Oceans and Impasses of “Sustainable Development”

  • Will McConnellEmail author
Living reference work entry


One of the most powerful concepts to emerge in the multiple discursive practices that together form the conceptual and politico-pragmatic terrain of “sustainable development” is “environmental sustainability.” In the emerging discourse of environmental awareness, this concept reveals its polyvalence as a speech act largely through the absences of meaning. The history of the term as now understood has its foundations in the Brundtland Report (Our common future, 1987.; despite the strength of this document in founding a global awareness, the definitions offered therein have created a foundation for fundamentally opposed drives toward understanding environmental sustainability, largely due to the privileging of neoclassical economics in land-based models for sustainable development. From ocean-based perspectives, the privileging of land-based, economically-driven modeling of sustainable development produces weak forms of “environmental” sustainability even in the best examples of current analytic approaches; the central concern of the discourse of environmental sustainability currently is to disarticulate the current paradigm through the tensions inherent in the discursive fields across which sustainability discourse produces its hegemonic (economic) properties. Major drivers of environmental pressures on the ocean originate outside of ocean systems – on land. In its “unsettling” nature, however, its divergence from land-based temporalities and spatial properties, the ocean offers multiple points at which the discourse of (land-based) sustainability collapses within its own tensions to reveal horizons of representation that offer a glimpse into the full complexity, and excitement, of reenvisioning an entire discourse of the (contested) future.


Ecosystems Sustainable development Environmental sustainability Brundtland Report Neoclassical economics 


One of the most powerful concepts to emerge in the multiple discursive practices that together form the conceptual and politico-pragmatic terrain of “sustainability” is “environmental sustainability.” In the emerging discourse of environmental awareness, this concept reveals its polyvalence as a speech act largely through the absences of meaning. The term engenders a seemingly calculated series of imprecisions: in its attempt to marry an emerging environmental awareness with traditional models of economic growth, the concept contains within it a powerful concatenation of historically layered meanings which continue to structure impasses to action developed through a “best practices” approach to re-situating a relation between “human” and “nonhuman,” “animate” and “inanimate,” “subject” and “object” of production, and discursive field or horizon of meaning and the relations – conceptual and practical or operable – that come to define a more “sustainable” approach to the dynamics of human-nonhuman interaction.

The concept privileges a passivizing of nature while at the same time places under erasure the perpetuation of economic growth as predicated on a (naturalized) consumerist ethos. In the language game of environmental sustainability, language denoting acts predicated on an ethos of “environmental development,” for example, if it appears at all, appears in the discourse as the negative – literally, actively negative-ized – dimension of economic productivity. More often than not, the operability of “development” is unidirectional, presenting an attendant, passivized language of “conservation” and “protection,” implying that the best strategy – perhaps, the only strategy – is to be “designed” in a shoring-up of “whatever remains” of nature after human activity has produced mass destruction of ecosystems, that is, after a species, the human species, has effectively destroyed the life systems essential for its own survival. “The environment,” within the discourse, is barely visible and, when visible, is widely disfigured.

Similarly, this set of linguistic strategies for identifying “solutions” to the effects of human-based destruction of nature occupies the language of “best practices” throughout key models designed for measurement of environmental damage and the economic consequences of that damage. The models can be seen, then, as the negation of nature’s visibility as an analytic object – with a concomitant assertion that the perspective governing the discourse is one of cost measurement as solutions – as itself environmental sustainability.

Thus, this discourse rendering nature throughout as a kind of absence – a presence that is negated – in actuality renders “nature” into invisibility. In such a discourse, progress toward “sustainability” is constructed as, at best, the containment of destruction and the “managed” transformation of mountains, oceans, and organisms into the stasis of systems of waste in the production and transaction of consumer object. Uncoding “nature” as the human or built environment, produces a conceptualization of nature and the natural world as the object not merely of protection, but also of design – design of a more symbiotic relation with the entirety of earth’s processes, living, and nonliving. Such a conceptualization would re-interpret human waste streams as productive rather than destructive. This form of becoming, of bringing nature into the human world as a “new” object – of study, engagement, and practice – is only now emerging in the current, globalized discourse of environmental sustainability. However, such directions for interpretation, analysis, and modeling are crucial to develop as the discourse itself. As a foundation for new forms of modeling future scenarios – a hallmark of the discourse – working actively to produce this shift in the discourse of sustainable development would work more concertedly toward  the reversal rather than the containment of damage.

Given these foundational tensions in the conceptualization of orienting models of thought in sustainability discourse, it is not surprising that, despite widely agreed upon and scientifically based, if dire predictions of social and economic collapse due to the anthropogenic nature of issues arising from global warming, the discursive practices of “globalization” have not produced any transnational grounding in “best practices” of envrionmental sustainability globally. Agreements, policies, and treaties emerge and proliferate; goals based on a human equality surge and recede; local action is linked to national, international, and planetary action; bewilderingly, however, significant reductions in environmental damage do not result in the reframing gestures inherent in “sustainable development” or in environmental sustainability discourse more generally. Baker and Eckerberg (2010) note that one of the difficulties inherent in shifting behaviors remains the “profound lack of knowledge about the complex and dynamic interactions between society, economic development, technology and nature.”

Nowhere is the perceptual elision supported by, contained in, “sustainable development” more apparent than in comparisons of land-based and ocean-based modeling scenarios of environmental impacts in such discursive locations as the emerging (behavioral) science of ocean management, the theory and practices of “sustainable development” articulated as “marine protected areas,” and, more generally speaking, in the unsettling nature of the largely undertheorized space/temporality of “the ocean.” All the more remarkable is the relative newness of ocean research, about which the FGIM authors observed: “humans have been using the ocean for millennia, [but] it is only in the past 120 years or so that serious exploration of the seven tenths of the planet covered by the sea has been in progress” (42). In its sheer impenetrability as an object readily available to human thought, the ocean reveals the practico-operative impasses of “sustainable development” or “environmental sustainability” as a means toward articulating “best practices” in a globalized conceptual framework. Farther away still in the linguistic-conceptual horizon of intelligibility is the development of a framework of best practices in the discursive sphere of a future-oriented relation to “the ocean”– indeed, in a relation to “nature” itself, human as well as nonhuman, animate, and inanimate objects of (human) consumption. An encounter with the ocean reveals not only significant limitations in current “environmental sustainability” theory and behavior(s) but also questions current operations of “markets,” global and local, as well as a host of other concepts held in place by the economics of marketplace dynamics in human activity: “work,” “leisure,” “production,” “consumption,” surplus value,” “wealth creation,” etc. A comparison of the multidisciplinary linguistic field through which ocean assessment is practiced and the language in which land-based valuation is understood can expose productive tensions that reveal fault lines in the discourse of environmental sustainability. Such tensions can lead to a new vision of (human) relations to both the land and the ocean – a vision not merely to reduce environmental damage, or mitigate and adapt to the results of thinking damage a priori of economics, but also to reverse the wide-scale production of destructive patterns of consumption – to mobilize a form of global awareness from within the construct that environmental damage is not merely a consequence but a preconception of production itself.

If such a critical encounter with the past/present of our own linguistic edifice reveals ideologically encoded tensions inherent in democratic policies, concepts, and practices (of human-to-human and human-to-environment sustainabilities), such an encounter with the present of our existing linguistic field(s) of environmental sustainability can also lead to a reenvisioning of our relation to the seas and other material processes that sustain us. Scientists across the planet have made clear, in evidence-based findings, that the human journey, in order to continue, must include a rapid transformation of thought, action, and behaviors. What was once unthinkable is now a given of daily life: humans are destroying the very systems that sustain life, all life, in the acts that are understood as the pursuit of “the good life.” Despite regularly occurring predictions by scientists across the globe – perhaps due to the enervation that comes from the regularities of witnessing anthropocentric production of extinction event conditions – the destruction of the earth continues to accelerate. Our ability to understand environmental discourse itself as action that sustains rather than resumption that measures is crucial. The first step to understanding clearly the pathways from existing impasses out of the linguistic, politico-social, and cultural dimensions of environmental damage is to reevaluate what we consider “understanding” the earth (and, by necessary inclusion, ourselves) in the first instance. If our enlightenment values have led us to conceptualize the present world “as is,” then the discursive fields of those values must be deconstructed, such that a new perspective on can be made actionable, a paradigm shift in seeing into the production of “the environment” as ready-to-hand damage must be understood as actionable across the globe. Ideas and ideals that continue to inhere in the discursive fields of “sustainability” must be unseated in order to move quickly beyond the current impasses in our understanding of the enlightenment project of democratizing social, material, and environmental processes. The current repository of work toward global democratizing principles is the United Nations (UN) program to envision the building of global equalities from within enlightenment values. More specifically, for “environmental sustainability,” the UN-driven Brundtland Report (1987) can situate the current tensions that inhere in environmental sustainability discourse.

