Article rejected by ZMagazine, 1998

Note: Not so long ago, ecological economics and alternative models were anathema to the US Left. In 1998 I tried to show how various movements around ecological sustainability did express values of the Left. Both Z Magazine (in 1998) and Dollars & Sense (in 2000) rejected this article.

Sustainability Update

One of the most vibrant international social movements today is sustainable development. Under this conceptual umbrella, new multiracial and cross-class alliances are being built, technologies discovered or relearned, and spaces of resistance organized so as to be as independent as possible from corporate capitalism.

Some of the most vigorous advocates of sustainability are found among the movements resisting free trade. The National Alliance of People’s Movements, India, protests the World Trade Organization (WTO) and “anti-sovereign agreements” and asserts “the right to have the land, water, forest, mineral, and aquatic wealth localized in each village community, to have local eco-socio-economically decentralized planning for equity and sustainability” including indigenous technology, local markets, and non-consumerist living. The fisherfolk movement Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas demands that the Philippine government withdraw from the WTO and regional free trade agreements and envisions “reorient[ation of] our food production and market to feed the Filipino people and not aristocrats abroad.” Peoples’ Global Action includes 300 representatives from 71 countries. After destroying (not reforming) the WTO, their vision is to “reconstruct sustainable livelihoods” through a “decentralized economy and polity based on communities’ rights to natural resources and to plan their own development, with equality and self-reliance as the basic values.” ( The International Forum on Globalization, a group of international scholars, envisions “more diversified, locally controlled, community-based economics”. (

Sustainability is advocated all over the world. It is articulated by fourth world (indigenous peoples) movements as a defense against and alternative to corporate depredation and government modernization. It is increasingly articulated by third world peasant movements as they embrace indigenous agricultural and social technologies and reject modernization and export-based economics. Even urban workers in Latin America are endorsing the vision of small-scale subsistence economies. And it is a growing first world movement, where it is an attempt to integrate environmental values into everyday life, to reduce first world consumption of the world’s resources, to build community, or to increase quality of life. Based on the evidence of world history, sustainability is eminently possible and realistic. Our heritage includes millennia of science and engineering, all but a few hundred years of which has been sustainable. The concept of sustainability is not new, but its increasingly political and technically sophisticated invocation as a solution to many current problems is new and very significant.

The cutting edge of the U.S. and Canadian organic movements is calling itself the “Community Food Security” (CFS) movement. Community Food Security emphasizes the rights of low-income communities and communities of color to secure sources of high-quality food. It works toward this goal using a number of mechanisms, such as: new farmers markets, community gardens, communal food kitchens, CSAs customized for lower income and ethnically diverse populations, baby-food making classes, transportation systems to provide access to higher quality food outlets far from peoples’ neighborhoods, and public school gardens and connections between schools and farms that increase the quality of food served to children. Community Food Security has reoriented charitable hunger programs’ strategy from importing emergency resources to providing long-term sources of food right in the communities. The movement was built on the vital infrastructure of urban community gardens, which have long been an important source of food for urban people of color. According to activists, these gardens are also an important resource for engaging elders and for working with youth. (

While it is important to keep in mind that the concept of sustainability is being rapidly coopted by corporations and governments, it is also pretty easy to distinguish between the grassroots and coopted versions. One thing that has been absolutely consistent in grassroots conceptions of sustainability, whether articulated from within the first or third worlds, has been that economic growth is a primary cause of unsustainability. In contrast, corporate and most government versions of sustainability emphasize “sustainable growth”, which is an oxymoron. Growth is not impossible in sustainable systems, but it will probably be temporary. It is not a goal in sustainable economies. Another thing corporate and government versions of sustainability tend to do is position industry and corporations as partners or “stakeholders” in achieving environmental goals. In grassroots discourse, organizations pursuing unsustainable production systems are seen as totally illegitimate (they do not deserve to be partners and they have no rights as “stakeholders”) not only because they are ecologically suicidal, but also because sustainable development practitioners know that there are sustainable alternatives to every necessary industrial good.

Sustainability activists advocate for small-scale economies, where basic items are produced as close as possible to where they are consumed, people eat seasonally-appropriate foods, produce energy and dispose of “waste” in decentralized ways, choose technologies that require minimal inputs and are easily repaired, and minimize consumption of imported and wasteful goods. Sustainability scholar F. E. Trainer recommends building “small-scale economies which are highly self-sufficient and integrated, with a minimum of importing and transporting into the area, and a maximum of independence and security from external economic fluctuations”. Food, fuel, fibre, and animal fodder can all be produced in any part of the world. Trainer’s explanation of how this can be accomplished is typical of grassroots sustainable development discourse:

“reduction or elimination of many unnecessary products, designing goods to last and to be repaired, recycling, decentralizing…moving food production closer to [consumption]…increasing self-sufficiency of households…edible urban landscapes…[deprofessionalizing] tasks presently performed by bureaucrats and professionals…increasing time spent ‘working’ in…backyards…local businesses, and community groups close to home.”

