How long can we keep doing this? Sustainability as a strictly temporal concept

  • Chris R. ColocousisEmail author
  • Cesar J. Rebellon
  • Nick Smith
  • Stefan Sobolowski


Sustainability has become both an increasingly prominent societal project and a central object of study. At the same time, the concept’s purview has grown to encompass not only issues that bear directly on humanity’s ability to endure, but an increasingly value-laden set of ideas such as social justice. We argue that this conflation of the functional and the normative in established conceptualizations of sustainability is a problematic trend for several reasons. First, it has obscured a common sense understanding of sustainability squarely focused on the ability of a given system or practice to persist across time. Second, by shifting the focus from that which can objectively endure to that which should subjectively be preserved, recent conceptions of sustainability encourage a tendency toward the expansion of sustainability’s purview, often along increasingly ideological lines. Third, by diffusing a core substantive focus on temporal durability and incorporating increasingly normative social prescriptions, we suspect that many conceptualizations of sustainability have alienated potential allies, conveying to them that a vote for sustainability is ultimately a vote for a slew of progressive causes. Further, as prescriptive conceptions of sustainability promote coalitions among groups who do have common goals, the moral basis of those goals provides traction for ideologically opposed groups to forestall fundamental functional reforms on the basis of their association with less critical normative issues. Subsuming normative considerations under the banner of sustainability may ultimately be more detrimental than beneficial for achieving the most pressing functional goals upon which most normative goals themselves depend.


Sustainability Resilience Environmental politics Temporality Socioecological systems 