Sustainable Development and the Brundtland Report (1987)

In the United States, the late 1960s and 1970s were marked by an intensification of concern about pollution. At the same time, researchers realized that this concern was marked by a complex, if predominantly misunderstood, interplay between humankind, global resources, and social and physical environments; part of this realization was that humans’ interactions with “nature” produced a highly contextualized experience of the natural world: no one experience of nature is likely to exhaust the range of relations possible between humans and the natural world. The implications of this insight about the social and political context in which nature could be understood gave rise, in an emerging global context, to the concept and practices of “sustainable development”; although the concept had been in use, to a limited degree, in the 1950s and 1960s, the current set of terminologies and conceptual relations across the discourse of “sustainable development” were presented more coherently, initially, by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 1980.

Seven years later, the term was expanded upon by the United Nations Environment Programme, in the Brundtland Report, commonly known as Our Common Future (1987). The term has been in wide circulation since then, its seeming ubiquity all but obscuring its beginnings as a means to articulate a different relation between “the environment” and “the economy.” The Brundtland Report presents a case for the integration of environmental policies and development strategies, in a direct critique of the mid-1980s operative structuring of an opposition between “the environment” and “the economy.” From this perspective, the Brundtland Report can be understood as an early critique of the thinking that environmental damage must be an inevitable consequence of economic growth; further, the authors of the Brundtland Report subtly challenged the “rich versus poor” paradigmatic thinking that attends the accumulation of, acceleration of, “wealth” in global economic processes. As the authors of the Brundtland Report framed the idea (Brundtland 1987), “[a]fter a decade and a half of a standstill or even deterioration in global co-operation…the time has come for higher expectations, for common goals pursued together…Environmental degradation, first seen as mainly a problem of the rich nations and a side effect of industrial wealth, has become a survival issue for developing nations.” The Brundtland Report authors then gestured toward reframing the call for sociopolitical change through repositioning the environment in what they suggested would be seen, from a future perspective, as a historicized political and environmental stasis: “the ‘environment’ is where we all live; and ‘development’ is what we all do in attempting to improve our lot within that abode. The two are inseparable.” The problem with this formulation is that the abode of the environment is always already ready-to-hand as a resource toward improvement. To deny this principle is to deny the inalienable right of all citizens of the earth to acquire the very materiality of excess production: to convert the inert in their surroundings into “wealth.”

This linguistic formulation is an attempt to situate (economic) development on an equal conceptual footing with “the environment.” Further, the authors of the report were clear in their call for social change and prescient in their recognition that specific elements of global society must change: “Many of the development paths of the industrialized nations are clearly unsustainable.” The central problem in articulating how (and when) a global equality might appear, of course, is that that nascent, perhaps emergent, economy of (global) equality requires considerable contributions, and internal programs of socioeconomic restructuring, from and within the very countries whose “globalized” economic systems have produced worldwide social and economic inequities. The Brundtland Report authors, aware of the potentially revolutionary context of a “new” paradigm for thinking the organization of meaning through nationalist, humanist, and enlightenment paradigms, as well as in human-environment relations, attempted to minimize a direct challenge to the existing power relations inherent in the globalization of both the environment and the economy across the 1980s and 1990s.

One way to understand the performative dimensions of the Brundtland Report’s application of language is suggested by the definition of the key term “paradigm” in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970). The Brundtland Report language gestured toward Kuhn’s precise definition of change via “paradigm” shift, suggesting the same historical processes as occurred in scientific revolutions would begin to materialize in global social justice discourse via the (sub) or tertiary discourse of environmental sustainability. In this sense, the Brundtland Report could be contextualized as a future-oriented interplay of paradigmatic shifts in language; that is, future practitioners, putting the “new” language into play, would then make emerge, as a process of future history, a different social, political, and environmental understanding and set of practices. As Kuhn articulated his key concept (for identifying how change occurs in specific science research contexts), a paradigm shift must meet the following two conditions: the emergent conceptual apparatus must be “sufficiently unprecedented to attract an enduring group of adherents away from competing modes of…activity” and “sufficiently open-ended to leave all sorts of problems for the redefined group of practitioners to resolve” (1970, 10). Thus, “history” as environmentally oriented becomes, explicitly, a formation of processes through democratized linguistic practices, speech acts on the world stage that form the world as a (future-oriented) process of collective rebuilding.

Interestingly, in Kuhn’s explication of his thinking on paradigmatic forms of change, “[a]chievements that share these two characteristics” [quoted above] also share an orientation beyond problem-solving, and conform to rules (in effect, limitations of effectivity) that map or trace processes that become ‘solution-objects’: “if it is to classify as a puzzle, a problem must be characterized by more than an assured solution. There must also be rules that limit both the nature of the acceptable solutions and the steps by which they are to be obtained” (Kuhn 39). Thus, the Brundtland Report would attempt to deconstruct enough of the relation of key terminology by which the existing problems produced in the current (linguistic) system of representation could remain intact while at the same time reposition the existing language’s axiomatic properties enough to destabilize the relation subtending underlying conceptual structures that produce key concepts in the discourse of (human) equality. That is, while the meaning of these key words in the discursive field remained intact enough so as not to disrupt the formulation of the now global problems of (human-to-human) inequality, the eradication of these structural/systemic problems is presented as a puzzle for future generations to reformulate through a repositioning of key relations across concepts. In the Brundtland Report, the environment becomes an object (petit) a: seemingly at the new center of the desire for a future-oriented discourse which could enable a new paradigm, the environment becomes a “partial object,” a “transitional object.” The “environment,” paradoxically, becomes structured, consistently throughout the report as throughout the wider environmental (global) sustainability discourse, as a remnant: “environment” is that which becomes left behind in the resumption of reified forms of economic theory that infuse the language of (human) equality within the prevailing global sensibility of constructed and rigorously maintained disproportions in the economic and social development of a “global” equality. Thus, in the report, “environment” functions as Slavoj Žižek’s petit objet a, in the socio-psychic operation of global environmental awareness: at once what cannot be accounted for in the system of meaning and signification and that which simultaneously produces the entire system of language and meaning, locating and guaranteeing the chain of meanings within it. As the petit objet a of this discursive field, the constellation of intelligibility in which all meaning occurs, “environmental sustainability,” as a global/environmental understanding, functions as “the lack, the remainder of the Real that sets in motion the symbolic movement of interpretation, the hole at the center of the symbolic order, the mere appearance of some secret to be explained, interpreted” (Žižek 1996).

The most significant example of this operation of language and representation in the Brundtland Report is the anchoring gesture of oppositional thinking in the current paradigm: “economy” versus “environment.” No longer should the “environment” be understood as in “natural” opposition to “the economy,” but rather, the long operative opposition between “economy” and “environment” can now be historicized as a partial understanding of often misunderstood complexities requiring a paradigmatic shift. Thus, the document articulated not a new paradigm, but the grounds upon which the new paradigm would emerge, in concert with a more rigorous approach to democratic principles of participation in articulating global econo-environmental relations across existing national interests. The report attempted to articulate a deeper structure by which new “rules” for transforming the deep structures of existing social inequities could be mapped out as nation states moved toward a shared vision of global econo-environmental discourse. Through such a perspective, much of the language of the Brundtland Report could avoid proscriptive declarations and, instead, focus on the construction of a linguistic and practical mitigation in the present, positioning the construction of a descriptive critical language as an emergent paradigm, such that, in the existing situation of “first world” relations to “third and second world” countries, economic and political threats to the status quo could be mitigated in a language denuded of direct challenge to the conceptual, linguistic, and practical infrastructures of inequality represented by the current globalization of production in the “global economy.” Balancing the creation of a new horizon of intelligibility for a global equality with the need to maintain sociopolitical relations, the report also highlighted “interlocking crises” as a paradigm for change; as the authors suggested, the “older” paradigm that limited the understanding of complex human relations across concepts and practices had begun to reframe itself: “Until recently, the planet was a large world in which human activities and their effects were neatly compartmentalized within nations, within sectors (energy, agriculture, trade), and within broad areas of concern (environment, economics, social). These compartments have begun to dissolve.”

