secondary consequences begin and end (not solely) in the natural sphere but, above all, in the cultural sphere.

49Cultured and culturally functioning technology would make this technology more comprehensive and thus more human, also in a humanistic sense. Technology as a powerful means of redesigning the human environment would be an expression not only of its dominating and useful capabilities but, comprehensively, also of its humanity taking into account as many facets as possible. Technology would contribute towards implementing the human aspect in human environment, would allow human beings to come to the fore in their handling the world. However, this would result in a more human design of our sphere of living.

4 The Individual Side of Sustainability

50In a third step, the “sustainability” concept will now be put into a direct relation with man and the individual, respectively, thus focusing on sustainability outside the societal concept.

4.1 Two Faces of a Culture of Sustainability: The Collective and the Individual

51In accordance with the discussions of the concept of culture (see Section 1.1), and in the sense of Klaus P. Hansen, culture always encompasses two poles: the collective and the individual (cf. Hansen 2000); the two together support or create culture.

52For the individual, culture can be regarded as a collective canon of standardized patterns of action and meaning, reaching the individual in the process of socialization. Individuals make up the collective. That collective, in turn, “forms” those individuals who derive their identities from responses to collective criteria which, unlike those criteria, fill the collective arsenal of interpretations (cf. Hansen 2000, chap. 3.2). Where the individual steps into the background, culture emerges, and vice versa. It can be said that culture, especially cultural development, occurs between these two poles, in exchanges between the collective and the individual.

53Sustainability as an idea and as a concept, however, is mostly considered and discussed as a collective matter (of politics, society, etc.). Sustainability is something which society, politics, companies seek, or should seek, to achieve, implement, or attain. However, the individual and personal side of sustainability are hardly noticed; it is not part of the sustainability discourse. This focus of sustainability on the societal sphere is at least one-sided, from the point of view of cultural theory, and is also unsatisfactory in the light of its objective, namely the implementation of sustainability.

  • 8 A cultural sustainability shell imposed top down would probably suffer a fate similar to that of t (...)

54As a cultural enterprise sustainable development, if it is to continue, ultimately must also be accepted by people. It must be internalized and lived. Failing this, sustainability is a mere concept, a political strategy or, at best, a collective shell superimposed without any content, bound to collapse sooner or later.8

55Sustainability, ultimately, must also be something subjective, personal, an internal affair of people. Sustainable development of a collective must be reflected also in an internal development of individuals. Consequently, some personal elements of sustainability will be discussed below.

4.2 The Impact and the Attractiveness of the Idea of Sustainability

56It should be stated from the outset that sustainability is something potentially affecting anybody or, sooner or later, making him or her concerned in one way or the other. This concern shows either actively and prospectively in the idea and implementation of a sustainable development or, failing this, sooner or later in a reactive way, in the downsides of a previous, non-sustainable development: Scarce resources, social unrest, damage to the environment, mass migration, rising sea levels, etc. invade our world of living, thus making us suffer.

  • 9 This applies at least in the light of Hans Jonas’ primacy of mankind’s absolute duty to exist (cf. (...)

57Over the long term, there is almost no alternative to sustainable development.9 The question remains of the magnitude of social, ecological, and economic distortion, restrictions in the freedom to act, suffering and violence associated with a change to a culture of sustainability. David W. Orr, in this connection, refers to “more or less grace” in people turning towards sustainable development (Orr as quoted in McDaniel 2002, p. 1461).

58In addition, sustainability is no particular theory, at least not in its capability to make people concerned; this is reflected in its claim to globality, among other things. It is not just certain groups (the poor, Catholics, car makers, whites, or farmers) who are affected by sustainability, but simply all people – and not only they.

59If “affected” is given a positive connotation, the result is “attractiveness”– which is also to be found in the pool of ideas about sustainability. It has to be kept in mind that the concepts of sustainability arose from the anticipation of possible distortions.

60And concepts of sustainability, by criticizing existing (socio-ecological) shortcomings, show points of departure for improving things. Consequently, sustainability clearly is also a vague to concrete counterdesign of the present situation.

61The features potentially attractive to individuals (or collectives) as a counterdesign in this real Utopia called “sustainability” will be listed summarily and incompletely below. In the sense of this chapter, the list shows no objective truths but rather subjective proposals for interpretation. At least in this sense, sustainability as an idea and as a concept provides answers to present widespread points of concern in our living environment.