Myths abound about sustainability. One is that a sustainable society is a bare subsistence society. Yet Permaculture (one approach to sustainability), shows that perennial “food forests” can produce abundant food, requiring very little maintenance, little water, and fertilizing themselves. Unlike the modern mono-crop agricultural model, which is based on scarcity and high levels of human intervention and inputs from off the farm, dense multi-crop systems are abundant systems based on natural patterns of growth and complex interdependence. Grape vines can be trellised on apple trees (or kiwis on banana in the South) with sweet potatoes as a ground cover and in between a herbaceous layer which wards off pests. Even rudimentary systems analysis shows that bullock are a more elegant and efficient technology than tractors — at least from the point of view of a farmer. Bullocks can be fed off the land and they provide milk, fertilizer, and baby tractors. Tractors, of course, are more elegant to bankers because they reproduce debt.

Anyway, our images of “bare subsistence” societies may be wrong. Anthropologists have documented that most indigenous people spent a lot of time in leisure activities. Pierre Clastres asks how it is possible for Indians to be both “lazy” and “bare subsistence”? The answer, he says, is that those who appeared to colonial observers as “lazy” were simply finished producing all that they needed. If they could have produced more but chose not to, then they were not “barely” subsisting. In addition, agricultural researchers have discovered that ancient complex, small-scale, labor-intensive farming systems are far more productive than and survive drought and pest attacks better than modern agriculture.

Another myth is that the necessity of producing one’s own basic needs would entail a severe loss of quality of life. Modernizing and introducing mass-produced goods and “jobs” does not increase the quality of life for the world’s poorest peoples — moreover, such an approach to development fails to arrest the first world’s drain on their resources, fails to support traditional culture, and reinforces economic dependency. Sustainability scholars and activists demonstrate that in many ways “subsistence societies” had higher quality of life than modern ones. Some simple examples of this are that they managed to produce what they needed and also had a lot of what we call “leisure time” which was spent with children, making music, dance, and artistry, and in sophisticated institutions of communal decision-making.

This is not to say that no development at all is needed in the third world. Beyond land reform and elimination of corporate depredation, development should aim to support the existing economies of small-scale societies. Rather than modernizing and connecting people with global markets, according to Martin Khor of the Third World Network (Penang, Malaysia), production should not be introduced which is controlled by machines rather than humans, communities should have authority over decisions about technology and use of resources, and production should be focused on durable, non-toxic, locally-needed items. Those of us who want to support the survival of traditional cultures cannot hope to do so by engaging them with modern bureaucracies and economies.

First worlders who are rediscovering backyard agriculture, food preservation, soap and candle making, and the like are finding these activities to be highly pleasurable. The new “sustainable cuisine” (U.S.) and “slow food” (Europe) movements are based on the recognition that industrial agriculture and food production simply doesn’t taste as good. Ardent bicycle commuters find it more pleasurable than auto use, not less. The “Voluntary Simplicity” movement, spurred by Duane Elgin’s book, is a testament to the increased quality of life people are finding. Activist Eric Werbalowsky describes himself as an “eco-slacker”, capturing the intersection of a changing conception of work, decreased standard of living, and increased quality of life.

Sustainability is critical

Some scholars write that sustainable development fails to challenge capitalism. In the third and fourth worlds, this is simply untrue as sustainable development is proposed as an alternative to modernization and export-based economies. Even in the first world, sustainable development activists are creating and re-teaching alternatives to existing production processes, transport and energy systems, and agricultural technologies. In many ways (including the production of many needed items at home) these alternatives undermine the consumer-worker economy on which capitalism depends. At its most radical, sustainable development seeks to decommodify resources, for example by planting public parks and plazas with edible plants.

By supplying basic needs through the use of commons resources (sun, rainwater, edible landscaping1⁄4 ) sustainable development attempts to reverse the process of enclosure, thereby freeing people from wage labor. According to historian James Scott, a wide variety of pre-capitalist European poor peoples’ movements rejected expropriation on the basis that they had a right to natural abundance. This idea of an “abundant, self-yielding nature” has been eliminated even from the most radical economic analysis, and from much environmentalism as well, which has a rather precious attitude toward nature. Anarchists in the Food Not Bombs group and sustainable gardeners here in my town are finding that they a great deal in common and a great deal to learn from each other.