If, in the Brundtland Report, the “compartmentalization” of “economy” and “environment” were in need of rethinking, two additional key concepts for articulating the compartmentalized understanding of the earth also required reworking: “needs” and “limitations.” In the Brundtland Report, “needs” carry the sociopolitical weight of the “needs of the poor,” which the authors argue consistently must be prioritized over other forms of need. In part, this argument was developed around the assumption that poorer communities represented not only the most vulnerable in democratic (and other) forms of society but also that these communities were the most likely to be negatively impacted by the effects or impacts, globally and locally, of climate change due to global warming. In this articulation of interactive concepts of “need” and “limitations,” these communities often are interpreted as both a cause and a consequence of unsustainable behavior.

If the rethinking of “needs” is relatively straightforward, the concept of “limitations,” as presented in the Brundtland Report, is remarkably nuanced, if under-articulated, referring neither to humans nor to the environment but to the complex interchange of these via the intermediary of human technological development and deployment of emerging technologies across an array of aging technologies. As suggested in careful reframing of “limitations” in the Brundtland Report, Baker et al. (2010) note that one of the difficulties inherent in shifting human behaviors remains the “profound lack of knowledge about the complex and dynamic interactions between society, economic development, technology and nature.” The Brundtland Report was an (early) attempt to reframe this set of concepts – and the often occluded relationships constructed across them – as a point of embarkation for an international discussion that not only repositioned “human” and “material world” relations but also offered pathways for reorganizing the relation between economic development and human (democratic) formulations of (global) equality.

Noting that the “mainspring of economic growth is new technology,” the Brundtland authors focused not on the ability of technology to mitigate environmental degradation but instead gestured toward the net impact of technology in a consumerist paradigm. “[W]hile this technology offers the potential for slowing the dangerously rapid consumption of finite resources, it also entails high risks, including new forms of pollution and the introduction to the planet of new variations of life forms that could change evolutionary pathways. Meanwhile, the industries most heavily reliant on environmental resources and most heavily polluting are growing most rapidly in the developing world…” Thus, the report subtly acknowledged that “technology” is an unreliable, often unpredictable, source of environmental protection and/or conservation. The authors stopped short of stating, or even implying, that the earth itself was finite – and as a consequence, the authors also refrained from questioning deeply what remains the governing economic paradigm of our time: that economic growth itself, the growth of production of excess “wealth” as the economy, was unlimited. Instead, the authors clearly shied away from implying that this component of the economic model of growth is itself unsustainable: “The concept of sustainable development does imply limits – not absolute limits but limitations imposed by the present state of technology and social organization on environmental resources and by the ability of the biosphere to absorb the effects of human activities.”

Social Effects and Market Behaviors

Not mentioned in the report is the seemingly contradictory impact of technologies that reduce pollution at point of production, only to contribute higher levels of pollution via purchasing behavior in the market, further along the chain of a product’s life cycle. For example, the paradoxical consequence of reducing the volume of plastic in each single-use water bottle has led not to a decrease in plastic entering oceans but to an increase: companies selling water in single-use plastic bottles that decrease the volume of plastic per bottle earn the reputation of “sustainable behavior” in the marketplace; as market consumption increases due, in part, to this reputation, the company produces and distributes more plastic overall, thereby increasing rather than decreasing the levels of plastic produced, sold, and discarded. Since the mid-1980s, much of this plastic has found its way into the ocean, a seemingly intractable problem with to which this essay will return. But this is a problem only because we have been unwilling and to date unable to develop our capacity for seeing the mutually supporting edifice, the attitudinal-behavioral links, between our paradigms for economic growth and the consumerist ethos that maintains ecological degradation at unprecedented levels historically.

If, in the model espoused by the Brundtland Report, the global economy could continue to be understood as ever-expanding and societies’ growth rates were included in that expansionist rhetoric, as the conceptual model of “sustainable development” developed across the 1980s and 1990s, the earth was increasingly recognized as being the “limitation” to this model and rhetoric – the governing concept for understanding the human place in and on the earth. The two concepts of “need” and “limitations,” taken together as found in the Brundtland Report, articulate an intragenerational vision of social justice and interpersonal equality, such that resources available to one generation may not be exhausted in and by the model of “economic growth,” simply because this use of resources might be technologically feasible or socially desirable in the present.

In the time that has passed since the Brundtland Report, there has emerged no agreement on the meaning and valence of “sustainable development.” As early as 1989, analyses by Pezzey (1989) and others (i.e., the Pearce Report (1989) ) collated pages of definitions for sustainable development, signaling the ambiguity and inconsistency with which the term came to be applied to the problems caused, and societies built, by producing environmental damage all but ensured in the status quo of deploying “sustainable development” as a strategy for understanding the uneasy, untenable links between environmental sustainability and economic growth. Thus, Baker et al. (2012) called for a repositioning of “sustainable development” as a political construct, capable of illuminating the stasis between attitudes and behavior. “Viewing sustainable development as a social and political construct makes it possible to move beyond the search for a unitary and precise definition and to focus instead on the objectives underlying the original formulation of each of the two concepts ‘sustainable’ and ‘development’” (6). Throughout these debates that followed the Brundtland Report, researchers have noted that “sustainable development” is a concept, or set of concepts and practices that are similar to overarching, largely heuristic abstractions such as “democracy,” “liberty,” and “social justice” (Lafferty 1995; Jacobs 1999; O’Riordan 1985).

But while these latter concepts are part of a democratic process for coming to terms with “best practices” in socioeconomic arguments and the reordering of global resources that accompany production and consumption, they rarely remain clearly defined practices in themselves. This has been equally true of “sustainable development” – arguably, with the notable exception that this concept has a reified base or structure that subtends, polices, and directs much of the conceptual terrain of environmental sustainability discourse. Positioned in this way, the application of “sustainable development” as a theoretical concept then ushered into the discourse of sustainability the application of case studies for multiple practices and policies taking place globally, as approaches to, rather than the attainment of, “sustainable development.” The polyvalence in meaning produces multiple, often contradictory, definitions, which produces fissures in relations between actions, processes, and, ultimately, often facile models and measurements of “sustainable development.” Paradoxically, metrics of measurement in the discourse often are more “sustainable” than the results themselves. If this linguistic multiplicity, this particular form of linguistic openness, has necessitated research approaches governed by case study methodologies, it has also embedded a troubling fragmentation of what specific achievable targets might be designed for either reducing (or, more importantly, reversing) widespread consumption and production behaviors that, somewhat perversely, reproduce everyday practices of environmental damage. Thus, to date, from nearly any set of concepts for measuring “progress” toward a more clearly defined definition of “environmental sustainability” – i.e., a definition that articulates not merely cessation or mitigations of damage but instead produces a reversal of economic damage reversal – the perpetuation of practices of wide-scale, global damage constitutes the collective vision that is “environmental sustainability.” Nationalism, exercised on the global scale, appears only to exacerbate this form of discursive fragmentation.

As Griffin (2013) and Dryzek (2005) assert, this polyvalence in meaning for the term has produced a proliferation of definitions operating along specific trajectories of meaning and concomitant practices; for example, sustainable development “is imbued with notions of economic growth and managerial techniques for governing” (Griffin 2013, 35). As Dryzek (2005) concludes, sustainable development “involves a rhetoric of reassurance. We can have it all: economic growth, environmental conservation, social justice…no painful changes are necessary” (205). As Griffin (2013) notes, in the European Union (EU) context, “official EU strategies such as the Sixth Environmental Action Plan ostensibly position the environment ‘center stage’ in the discourse. But in reality, things are different. In practice, economic development policy is likely to continue putting a premium on old-style approaches to growth based on economic expansion at all costs, especially during economic stagnation” (41). This interpretation has been borne out by multiple analyses; for example, in 2011, the European Commission itself, tasked with reporting out on the performance of existing political and social approaches, observed that “the decoupling of resource use from economic growth has not led to a decrease in overall resources use” (European Commission 2011). Like the situation of decreasing the production of plastic in single-use containers of water mentioned above, the strategy – and ethos behind the strategy – of “producing more with less” has led to a proliferation of examples in which the net impact has been an increase, rather than a decrease, in pollution and environmental degradation. As Griffin (2013) observes, “market rationality may be incompatible with inter-generational equity…although each unit of what is being produced in Europe might be more ‘sustainable,’ development as economic growth means that more of these units are being produced and consumed, thus tending to nullify any environmental gains” (42). In the European context as in the North American marketplace, “conventional sustainable development discourse perpetuates the commodification of our environment” (“Review of Utopian Themes,” 2013).