  1. Adger WN (2000) Social and ecological resilience: are they related? Prog Hum Geogr 24:347–364CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Agyeman J (2008) Toward a ‘just’ sustainability? Continuum 22:751–756. doi: 10.1080/10304310802452487 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Agyeman J, Evans B (2004) ‘Just sustainability’: the emerging discourse of environmental justice in Britain? Geogr J 170:155–164CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. American Policy Center (2015) Sustainability Marxism. Accessed 8/25 2015
  5. Arizona State University School of Sustainability (2015a) Sustainability is… Accessed 8/25 2015
  6. Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (2015) About AASHE. Accessed 8/25 2015
  7. Beck G (2015) Agenda 21 keyword list. Accessed 8/25 2015
  8. Benson MH, Craig RK (2014) The end of sustainability. Soc Nat Res 27:777–782CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bentham J (1961) An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation. Doubleday, Garden CityGoogle Scholar
  10. Bettencourt LM, Kaur J (2011) Evolution and structure of sustainability science. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 108:19540–19545. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1102712108 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. BlueGreen Alliance (2015) About Us. Accessed 8/25 2015
  12. Brulle RJ (2010) Politics and the environment. In: Leicht KT, Jenkins JC (eds) The handbook of politics: state and civil society in global perspective. Springer Publishers, New York, pp 385–406CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bryn Mawr College (2015) Take Action. Accessed 8/25 2015
  14. Campbell DT, Fiske DW (1959) Convergent and discriminant validation by the multitrait-multimethod matrix. Psychol Bull 56:81–105CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Celock J (2013) Kansas sustainable development ban proposed by State Legislator. Huffington Post. Accessed 8/25 2015
  16. Center for Sustainable Practice in the Arts (2015) About the CSPA. Accessed 8/25 2015
  17. Clark WC, Dickson NM (2003) Sustainability science: the emerging research program. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 100:8059–8061. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1231333100 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Connelly S (2007) Mapping sustainable development as a contested concept. Local Environ 12:259–278. doi: 10.1080/13549830601183289 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Coote A (2014) A new social settlement for people and planet: understanding the links between social justice and sustainability. New Economics Foundation, neweconomics.orgGoogle Scholar
  20. Dale A, Ling C, Newman L (2008) Does place matter? Sustainable community development in three Canadian communities. Ethics, Place Environ 11:267–281. doi: 10.1080/13668790802559676 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Davidson DJ (2010) The applicability of the concept of resilience to social systems: some sources of optimism and nagging doubts. Soc Nat Resour 23:1135–1149. doi: 10.1080/08941921003652940 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Democrats Against U.N. Agenda 21 (2015) Accessed 8/25 2015
  23. Dimaggio PJ, Powell WW (1983) The iron cage revisited: institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. Am Sociol Rev 48:147–160CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Folke C, Carpenter SR, Walker B, Scheffer M, Chapin T, Rockstrom J (2010) Resilience thinking: integrating resilience, adaptability and transformability. Ecol Soc 15:20CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Fortune J, Hughes J (1997) Modern academic myths. In: Stowell FA, Ison RL, Armson R, Holloway J, Jackson S, McRobb S (eds) Systems for sustainability: people, organizations, and environments. Springer, US, pp 124–130Google Scholar
  26. Foster JB (1999) Marx’s theory of metabolic rift: classical foundations for environmental sociology. Am J Sociol 105:366–405. doi: 10.1086/210315 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Foster JB, Clark B (2012) The planetary emergency. Monthly review 64Google Scholar
  28. Gauchat G (2012) Politicization of science in the public sphere: a study of public trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. Am J Sociol 77:167–187CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Gilderbloom JI, Hanka MJ, Ambrosius JD (2009) Historic preservation’s impact on job creation, property values, and environmental sustainability. J Urban: Int Res Placemaking Urban Sustain 2:83–101. doi: 10.1080/17549170903056821 Google Scholar
  30. Glotzbach S, Baumgartner S (2012) The relationship between intragenerational and intergenerational ecological Justice. Environ Values 21:331–355. doi: 10.3197/096327112X13400390126055 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Gould KA, Lewis TL, Roberts JT (2004) Blue-green coalitions: constraints and possibilities in the post 9–11 political environment. J World-Syst Res X:91–116CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Hamilton LC (2003) Collapse, recovery and sustainable use. In: Duhamie G, Bernard N (eds) Arctic economic development and self-government. GETIC, Universite Laval, Quebec City, pp 91–95Google Scholar
  33. Hartley J (2009) Arts and ecological sustainability vol 34. International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture AgenciesGoogle Scholar
  34. Harvey D (2014) Seventeen contradictions and the end of capitalism. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  35. Hempel M (2011) The sustainability test. Blue planet united. Accessed 8/25 2015
  36. Hillerbrand R, Ghil M (2008) Anthropogenic climate change: scientific uncertainties and moral dilemmas. Physica D 237:2132–2138Google Scholar
  37. Holland B (2008) Justice and the environment in Nussbaum’s “capabilities approach”: why sustainable ecological capacity is a meta-capability. Polit Res Q 61:319–332CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Holling CS (2001) Understanding the complexity of economic. Ecol, Soc Syst Ecosyst 4:390–405. doi: 10.1007/s10021-001-0101-5 Google Scholar
  39. Integrated Network for Social Sustainability (2015) What is social sustainability. Accessed 8/25 2015
  40. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2013) Climate change 2013: the physical science basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. doi: 10.1017/CBO9781107415324 Google Scholar
  41. Jamieson D (1995) Ecosystem health: some preventive medicine. Environ Values 4:333–344CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Kajikawa Y (2008) Research core and framework of sustainability science. Sustain Sci 3:215–239. doi: 10.1007/s11625-008-0053-1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Kates RW (2011) What kind of a science is sustainability science? Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 108:19449–19450. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1116097108 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Kates RW et al (2001) Sustainability science. Science 292:641–642. doi: 10.1126/science.1059386 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kates RW, Parris TM, Leiserowitz AA (2005) What is sustainable development? Goals, indicators, values, and practice. Enviro: Sci Policy Sustain Dev 47:8–21. doi: 10.1080/00139157.2005.10524444 Google Scholar