62Counterarguments of sustainability:

  • In a fundamental sense, justice is opposed to the prevailing (economic) injustice.
  • Life at the expense of “those with fewer assets” (the poor, animals, ecosystems, coming generations) is compared to life in respect and in favour of those.
  • Fast moving life, progress – durability, sustainability.
  • Post-modern fragmentation – the whole.
  • Shortsightedness – broadening of the horizon.
  • Plurality of values and arbitrariness – binding nature of the normative.
  • Unlimited possibilities – limited possibilities of existence.
  • Individualism creating loneliness – mankind.
  • Social isolation – community.
  • Alienated human beings – the co-world and the (ecological) web of life.
  • Human hubris – being part of ecological networks.
  • Pure Civilization – the value of nature.
  • The primacy of economy – ecology and social matters.
  • Striving for things material – dematerialization of the economy and turning to the intellectual/spiritual (immaterial) values.
  • Liberation from nature – liberation from manmade scourges of mankind.
  • Arbitrariness – freedom within limits.
  • Separation and dominance of analysis – integration and synthesis.
  • Lack of orientation – concept.
  • Experience of the complex–(rational) management of complexity.

63The list of attractive potential counterarguments to be used against frequent concerns could be continued.

4.3 Existential Questions and Life Plans

64Above and beyond these answers of sustainability to concerns about the world of life, the concepts of sustainability also affect (other) profound problems of personal existence, and can thus strongly influence individuals, especially in today’s secular societies with their insufficient availability of interpretations. Thus, questions about the future, the position of man, existence after death, and the like are touched upon and even explained. The sustainability concept by Konrad Ott, for instance, uses the idea of intergenerationality to make “the living transitory links in a chain of generations” (Ott/Döring 2004, p. 343).

65Strength and purpose in this continuous chain of transience is offered, in an anthropocentric sense, by “mankind’s absolute duty to exist” (Jonas 1986, p. 80) or, in an ecologically broadened biocentric interpretation of sustainability, the preservation and maintenance of the web of life. At any rate, it can be said that: “A theory of sustainability leaves many people […] not as unaffected in their existence as we are left unaffected by many other good theories” (Ott/Döring 2004, p. 343).

66Against the background of the existential depth of theory and the immense range of the sustainability idea (in a spatial sense: global, in a social sense: all of mankind; in a sense of time: intergenerational), concepts of sustainability (such as the integrative concept), without intending or claiming to be, can be seen as experiments towards an ethical theory of everything (cf. Parodi 2008, p. 216). These experiments, when interpreted individualistically, can quite well be regarded in the tradition of classical ethics as far as their comprehensive striving for the good life is concerned. In this way, the sustainability concepts (at least implicitly) contain moments of a life plan, a “life philosophy”.

67Even if the “good life” sought in sustainability is turned into a post-modern soft and pluralistic format of “life which is not bad”, and sustainability designs appeal first to collectives and institutions, and normative postulates must be restricted to “guide rails” or “safe minimum standards,” they do offer the possibility of comprehensive individual orientation and a (moderate and open, but existing) comprehensive life plan (in a way which, nowadays, perhaps can only be offered by the religions).

68The cultural counterdesign of sustainability (cf. Parodi 2009) makes people concerned, can affect them (in their existence), offers perspective and orientation. Thus, sustainability, though unintended, incorporates a comprehensive ethical power which has become rare.

4.4 Changing Awareness

69In addition to ideas of conceptual sustainability, demands are being heard that there should also be an individual change of mind towards sustainability. “By whatever name, something akin to spiritual renewal is the sine qua non of the transition to sustainability” (Orr 2002, p. 1459). Also on grounds of theories of culture in which, on the one hand, the individual is seen as a factor of cultural change and, on the other hand, the mental/spiritual dimension is considered a powerful agent, it can be presumed that, in the absence of any “change of mind” and awareness of individuals, there will hardly be anything like sustainable development. Individual concern, attractiveness, depth, and orientation to the concepts of sustainability offer reasons and points of departure for this idea. “If we want to make the transition [to sustainability] gracefully […], we need enhanced spiritual awareness” (McDaniel 2002, p. 1461). This challenge on the road to sustainability, according to Orr, is by far the biggest challenge, not least because it may be most difficult to approach (politically) and is right in the hands of the individuals.