As early as 1995, Escobar noted the tendency for economic terminology to supersede environmentally oriented meanings in the discourse of environmental sustainability, with what has been called “weak sustainability” (Bebbington 2000, 19). According to Bebbington and Escobar, conventional discourse forces meaning into patterns of deeply embedded economic relations, such that terms for environmental processes are reduced to specific relations within human (meaning) and economic relations, such as occurs in terminology like “natural capital” and “ecosystem services.” As David Pearce (1992) noted, “What economic valuation does is to measure human preferences for or against changes in the state of environments. It does not ‘value the environment.’ Indeed, it is not clear exactly what ‘valuing the environment’ would mean” (7). Throughout the Brundtland Report, for example, this language reoccurs, ostensibly to direct human thought to understand the benefits to humans in understanding the many benefits that the environment supplies “naturally”; however, this language actually is integrated into the human economy of assessing or directing the “meaning” of nature into the “value” of goods and services that accrue in “enabling” the material world as object in human-ized systems of meaning and production.

Escobar calls this cathexis of language a “regime of representation” (1995, 10). The echo and redirection of Marxist language are no accident here, as a mode of identifying reifications of meaning and economic exchange that, even in Marx’s powerful project for rethinking social relations via denuding the sociocultural meanings of unilateral economic circulation, under-represents a fundamental shortcoming in understanding the reality of human existence. Schemas of “unlimited production” in economic paradigms – the fundamental assumption of neoclassic economics – present both the failure of democratically driven reform as well as leads directly to the most significant re-democratizing project in human history. This project is the design of systems of thought, language, and exchange – economic and environmental relations – that can ensure not only the availability of environmental resources for future generations but also can ensure the survival of the human species itself. For all of its sociocultural and political power, the enlightenment project should increasingly be understood as having exhausted both the material world and the drive toward the increasing “perfection” of democratic forms of exchange and (national and personal) identify formation.

From Land to Ocean: Patterns of “Cost” and Linguistic Dynamics of Stasis

Nowhere is this pattern of ideologically encoded meanings more charged – between ongoing development of policy and practices of “response” and in the continued, large-scale and complex forces of degradation at work in the ocean. How does this seemingly counterintuitive logic, in which reductions in resource use lead directly to increases in the multiplicity of forms of pollution – play out as the ocean?

The answer to such a question is remarkably straightforward: the best location from which to begin to approach the ocean is the land. As Àlvarez-Romero et al. (2011), Beck (2003), Stoms et al., and others observe of conservation efforts, “[d]espite shared conceptual roots, conservation planning in terrestrial and marine realms have largely proceeded as if the ecological systems were unconnected” (382). Àlvarez-Romero et al. (2011) note that this “lack of integration” is particularly troubling due to the asymmetrical patterns of influence: “physical and ecological connections” are often not conceptualized, either in systems of (economic) or environmental interpretation. Thus, as with other areas of the ocean, areas designated as “marine protected” (MPAs) are susceptible to damage originating outside their boundaries. In part, this is due to the fact that much of the pollution in the ocean originates on land; thus, somewhat paradoxically, understanding environmental sustainability as the ocean begins on land. Multiple researchers have articulated the need to move quickly in this reconceptualization process; in June 2011, for example, the European Union International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) released its “State of the Oceans Report.” Much like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the IPSO compiles and analyzes the latest scientific evidence about the condition of the ocean by using a considerable body of disciplinary approaches and research contributions. The report identified seven key concerns: among the most significant was the alarm they raised about “the speeds of many negative changes” to the ocean, which, by 2011, were already recognized as “tracking the worst-case scenarios from the IPCC and other predictions.” Further, the IPSO report noted that “the magnitude of the cumulative impacts on the ocean is greater than previously understood” (State 2011).

The report had a (then) stunning conclusion: current uses of the ocean “are not sustainable,” and the situation “demands change in how we view, manage, govern, and use marine ecosystems” (State 2011). Such change must begin with a paradigm shift, first and foremost, on land. The IPSO report’s authors alluded to this in more generalized language, but the implication was clear: the need for wide-reaching and rapid changes in understanding and behavior were crucial. IPSO recommended a more holistic approach to understanding the interplay of land-based activity impacting ocean environments, one that could address “all activities that impinge marine ecosystems” (State 2011).

More recently, the same problem – land-based, or non-source, pollution as always already the ocean and the urgency of the call for change – was echoed in The First Global Integrated Marine Assessment (FGIM 2017) or, as it is also known, The First World Ocean Assessment. The significance of this effort is underscored by the long timeline of its conceptualization and development and also suggests the equally significant temporal dimensions of enacting human change – even when faced with having contributed to immanent conditions of ocean collapse. The global movement toward this “first” global-scale assessment had begun many years earlier, in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS 1980); UNCLOS mapped out a new language for thinking globally about ocean provision systems (the terrain of the ocean understood across human activities in legal terminology). Perhaps the most complex global agreement ever reached, the document took 9 years of negotiations until member nations signed on in 1982; then, the document came into force 12 years later, in 1994.

Although ostensibly a continuation of land-based juridico-political interpretation, this document also articulated a fundamental paradigm shift from land-based approaches, a linguistic foundation that continues to inform ocean-based approaches across the multiple approaches that constitute this body of work. It was explicitly based in multilateral dialogue, with identification of specific terminology to capture the complexity of ocean geographies and scales of temporality that differed from understandings of land-based time, spanned seabed as well as open ocean “resources” and territories, and created a linguistic-conceptual mapping upon which to build ocean research protocols (i.e., “high seas” refer to marine areas beyond any national jurisdiction; “area” refers to the ocean floor beyond any national jurisdiction; “exclusive economic zone” refers to the marine area within a 200 mile nautical mile contour line around a country, etc.). The document articulated a juridico-political, globalized framework for understanding the oceans across underwater infrastructures, environmental protection(s), pollution, navigation, dispute settlement, management of resources, law, and jurisdiction.

The approach was not without its critics (and significant weaknesses for moving from land- to ocean-based paradigms). As late as 2017, the European Commission on International Governance concluded: “as of 2017, 64% of marine waters that are in areas beyond those defined, in the UNCLOS document, are beyond national jurisdiction; there are over 300 UN related entities involved in international ocean governance – but these entities are not governed by an overarching body…[t]he current International Ocean Governance framework has gaps and shortcomings” (European Union International Ocean Governance 2017). The United States still has not joined the UNCLOS agreement, suggestive of just how far behind the United States is lagging in its paradigm for understanding sustainability in approaches to the ocean.

The authors of FGIM (2017), while not singling out the United States, made the limitations of the current approaches clear. As they noted, “each of [the] many players tends to have a limited view of the ocean that is focused on their own sectoral interests.” Further, echoing the European Union’s work across the 2000s, the assessment report makes clear the need for a “sound framework in which to work”; it was out of this recognition that, some 16 years ago, the World Summit on Sustainable Development (out of which came the assessment report) recommended “a regular process for global reporting and assessment of the state of the marine environment, including socioeconomic aspects” (2).