  46. Keck M, Sakdapolrak P (2013) What is social resilience? Lessons learned and ways forward. Erdkunde 67:5–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Kelly T (2009) Sustainability as an organizing principle for higher education. In: Aber J, Kelly T, Mallory B (eds) The sustainable learning community: one university’s journey to the future. University Press of New England, LebanonGoogle Scholar
  48. Kersten K (2008) Sustainability can be a warm, fuzzy word that invites tyranny. Accessed 8/25 2015
  49. Klein N (2011) Capitalism vs. the climate. The Nation. Accessed 1 Mar 2015
  50. Langhelle O (2000) Sustainable development and social justice: expanding the Rawlsian framework of global justice. Environ Values 9:295–323CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Leo J (2008) The worst campus codeword. Minding the campus. Accessed 8/25 2015
  52. Lyon C (2014) Place systems and social resilience: a framework for understanding place in social adaptation, resilience, and transformation. Soc Nat Resour 27:1009–1023. doi: 10.1080/08941920.2014.918228 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Magee L et al (2013) Reframing social sustainability reporting: towards an engaged approach environment. Dev Sustain 15:225–243. doi: 10.1007/s10668-012-9384-2 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Magis K (2010) Community resilience: an indicator of social sustainability. Soc Nat Resour 23:401–416. doi: 10.1080/08941920903305674 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Marcuse P (1998) Sustainability is not enough. Environ Urban 10:103–111CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. McCright AM, Dunlap RE (2010) Anti-reflexivity: the American conservative movement’s success in undermining climate science and policy theory. Cult Soc 27:100–133. doi: 10.1177/0263276409356001 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. McCright AM, Dentzman K, Charters M, Dietz T (2013) The influence of political ideology on trust in science. Environ Res Lett 8:044029. doi: 10.1088/1748-9326/8/4/044029 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Meadows D, Randers J, Meadows D (2004) Limits to growth: the 30-year update. Chelsea Green Publishing, White River JunctionGoogle Scholar
  59. Mebratu D (1998) Sustainability and sustainable development: historical and conceptual review. Environ Impact Assess Rev 18:493–520CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Mencimer S (2011) “We don’t need none of that smart-growth communism.” Mother JonesGoogle Scholar
  61. Middlemiss L (2011) The power of community: how community-based organizations stimulate sustainable lifestyles among participants. Soc Nat Resour 24:1157–1173. doi: 10.1080/08941920.2010.518582 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Mincyte D (2011) Subsistence and sustainability in post-industrial Europe: the politics of small-scale farming in Europeanising Lithuania. Sociol Rural 51:101–118. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9523.2011.00530.x CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Mincyte D (2012) How milk does the world good: vernacular sustainability and alternative food systems in post-socialist Europe. Agric Hum Values 29:41–52CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Motesharrei S, Rivas J, Kalnay E (2014) Human and nature dynamics (HANDY): modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies. Ecol Econ 101:90–102. doi: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2014.02.014 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Palmer MA (2012) Socioenvironmental sustainability and actionable. Sci Biosci 62:5–6CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Peterson R, Wood P (2015) Sustainability: higher education’s new fundamentalism. National Association of Scholars. Accessed 4 Nov 2015
  67. Pfeffer J, Salancik GR (1978) The external control of organizations: a resource dependence perspective. Harper & Row, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  68. Rogers S, Aytur S, Gardner K, Carlson C (2012) Measuring community sustainability: exploring the intersection of the built environment & social capital with a participatory case study. J Environ Stud Sci 2:143–153CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Scerri A, James P (2010) Accounting for sustainability: combining qualitative and quantitative research in developing ‘indicators’ of sustainability. Int J Soc Res Methodol 13:41–53. doi: 10.1080/13645570902864145 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Sepe M (2010) Place identity and PlaceMaker: planning the urban sustainability. J Urban Plann Dev 136:139–146CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Sherriff G (2009) Towards healthy local food: issues in achieving just sustainability. Local Environ 14:73–92. doi: 10.1080/13549830802522566 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Skocpol T (2003) Diminished democracy: from membership to management in American civic life. University of Oklahoma Press, NormanGoogle Scholar
  73. Stony Brook University Sustainability Studies Program (2015) What is sustainability studies? Accessed 8/25 2015
  74. Tea Party 911 (2015) What is Agenda 21? Accessed 8/25 2015
  75. Thompson PB (2007) Agricultural sustainability: what it is and what it is not. Int J Agric Sustain 5:5–16. doi: 10.1080/14735903.2007.9684809 Google Scholar
  76. United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs Division for Sustainable Development (2012) Back to our common future: sustainable development in the 21st century (SD21) project (summary for policymakers). United Nations, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  77. United Nations Environment Programme (1992) Rio Declaration on Environment and Development. Accessed 8/25 2015
  78. University of New Hampshire Sustainability Institute (2015) What is sustainability? Accessed 8/25 2015
  79. University of New Mexico Sustainability Studies Program (2015) What is the sustainability studies program? Accessed 8/25 2015
  80. Vucetich JA, Nelson MP (2010) Sustainability: virtuous or vulgar. Bioscience 60:539–544CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Wackernagel M et al (2002) Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy. Proc Natl Acad Sci 99:9266–9271. doi: 10.1073/pnas.142033699 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Walker B, Holling CS, Carpenter SR, Kinzig A (2004) Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social-ecological systems. Ecol Soc 9:5CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. World Commission on Environment and Development (1987) Our common future. Oxford University Press, New YorkGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© AESS 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Chris R. Colocousis
    • 1
    Email author
  • Cesar J. Rebellon
    • 2
  • Nick Smith
    • 3
  • Stefan Sobolowski
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Sociology and AnthropologyJames Madison UniversityHarrisonburgUSA
  2. 2.Department of SociologyUniversity of New HampshireDurhamUSA
  3. 3.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of New HampshireDurhamUSA
  4. 4.Uni Research Climate and the Bjerknes Centre for Climate ResearchBergenNorway

Personalised recommendations