70Another open point is the meaning of “change of mind”, and how far this has to go. Orr considers that the transition to sustainable development cannot be achieved merely by rational means. Moreover, “a transformation of mind and heart, desire and intention” (McDaniel, 2002, p. 1461) is needed. So, do we have to become new persons right away? Those who want may do so. In the long run, the implementation of sustainable development and the achievement of a culture of sustainability will (have to) establish a new world view and a fundamentally new way of dealing with the world. We will have to address the world in a different way. If one looks at the misconceptions described in Section 2, one recognizes the need for a major individual change in perception of the world and in self-perception (in Uexküll’s dual sense).

  • 10 Here are a few arbitrary examples just for illustration:
    – School of Sustainability: http://www.hoc (...)
  • 11 In the same way in which really new developments often suffer from a lack of (possibilities of) ex (...)

71Such approaches towards a change of mind can already be recognized in many cases, and small steps are being taken in this direction towards a culture of sustainability. Innumerable projects, initiatives, groups, events, and new patterns of consumption now pointing in the direction of sustainability make this an obvious conclusion.10 Often, these steps have little theoretical and rational backing,11 nor do they meet the requirements of those comprehensive concepts of sustainability. How could they? Yet, in a lived experiment, they all make contributions on the way to a culture of sustainability, irrespective of whether these contributions are of an ecological, economic, spiritual or other nature.

72One last and important point is this: As long as a culture of sustainability has not yet been achieved, and sustainability merely exists as a draft, a (vague) idea, one must deliberately and expressly decide for sustainability. “Decision means literally a cut […] a cut between past and future, an introduction of an essentially new strand into the emerging pattern of history” (Shackle 1969, p. 3).

73Sustainability lived indeed would be such a cut, and a culture of sustainability would represent precisely such a new and important strand to be incorporated into the history of mankind. However, this also implies that old traditions of a non-sustainable culture must be abandoned.

74[This article has already been published in German in Parodi, O.; Banse, G.; Schaffer, A. (eds.): Wechselspiele: Kultur und Nachhaltigkeit. Annäherungen an ein Spannungsfeld. Berlin 2010, pp. 97-115.]



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1 When reference is made below to “our culture”, this does not imply a homogeneous collective but, vaguely, fundamental cultural characteristics, conventions of thought, and basic attitudes of the occidental Western modern cultural complex.

2 Two views can be distinguished here: (1) With a view to the modern Western cultural area it can be said: This does not work, at least it no longer works today. It bears fundamental (functional) features of a non-culture. (2) With a global view to the totality of mankind, the “functional” crisis could also be interpreted as a crisis of origin: Culture does not yet function because there is no such global culture as yet. We have been living in a world society for some time already, but we are far from living in a world culture. “Mankind” so far has remained a concept and, to all extents and purposes, an a-culture.

3 A culture of sustainability could overcome modern and post-modern times through synthesis, institute and fulfill humanism, cause today’s culture to decline and, perhaps, mark the departure into a new, trans-anthropocentric age.

4 This applies irrespective of influences which must be expected to act on a global culture of sustainability from forces outside Western cultural areas and concepts.

5 After cosmological injury, Copernican removal from the center of the world, biological injury as per theory of evolution, and psychological injury in psychoanalysis, human beings in the industrial age experience technological injury (cf. Rohbeck 1993, p. 10). The active proponents of technology must recognize that they are not (any more) “masters of their creation, but are ruled by the products they themselves created” (Rohbeck 1993, p. 10).

6 In German “begreifen”.

7 In German “wahrnehmen”.

8 A cultural sustainability shell imposed top down would probably suffer a fate similar to that of the “Lipsi” – a dance created by the sovereign in the GDR around 1960: it would decline.

9 This applies at least in the light of Hans Jonas’ primacy of mankind’s absolute duty to exist (cf. Jonas 1986).

10 Here are a few arbitrary examples just for illustration:
– School of Sustainability:;
– “Sustainability as an art of living”:;
– CITTA–Forum für neues Bewusstsein:;
– Global Community “Wombat”:

11 In the same way in which really new developments often suffer from a lack of (possibilities of) explanation (cf. Parodi 2004).

Table des illustrations

Titre Table 1: Catalogue of Requirements
Légende Author’s archive
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Dr.; Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT), Institut für Technikfolgenabschätzung und Systemanalyse (ITAS) / Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis (ITAS) & KIT-Schwerpunkt Mensch und Technik / KIT Research Focus Human and Technology; Karlsruhe, Germany;


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