The report also recognized that the weaknesses inherent in the current land-based approaches have continued to disrupt representation of the ocean within modeling efforts and, thus, had perpetuated misrecognition of the ocean itself in representations of land-based measurements of damage and economic valuation. As the authors noted,

The current sectorial approaches to ocean management do not take into account the interconnectedness of resources and activities surrounding the sea, including the most basic measurements that could capture the overall impact on marine ecosystems and coastal communities. This results in a lack of efficiency in the remarkably limited resources already allocated to the ocean’s governance, as well as poor coordination of approaches. (FGIM 2)

In unveiling significant weaknesses in land-based approaches, as well as in moving toward an ability to see more clearly assessment practices and analytic approaches that could more accurately capture oceans as an independent, if interdependent phenomenon, the FGIM report would attempt to shift this paradigm. In the foreword by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon pointed to the global democratic effort of the evidence-based approach: “hundreds of scientists from many countries, representing various disciplines…indicate that the oceans’ carrying capacity is near or at its limit. It is clear that urgent action on a global scale is needed to protect the world’s oceans” (Foreword FGIM). The report provides an “important scientific basis for the consideration of ocean issues by governments, intergovernmental processes, and all policy-makers” involved in ocean affairs. The scope of the report’s ambitions breaks multiple limits in previous assessments – not least of which was its attempt to form a common language for multiple nations, widely differing sociocultural and economic processes and purposes, and ocean processes themselves.

The authors of FGIM expressed the need to evaluate – perhaps even to conflate – land-based and ocean-based issues. “[M]ajor drivers of the pressures producing change in the ocean are to be found outside the marine environment. In particular, most of the major drivers of anthropocentric climate change are land-based” (39). The conclusions the report drew from this situation were multiple and offered a stunning, if simply articulated, critique of the ways in which land-based models for understanding climate change (as impacts on human resources) presented severe limitations on approaches to understanding ocean stresses – and therefore, how to work to eliminate them. Somewhat trenchantly, the authors concluded, “Thus, as far as social and economic aspects of the marine environment are concerned, many of the most significant drivers are outside the scope of the present Assessment…[t]he present Assessment of the marine environment cannot therefore reach conclusions on some of the main drivers affecting the marine environment without stepping well outside the marine environment and the competencies of those carrying out the Assessment.” The report mobilizes the more generalized language of the IPSO (2011) report and recontextualizes the conceptual mapping through creating a productive tension between “land-based” and “ocean-based” research activity: the work ahead “will require the consideration of the full range of factors relating to human activities affecting the ocean” (39).

The linguistic echo cathected into two simple phrases in the two reports (IPSO’s reorganization of approaches to include all activities that impinge ocean systems and FGIM’s “consideration of the full range” of [human] factors) contains an imbedded, complex critique of assumptions – and therefore, findings – governing land-based research, outside of its relation to oceans; similarly, however, the critique also includes the assumptions governing ocean-based approaches, given the inability to amalgamate land-based research effectively into modeling of ocean-exclusive damage. Thus, without articulating directly the path forward out of this impasse, the FGIM report, by way of this critique, expresses an awareness that a new ground for constructing knowledge, as for understanding both the ocean and land as contiguous, interdependent systems, must be developed. The FGIM authors drove this conclusion home:

[e]ven within the scope of what has been requested, it has not proved possible to come to conclusions on one important aspect: a quantitative picture of the extent of many of the non-marketed ecosystem services provided by the ocean. Quantitative information is simply insufficient to enable an assessment of the way in which different regions of the world benefit from those services. Nor do current data-collection programmes appear to make robust regional assessments of ocean ecosystem services likely in the near future. (39)

As both reports made very clear, at stake in the critique is a crucial, and missing, interface between these two components – land-based perspectives repositioned with and through ocean-based approaches – for sustaining nonhuman as well as human life.

Embedded in these two simple statements, however, is a powerful, paradigmatic change, and the horizon of a critique in which the limitations of land-based modeling of climate change would reveal themselves in the encounter with ocean systems. The enlargement, perhaps implosion of current assumptions underlying modeling human activity in relation to environmental processes is suggested here, as is the awareness of the ground of a significant paradigm change thrust upon us. Action to save the ocean is governed by the double bind of a critical descriptive language that restricts land-based paradigms to narrow foci in understanding processes incidental to the creation of damage – in the ocean but also on land. This language also privileges land-based processes of extraction, production, distribution, and consumption and places under erasure any number of processes, of both land and ocean, for ensuring the maintenance of this first chain of systems. To address the asymetricality in the conceptual interface between land and oceans, a review of the structuring in the majority of land-based issues is necessary. Arguably, there is no better place to begin than to turn to the country that bears the largest responsibility, currently, for the situation of global as well as national “confusion” in information about, or direct obfuscation of knowledge building within, environmental reporting: the United States. How do some of the most significant assessment and reporting efforts in this country interpret dynamics between land and sea?

The United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) is likely largely unknown – even within the United States. The office produces studies on topics requested by the United States Congress, and in September 2017, the GAO submitted Climate Change: Information on Potential Economic Effects Could Help Guide Federal Efforts to Reduce Fiscal Exposure. As the title of the report implies, the analysis delivered to congress maintained the governing paradigm of relations between “economy” and “environment.” Although the GAO examined 30 studies, as well as interviewed 26 experts whose knowledge helped the GAO evaluate the strength and limitations of these studies, the report relies for its findings primarily on two national-scale studies that examine the potential economic effects of climate change in the United States: the American Climate Prospectus (2014) and Climate Change Impacts and Risks Analysis (2015). The GAO authors used these two reports because “[o]nly recently have studies analyzed the economic effects of climate change using frameworks that can compare effects across different sectors and regions within the United States on a national scale” (19). So recent, in fact, that these two studies are, to date, the only two conducted on a national (US) scale (7). Another widespread weakness of current environmental discourse is the series of significant knowledge and research gaps that continue to exist; these significant knowledge gaps disrupt the “future orientation” of the discourse in significant ways. Given IPCC scientists’ projected, rapid acceleration of environmental damage, and concomitant economic and social impacts, it is remarkable that the United States has so produced so few studies that can range effectively across sectors and regions nationally. Yet, the linguistic structuring of a “future orientation” remains a hallmark of global environmental sustainability discourse.

Interestingly, the two studies, taken together, mirror the pattern of temporal structures that characterized meanings produced in and by the discourse of “environmental sustainability”: while Prospectus provided information on the probability “of a set of economically important climate change impacts comparable across sectors,” the Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Change Impacts assessed potential benefits to the United States of global action on climate change. Thus, although both reports provided the temporal protention and retention linguistic structures characteristic of the Brundtland Report (future orientation as a projection of changes in a historical pattern of actions), neither Prospectus nor Climate Change Impacts offered alternative actions as a basis for a polity of concerned actants coming to “best practices” in reorienting a past toward a more environmentally sustainable future.

The GAO report found that “the federal government has not undertaken strategic government-wide planning to manage climate risks by using information on the potential economic effects of climate change to identify significant risks and craft appropriate federal responses”; further, despite the number of years that have produced significant global knowledge about global warming and its effects on environments and humans, “the federal government could take an initial step [italics added] in establishing government-wide priorities to manage such risks.” The GAO worded carefully this set of consistently voiced admonitions throughout the report: couched in the language of an “opportunity” for the federal government, the GAO report actually issues an occluded warning. Framed in the language of economic loss now and in the future, the report drew upon the internal reporting of the President Obama’s proposal for fiscal year 2017 and studies across the preceding decade: “the federal government has incurred direct costs of more than $350 billion because of extreme weather and fire events, including $205 billion for domestic disaster response and relief; $90 billion for crop and flood insurance; $34 billion for wildland fire management; and $28 billion for maintenance and repairs to federal facilities and federally managed lands, infrastructure, and waterways” (1). Although future-oriented estimates, these “costs” are expected to continue to increase beyond current valuations of (financial) cost, as environmental scientists predict that extreme weather events will continue to build in frequency, duration, and severity beyond the capacity of current modeling systems to measure accurately. Chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Monitoring Branch National Centers for Environmental Information, Deke Arndt, noted that “the Earth has moved into a new climate regime” when climate change broke algorithms used to monitor the accuracy of data for the month of November 2017 in Utqiaġvik, Alaska. “[The Arctic] is changing faster than anywhere else in the world” (Murphy 2017). As an outlier of patterns of climate change, the Arctic sea ice decline was depicted visually in the National Climate Report (2014 see Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

Arctic sea ice decline

It is no mere irony that the government’s (own) “accountability” office refuses to engage in direct speech, instead opting for linguistic structures that suggest invitation to action rather than construct a more forceful, direct language to invoke, or perhaps compel, federal participation. If the past could do little to structure direct action in the present, the framing of “costs” as predominantly economic certainties of a projected future could: “recurring costs the federal government incurred as a result of climate change could increase by $12 billion to $35 billion per year by mid-century and by $34 billion to $112 billion per year by late century” (1). In addition, this linguistic structure frames “costs” in particular ways across the environmental sustainability discourse’s discursive structure of future orientation(s). In this construct of the future, “costs” are constructs of “mitigation” as post-environmental damage response rather than investments in “pre-damage” or preventative strategies.