Sustainable activists’ re-assertion that abundance exists and that it is an alternative to work and consumption as we know them amounts to a rejection of capitalist appropriation of labor and centralized production of needed goods. Decentralized production is more able to respond to absolute need, which cannot articulate itself as “demand” in a global market. Even in less obviously confrontational moments, much of sustainability education re-connects people with the whole concept of commons resources (free fertilizer/yard waste). It builds institutions like seed banks, which protect the collective commons heritage of genetic diversity —the original flavor enhancer— which is an important part of food security.

Another way that sustainability challenges capitalism is by rejecting the assertion that large-scale economies are now “inevitable”. Large, centralized economic systems and their use of “comparative advantage” create dependency on a distant and massive system even for basic needs. Dependency has, of course, been a form of re-colonization of the third world. And centralized production and distribution are hard to govern democratically, partly due to the necessities and proclivities of bureaucracy and partly due to the requirement of an objective and universal operationalization of “the public good”. Not only does the universalization that accompanies centralization steamroll cultural diversity, it also insists on standardization, which uses resources far less efficiently than local technologies. Extraction of resources, with devastating effects on localities, has been a problem shared by free market capitalism, command capitalism, and state socialism because they are all centralized. Just governing the big economy differently won’t fix this problem. Anthropologist Helena Norberg-Hodge argues that “Communism and capitalism are both centralized, colonial, ruthless” insofar as “both exerted pressure on people to stop producing a range of products for local consumption and instead to monocrop” for centralized markets. She suggests that scale is a more fundamental economic concern than the critique of capitalism.

Some observers are concerned that sustainability is a “pro-market” solution. While sustainable development techniques include systems to renew local barter and trade, such as community currency systems, these can hardly be considered free-market solutions. The sustainability approach eschews long-distance trade, and thus refuses the market magic of “comparative advantage”. While some coopted versions of sustainability, such as the Swedish “Natural Step”, do cater to corporate profitability, most grassroots sustainable development undermines corporations’ role in the economy by obviating mass-produced goods. It’s true that many sustainable development activists get excited when they think corporations might take a better path, but most of the work done at the grassroots avoids corporations entirely.

An alternative political economy for social justice

In the first world, a lot of sustainability enthusiasts can afford expensive solar energy systems. How does sustainability address issues of race, class, and gender? Sustainability is making important contributions to social justice, but its approach to social justice is not a state project. The first thing to keep in mind is the predominant fourth and third world roles in advocating sustainability.

Sustainability promotes decentralized economies in order to make communities more secure. Sustainable development offers constructive, incremental projects through which people can undermine undemocratic corporate power in their lives while creating new cultures of living. According to a 1996 publication by the United Nations, urban food production is increasing all over the world at an incredible rate. This change, although certainly spurred by various forms of structural adjustment, makes the urban poor more self-sufficient (and thereby secure) and increases the quality of food. In the first world, recent immigrants from the third world often have extensive agricultural knowledge, which is maintained through creative urban farming. ( For urban residents who don’t actually farm, Community Supported Agriculture associations connect farmers with city people, who buy a share of the harvest in advance (or work on the farm a few hours a week) and receive weekly baskets of food. These new alliances, while they may not be cross-class in a strict sense of income-bracket, make valuable political and community connections between farmers and urban workers in quite different status groups.

Since women make up a high proportion of marginal farmers in the third world, any way to increase their food security is important. Permaculture-type sustainability projects can achieve this. Unlike some mainstream/coopted forms of sustainable development, Permaculture slowly removes land from use for export production and returns it to multiple crops that provide a range of nutrition for local use. Strict sustainability perspectives reject export-oriented projects (like “fair trade”), for failing to increase local food security, challenge first world consumption of third world resources, build independence from external economic fluctuations that often result in environmental over-use and the degradation of work, or support traditional economies.

Sustainable economies are labor-intensive, which ensures full employment. At the same time (and somewhat counter-intuitively) labor-intensive systems increase the experiential quality of work time. Helena Norberg-Hodge has documented that traditional labor-intensive technologies are integrated into social activities. With these technologies, workers regulate the pace of work (sometimes with song). In high-tech systems, workers become an appendage of the machine and are forced to work at its pace. From a sustainability perspective, talk of “third world unemployment” is particularly strange. In community production systems, no one has a job, but everyone contributes to the work that needs to be done, in accord with their enthusiasms, skills, and abilities. The incredible scientific knowledge, collective education, and family and social time that surrounds communal production is lost in a world of jobs.

As in Trainer’s explanation, sustainable work looks quite different from capitalist work. It changes with the seasons, is closely connected with everyday life needs of the community, is near home, and does not involve depersonalized bureaucracies. The U.S. environmental justice movement hopes to find sustainable livelihoods for workers of color who in the past have had to choose between their jobs and their health. Sustainable development offers many ways to improve people’s “job” security and working conditions.