Thus, the network of meanings in the discourse actually discourages propensities to support awareness of other opportunities, such as direct action driven toward the avoidance of damage itself. For example, the direct (economic) action of imposing a carbon tax of $15 per ton of emissions would allow the United States to meet its goals as agreed upon by former President Obama in the Paris Accord (2017): among other targets is the reduction of 1.6 billion tons of carbon by 2030. According to the World Bank, a number of developed countries have adopted such a schema of direct action for a specific, measurable result within the future-orientation framing that is a hallmark of the discourse of environmental sustainability. These countries include Ukraine, France, Japan, Ireland, and 35 others. However, the Trump administration has consistently refused to impose a version of the carbon tax and has also adopted a rhetoric of withdrawing the United States both from its existing obligations and from any future negotiations – effectively withdrawing from the Paris agreement altogether. A similar pattern is observable in marine protected areas in the Trump administration’s initiatives: “Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has proposed that three ocean monuments be opened up to commercial fishing, shrinking the protected areas to undetermined sizes” (Conley 2018).

Perhaps more telling for its deliberate occlusions or manipulations of linguistic constructs available in the current meaning structures in environmental sustainability discourse, on President Trump’s inauguration day, the URL to the White House climate page disappeared; in its place was a page titled “An American First Energy Policy Plan.” A multitude of other proposed policy shifts in the United States energy sector, which drives the structure of economic thought, have now been proposed: under the rhetoric of the “American First Energy Policy Plan,” the United States government would subsidize power plants that can store more than 90 days of fuel on site – effectively subsidizing current coal producing facilities. This support for coal production counters the current global trend: from January 2016 to January 2017, coal plants worldwide registered a “48% drop in pre-construction activity, a 62% drop in construction starts, a 19% drop in ongoing construction, and a 29% drop in completed projects” (Shearer et al. 2017).

Similarly, the EPA reopened a review of rules requiring auto manufacturers to reach 54.5 miles per gallon of fuel by 2025. In 2012, the EPA estimated that enacting the new standards would eliminate 140 million tons of greenhouse gases from reaching the atmosphere by 2025 (Temple 2017).

The Clean Power Plan (2015), former President Obama’s project to retire coal plants and encourage investment in cleaner energy generation, targeted the single largest source of US global warming emissions. The plan required the electricity sector, by 2030, to cut carbon production to 32% below 2005 levels. In effect, this would reduce carbon emissions by as much as 267 million tons by 2025. According to a study conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists (2015), the benefits of the EPA’s Clean Power Plan far outweigh the costs. “An in-depth analysis of the final rule by the EPA found that the combined climate and health benefits of the Clean Power Plan will…deliver billions of dollars in net benefits each year, estimated at $26 billion to $45 billion in 2030” (Union 2015). Although accessible as an archived webpage, the study itself has since been removed from direct accessibility on the EPA webpages, as the webpages are in the process of being “updated.”

In the report on the Clean Power Plan’s climate benefits, the EPA used “the social cost of carbon, an official monetary estimate of the costs imposed by climate change impacts, such as property damage from increased flood risk” (Union 2017). However, a number of economists consider the social cost of carbon measurement model an underestimation of the true costs of climate change, suggesting that the measurement of benefits produced by the environment should be greater than that provided by the EPA’s study – and conversely, that costs associated with the forms of damage being produced are also underestimated. In a study that appeared in Nature (2014), scientists and economists working across existing cost-modeling approaches reported that “an interagency working group for the United States government used three leading models to estimate that a tonne of carbon dioxide emitted now will cause future harms worth US$37 in today’s dollars. This ‘social cost of carbon’ represents the money saved from avoided damage, owing to policies that reduce emissions of carbon dioxide” (Revesez et al. 2014). In the same article, the climate scientists, economics, and legal experts asserted that “because the models omit some major risks associated with climate change, such as social unrest and disruptions to economic growth, they are probably understating future harms” (Revesez et al. 2014).

They note that future costs could be higher, for four main reasons: first, “the impacts of historic temperature changes suggest that societies and economies may be more vulnerable than current models predict.” Weather variability, for example, is already impacting crop yields of valuable foodstuffs such as almonds and cherries in the central growing basin of California. According to the National Climate Assessment Report (NCA 2014), almonds grown in the region account for 95% of all almonds consumed in the United States (693). Globally, almonds produced in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys – a 400-mile tract of land from Tehama county to Kern County – account for 82% of all almonds consumed (Pierson 2017). Almonds were the state’s number one agricultural export in 2012. Patterns of increasing temperatures due to anthropocentric warming are already documented in the region; the production of these and many other types of crops is predicted to be severely impacted, and costs of growing these crops will continue to impact profitability margins. As global warming increases, drought conditions in an already arid region, unaccounted for costs in the future, will include not only the loss of significant industry that supports this entire region but also the need to shift entire infrastructures for producing these crops entirely out of California, as the viability of production regimes continues to decline. Authors of the NCA report (2014) suggest that, if this is true for almond production, it is also true for a host of other crops grown in the same region: “[t]he Southwest produces more than half the nation’s high-value specialty crops…[among them are] apricots, almonds, artichokes, figs, kiwis, raisins, olives, cling peaches, dried plums, persimmons, pistachios, olives [sic], and walnuts” (NCA 2014).

The warning signs of “unanticipated,” wholescale disruptions in the productivity of the region are already here: in 2014, the year in which the NCA third report was released, unstable water supplies resulted in smaller almonds (Pierson 2017). Climate change scientists are predicting significantly more serious impacts by 2050. As the authors of Climate Change and Infrastructure, Urban Systems, and Vulnerabilities: Technical Report for the US Department of Energy in Support of the National Climate Assessment (2014) note, “[d]isruptions of services in one infrastructure will almost always result in disruptions in one or more other infrastructures, especially in urban systems, triggering serious cross-sectoral cascading infrastructure system failures in some locations” (Wilbanks, xviii). Such scenarios suggest unaccounted for costs in human terms: as industries “dry up,” simultaneous mass migrations are likely. No current models for the assessment and measurement of these categories of costs exist, and these costs are likely to produce large-scale social and economic upheaval in differing, difficult to measure patterns across much of the United States by 2050, if current trends in policies and environmental behaviors continue unabated. As the Climate Change and Infrastructure report authors note, “in past assessments, cross-sectoral issues related to infrastructures and urban systems have not received a great deal of attention; in fact, in some cases the existing knowledge base on cross-sectoral interactions and interdependencies, at least as represented in published research literatures, appears to be quite limited” (1).

Second, models “omit damages to labor productivity…productivity growth, and to the value of capital stock, including buildings and infrastructure.” Such losses are not static; that is, these losses, like the losses indicated above, are likely to produce economic feedback effects (cumulative and exponential forms of loss that are difficult to measure). As the writers of the article note, “[a]lso not taken into account are the risks of climate-induced wars, coups, or societal collapses and the resulting economic crises” (Revesez et al. 2014). Within the borders of the United States, such political unrest seems unlikely at present; however, even if this does not represent accurately the future of the “future orientation” exercised through current environmental sustainability discourse in the United States, it is not at all inconceivable that such events will begin to dominate global politics, thereby producing immeasurable effects in the flow of consumer goods to and from production and consumer streams upon which the United States economy and its cultural social life rely.

The third issue with current models for estimating future costs of climate change: “models assume that the value that people attach to ecosystems will remain constant.” However, related to the second reason above, if a commodity becomes increasingly scarce, its cost in the marketplace rises, based on long-held principles observed in theories of supply and demand in economics. In times of flooding, dry land’s value increases; similarly, in regions in which wildfire is predicted, land values fall. As global warming degrades ecosystems, costs of future damage from climate change “will rise faster than the models predict.” Currently, these models do not account for such variables, or unprecedented variability – what is likely to be understood, in the future, as the volatility of commodities – in a systemically less stable environment.

The fourth issue with current modeling of more traditional concepts of “cost”: “the US analysis assumes a constant discount rate to translate future harms into today’s money.” Economists have demonstrated that discount rates that decline should be used, an approach that would “yield a higher present value to the long-term impacts of climate change.” And, experts from across disciplinary specializations underscore the limitations of their studies: as the authors of Climate Change and Infrastructure (2014) conclude, although their report “breaks new ground…some of its assessment findings are rather speculative, more in the nature of propositions for further study than specific conclusions offered with a high level of confidence.” The authors note that this direction for study represents “a welcome start” (1) toward a more definitive articulation of policy directions; however, the current administration’s occluding of language and meaning structures forces these and other researchers to, at best, stall efforts toward this refining of the economic components of the discourse of environmental sustainability and, at worst, eliminate the trends of promising progress altogether toward research that works more concertedly toward redefinitions of meaning structures in environmental sustainability discourse. Such impacts are already visible, as reported by National Public Radio, in a study of “self-censoring” among research-based scientists. “Grants about ‘climate change’ are down 40% this year [2017]” As Hersher notes, “[c]limate change research is an inherently interdisciplinary field and shared terminology allows people to collaborate” (Hersher 2017).

Beyond the destructive power of explicit production of politically motivated linguistic exclusions in the discursive fields of environmental sustainability, however, the central weakness of all of these models is that the IPCC has estimated that, without effective strategies of mitigation, warming is likely to reach 4 °C by the end of this century – beyond current human experience. Current reports from that body – the most significant source of global information for a global planet (and the information all nations now use to adjust policy and spur technologically based research efforts) – indicate that, by the end of this century, the globe is tracking global warming models predicting the higher estimate of 4 °C (rather than the 2 °C commonly accepted as the maximum threshold for “safe” levels of warming). All current modeling of future costs, however, is predicated on the 2 °C threshold. Studies are beginning to emerge that suggest a scientific consensus is building toward acceptance that additional greenhouse gas emissions reductions are necessary to achieve “safer” warming levels across this century. For example, as Brown and Caldeira (2017) report, “we find that the observationally informed warming projection for the end of the twenty-first century for the steepest radiative forcing scenario is about 15% warmer (+0.5 °C) with a reduction of about a third in the two-standard-deviation spread (−1.2 °C) relative to the raw model projections reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Our results suggest that achieving any given global temperature stabilization target will require steeper greenhouse gas emissions reductions than previously calculated” (Nature).

Yet another example of how the language of the discursive field of “environmental sustainability” is now functioning (in the United States): recently, $3 billion of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy department’s budget has been cut. This is perhaps the deepest shift in environmental sustainability discourse within the United States, given that the impact on any ability to create breakthroughs in the future is immeasurable – and this also denudes the US researchers of their ability to participate in cutting-edge global discoveries, as well as allows more action-oriented nations access to economic leadership in global markets for technologies that will shape the future. Similarly, the EPA’s 2018 budget was cut by 31%.

In the meantime, any movement toward a globally or more national and localized, organized approach to understanding a different economy of production, as well as a different linguistic economy for “environmental sustainability,” continues to recede into an obscured past, despite the discourse’s linguistic foundational framework of a “future orientation.” In this linguistic economy, “the environment” as an object of intervention becomes erased in the linguistic inoperability of “economic” approximations toward measurement; thus, environmental damage comes under the erasure of an economic determination at the level of the discursive field of meanings produced in and by “environmental sustainability.” In this horizon of intelligibility, “environmental damage” becomes the more positive speech act of “mitigation efforts,” or, in language adopted by the GAO report, “climate change adaptation” (2). Mobilization of this kind of speech act in the language of environmental sustainability enacts entire substructures of ideologically encoded meaning; these meanings structure the appearance of positive, definitive responses – a future-oriented series of acts – rather than signify a present series of acts compelled to stasis in a constellation of meanings consigned to a past orientation. These “past” meaning structures thereby re-enabled in and as the present become acts the government (or its citizens) can or will undertake when signs of environmental extremes appear in the future; however, this interpretative field ensures that such decisions to “mitigate” or “adapt” in the present actually produce a future in which the shaping of future damage, rather than the avoidance of damage now, becomes the future. That is, these acts, currently coded as conditional options, in actuality guarantee that such responses must be undertaken in the future. The framing of this series of strategies contextualizes a predictable and widespread pattern of extreme events in “localized,” geographically “isolated” situations of “post-damage.”

Little subtlety in the current administration of the US condensation and fissuring of linguistic structures of “environmental sustainability” is being exercised, however. In the first year of the Trump administration in the United States, staff at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been advised to avoid the use of the conceptual tools signifying complex concepts in the sustainability discourse – the now readily identifiable meanings of such significant concepts as “climate change,” “climate change adaptation,” “reduce greenhouse gasses,” and “sequester carbon” in favor of, respectively, “weather extremes,” “resilience to weather extremes,” “build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency,” and “build soil organic matter” (Milman 2017). The interpretative emphasis is directional: each of these “substitutions” advantages a meaning that appears as a positive rather than a negative impact in the environment. Remarkably, Bianca Moebius-Clune, director of soil health at the agency, noted that “we won’t change the modeling, just how we talk about it” (Milman 2017). Jimmy Bramblett, deputy chief for programs at the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), noted in an email to senior employees, “[i]t has become clear one of the previous administration’s priorities is not consistent with that of the incoming administration. Namely, that priority is climate change” (Milman 2017). Further eroding the underlying conceptual network across the language of environmental sustainability, Jonathan Thompson, senior ecologist at Harvard Forest, recognized that “[s]cientists I know are increasingly using terms like ‘global change,’ ‘environmental change,’ and ‘extreme weather’, rather than explicitly saying ‘climate change’” (“Climate Scientists Watch Their Words”). This is a linguistic performative fracturing, or fissuring, of conceptual mapping that subtends widely supported, longer-term research into global warming –and citizens’ abilities both to perceive the underlying unity of scientific consensus on global warming and its effects and to understand how to orient their own interpretations in the future orientation of environmental sustainability discourse itself.

Although adopting a form of linguistic exclusion in the actual use and applicability of the term “climate change” in significant scientific reporting venues in the United States is impactful enough, a similar operation is at work more generally in the shift from “global warming” to “climate change” in the environmental sustainability discourse. While recently widely adopted in the discourse globally, this shift in language creates specific forms of ambiguity in interpretation, allowing for imprecise thinking and, more negatively, opportunistic mobilization of these forms of meaning ambiguity. In the United States, for example, in the dismissal of dimensions of meaning in “climate change,” an opportunistic mobilization of meaning is evident in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Director Scott Pruitt’s recent pronouncement that “Our activity contributes to the climate changing to a certain degree. Now measuring that with precision…I think is more challenging than is let on at times.” Despite the admitted complexity of, and imprecision in, measuring the rates at which CO2 is building in the atmosphere, there remains no legitimate challenge to the anthropomorphic nature of current rates of climate change.