Sustainability also makes important contributions to social justice at a larger scale. I want to revisit for a moment Karl Polanyi’s idea of “reembedding” which has been repeated by many people in many ways. Polanyi was trying to figure out how it would be possible to take the free-market system and embed it in social systems, to subordinate it to other kinds of social goals (like feeding everyone or prioritizing public health over profit). Whenever we talk about asserting peoples’ power, we are talking about the attempt to embed the monster economy in some constraining social system, like a democracy. It’s hard to see this happening when we take into account how the economy structures the very institutions that we hope would embed it and how the free market system has convinced people that it is the only way to get a job, get stuff, and (maybe) get rich.

But sustainability (which is, among other things, an anti-colonial analysis) implicitly proposes a way to achieve this reembedding. If communities realize that the natural resources (including food-growing resources) around them are being expropriated by one means or another and they somehow manage to stop just that, they will push predatory economies back on their own resources. Predatory economies forced to live within their own ecological means will be immediately reembedded. Various cultural narratives, values, and technologies will be articulated in each community to explain, manage, and adjudicate the use of those resources. Most third world communities will find themselves far more secure and with access to more abundant resources simply by halting export. First world mono-cropping or non-productive communities will need to re-learn a diversity of skills. It’s vital to remember that people had a diversity of tasty foods, interesting house building materials, good medicines (including birth control), and, apparently, time to make beautiful clothing before large scale economies came along.

The most exciting piece of this possibility is that self-sufficient communities could “just say no” to the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organization. If any given community doesn’t need to export or import to make it, these organizations’ leverage disintegrates. Self-sufficient communities need not follow any one else’s rules or pay anyone else’s debt. Idealistic? More idealistic than organizing national revolutions or international democracies uncorrupted by bureaucratic tendencies? Those of us who are resolutely cosmopolitan and disinterested in growing food can use our skills to dismantle the military force that will no doubt be brought to bear on any community saying “no, thanks” to progress.

Sustainable Development Promotes Democracy & Diversity

There has been a great deal of debate lately about the implications of decentralization for democracy and diversity. Lefts are afraid of decentralization because we don’t trust people to govern themselves. We are concerned that local control will pursue old-fashioned parochial values rather than inclusive pro-diversity emancipatory ones. More specifically, we fear fascism and the best defense seems to be enforcement powers of a strong civil-rights state.

Let’s remember that sustainable development emphasizes the issue of scale. Why do we keep imagining that large-scale governance can work when we see ongoing institutional abuses of human and civil rights in the large first-world democracies? If we really believe that people can’t be humane on a local level, why do we imagine they could do so on a larger scale? The tendency of the Left to side with large-scale governance fails to incorporate another very important aspect of Left analysis, which is that external forces are usually to blame for “ethnic conflicts” in the world today. If those conflicts are not in fact parochial and local, why do we remain so suspicious of rural peoples’ ability to govern themselves in decentralized systems 3⁄4 or perhaps in limited federations?

If the problem is that first worlders have lost the social skills of traditional peoples and cannot be trusted to govern ourselves, then let us acknowledge that in our recommendations for other places and work to remedy this tragic loss in the first world. Moreover, if first world Lefts lack the nerve to dialogue with reactionary local people who we fear now, how will we learn to do so later when we have achieved “participatory democracy”?

Sustainability activists argue that building communal systems for providing basic needs will bring people together. As they become materially interdependent, they will value diversity as they share their skills and strengths. Such communities will be more capable both of exerting direct democracy over issues of basic needs and of fostering participatory democracy in dealing with community issues, because more people will know each other and be involved in each other’s lives. As argued above, scholars even argue that small-scale economies will provide people with much more leisure time to spend in democratic debate.

Fascism is not the only threat to diversity. Others include corporate control of genetic resources and economic integration into a single paradigm of productivity. Centralized, state-dependent approaches to social justice have yet to specify how exactly they will protect diversity, particularly when we want them to enforce universal humanitarian values. Sustainable development already has a theory of how diversity is to be valued and treated democratically. Local, self-reliant communities will be able to develop their own economic and political systems rather than being shaped by distant bureaucracies. Diverse knowledge is seen as precious not in a flaccid, liberal context of cultural “sharing”, but in the humbling context of the failure of industrial agriculture, economics, professionalism, electoral democracy, and medicine.

While it appears that the promised movements of “globalization from below” are beginning to happen, it’s interesting to see that some of the leading organizations of these movements, such as Peoples’ Global Action, do not envision the building of a more humane global economy and new democratic international governance structures. They want to destroy the WTO and go home to villages that control their own resources, eat the food they grow (rather than exporting it), and govern their own lives.