Scientists studying global warming across the globe have asserted, through the latest (Fifth Assessment Report of 2014) reports issued by the IPCC, that with 95% confidence rates, human activities have been the dominant cause of global warming. Similarly, advantaging this same field of linguistic ambiguities inherent in “climate change,” Pruitt asserted, “I think there’s assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that is necessarily a bad thing.” (Exclusive Interview). Further, Pruitt mobilizes the neutrality of meaning inherent in “climate change” to articulate his own “future-oriented” framing – unanchored from the more precise terminology governing the reporting of scientific findings in environmental sustainability discourse. Pruitt introduces a moral language and judgment into the linguistic “space” made available in this linguistic structural ambiguity:

Is it an existential threat—is it something that is unsustainable, or what kind of effect or harm is this going to have? We know that humans have most flourished during times of, what, warming trends? Do we know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100 or year 2018? It’s fairly arrogant for us to think we know exactly what it should be in 2100. (Exclusive Interview)

As Richard Lazarus, Harvard University professor of environmental law, observed, “[Pruitt] is much more organized, much more focused than the other Cabinet-level officials…Just the growing number of environmental rollbacks in this time frame is astounding” (Irfan 2018). In the overt series of “futures” mobilized as a characteristic feature of the discourse, evidence-based structures in assertions predominate. Yet, as Pruitt’s (EPA-based) power in the environmental economy of ideas attests, the discourse is governed by a paradox, an inversion of the normative, predominating power of hegemonic concepts and established linguistic networks: despite the hegemonic nature, in environmental sustainability discourse, of “evidence-based” findings, more powerful still is the exercise of doubt as declension, rather than “proof” as review and the production of knowledge in processes of (global) consensus. Yet another characteristic of the discourse is the creation of global-wide and nation-wide review processes for knowledge generation. The IPCC, for example, since its inception in 1988, has assembled thousands of scientists across the globe “to prepare, based on available scientific information, assessments on all aspects of climate change and its impacts, with a view of formulating realistic response strategies” (History). For the initial meetings to approve the outline of the Sixth Assessment Report (AR6), 195 member governments discussed the draft and agreed on a final outline (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2017).

The reports are produced across 5-year intervals and represent 5-year-long processes for the testing of ideas across scores of disciplinary researchers which comprise the content of IPCC report structures. This global network of researchers from scores of disciplinary perspectives is, perhaps, a new form of hegemony in discourse regulation and formation: a hegemony borne of open processes of (self-)regulation, rigorous review, multidisciplinary participation, and scientifically based forms of evidence construction. As a descriptor of this process for coming to knowledge claims in the public sphere, “arrogance” seems, at best, a mis-apperception of a deeply democratic form of global participation in understanding, and characterizing, “the future.”

The GAO report, released September 2017 – 5 months before Pruitt articulated his broadly based ideas above – suggested another crucial characteristic of research in “climate change”: the complexity of contributory disciplinary methodologies and the intricate interdisciplinary linguistic base that drives the practice of research and language construction across an array of disciplinary perspectives and conceptual tools. The transdisciplinary conceptual navigation(s) involved in research that challenges existing communication strategies and paradigmatic disciplinary adhesions also produces powerful forms of discovery, critique, multidisciplinary and global forms of review, interdisciplinary language building and concept sharing, and scientific consensus. Describing a small if dominant quotient of approaches (3) in the discursive fields of environmental sustainability discourse, the authors noted structures of “sequentiality” in modeling processes. The three of multiple models and processes for building knowledge across multiple research processes suggest the processes of linguistic and conceptual telescoping –hegemonic disciplinary clustering – as climate change research. Chosen for representation (and thus, conceptual activation) in the report are “climate models,” “individual sectoral economic models,” and “economy-wide models” (9–12). GAO’s authors noted: “Methods used to estimate the potential economic effects of climate change in the United States are complex because, according to literature we reviewed and many experts we interviewed, they use different types of complicated climate and economic models that are linked together in a sequential framework that uses the results of one model as input to another.” (9) As is suggested in the IPCC processes outlined in brief above, the three specific types of models chosen for representation suggest that the GAO report’s insight into one characteristic of environmental sustainability discourse is, in reality, its own structural and conceptual limitation.

In addition to the potential for undermining the perception of the scientific integrity of current work on climate change, such “substitutions” and elisions across the language games of environmental sustainability realign the discourse by occluding current, rapid, and ongoing contributions of insights by way of the superimposition of a language of “facticity” and techno-economic conceptions of valuation that police structures of meaning as representations of discursive proficiencies. If meaning structures that inhere to “climate change” are rendered ambiguities in such linguistic shifts – deliberate disarticulations and occlusion of agreed upon language to produce an array of imprecise meaning structures introduced into the linguistic networks that construct patterns of imbricated, complex concepts as thought – the construction of global movements toward an understanding of a more sustainable present and future is likely to be similarly impacted.

Such language meaning structures occlude multiple opportunities inherent in shifting these meaning structures altogether into “environmental sustainability” opportunities that encourage rethinking across the meanings generated by an “environmental sustainability” anchored in, and largely subsumed by, the reproduction of existing economic realities. Thus, any repositioning of identity politics across relations of consumption, patterns of production, and assumptions behind concatenations of “leisure,” “productivity,” and “environmental awareness” may deliver the eruption of meaning into the stasis produced by the dynamics of linguistic exchange in current environmental sustainability discourse. In its “unsettling” nature, the ocean offers multiple points at which the discourse of (land-based) sustainability collapses within its own tensions to reveal horizons of representation that offer a glimpse into the full complexity, and excitement, of re-envisioning the future of an entire discourse of the (contested) future.

Two of the most promising possibilities for rethinking paradigms of damage, and the behaviors that reproduce this damage as a daily occurrence, emanate from the ocean(s). The authors of FGIM note that, although “there are widespread gaps in the skills needed to assess the ocean” such as the lack of “integration of environmental, social, and economic” interactions that continue to produce damage in and for the ocean, as well as gaps in capacity building and resources needed for “successful application of knowledge,” the research on the ocean has produced the most powerful critique of land-based methodologies and called explicitly for a paradigm shift that can accommodate both land- and ocean-based modeling. Noting that three possible foci the FGIM authors could have adopted each have strengths and weaknesses –ecosystems services, habitats, and human-based pressures on the marine environment – the authors chose the first to focus their assessment. Why? Largely for its ability to interrupt the current hegemony of economics in land-based approaches to understanding sustainable development through destabilizing “environmental” sustainability. The authors clarified the modeling weakness that disfigures both the understanding of land and oceans and ensures that damage remains a daily, escalating effect of human behavior:

…benefits and costs have been hidden within the ‘natural system’, and are not accounted for financially; such hidden costs and benefits are considered ‘externalities’ by neoclassical economists. While the neoclassical economic toolbox includes non-market valuation approaches, an ecosystem services approach emphasizes that ‘price’ is not equal to ‘value’ and highlights human well-being, as a normative goal. The emergence and evolution of the ecosystems services concept offers an explicit attempt to better capture and reflect these hidden or unaccounted benefits and associated costs when the natural ‘production’ system is negatively affected by human activities. (Part III, 1)

In contrast to the land-based assessment models, the “Millennium Ecosystem Assessment defines an ecosystem as a dynamic complex of plant, animal and micro-organism communities and their non-living environment interacting as a functional unit”; ecosystem services are “the benefits that humans obtain from ecosystems” (Part III, 2). Thus, the ocean-based modeling reflects, to a far greater degree than current land-based models, both nonmarket valuation of costs (and benefits) and non-animate contributors as continuous with one “eco-service” system. The shift of human’s predominance in an ecosystems approach is subtle but clear: humans become on facet of a multilayered series of systems for creating well-being.

The second promising approach involves less of a paradigm shift than an intensification of neoclassical economics via a different viewpoint on “waste.” The effort here is to shift one of the most serious consequences for the ocean though limitations in the neoclassical economics of “cost” in land-based pollution: the production of plastics. “Cost” here is reconceptualized as loss to the economy via unnecessary waste. The extent of the problem produces far more dire consequences than is currently understood: as 78% of earth’s surface, if oceans collapse, the land is sure to follow. As the much larger mass, oceans regulate earth’s climate; similarly, ocean processes provide the strongest carbon sink on earth, sequestering 23% of all carbon currently being produced by anthropocentric means. Finally, ocean processes produce the oxygen of one of every two breaths every human on earth takes – every day. But as the McKinsey Center for Business and the Environment recently released its much-anticipated report, Stemming the Tide: Land-Based Strategies for a Plastic-Free Ocean (Stemming 2017). The report updated the sheer volumes of plastic entering the sea, “estimated at eight million metric tons a year – greatly exceeding any previous estimates” (6).

Without a new paradigm for intervention in the status quo of this form of damage production, the global quantity of plastics entering the ocean is likely to exceed “250 metric tons by 2025” (6). Similarly, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation found that, by 2025, in a “business-as-usual scenario, the ocean is expected to contain 1 t of plastic for every 3 t of fish”; by 2050, the ocean would contain more plastics than fish (New Plastics Economy 2016). The recent attention toward producing more rigorous studies on plastics in the ocean, although deeply unsettling, represents a significant advance in the knowledge building and modeling capacity necessary for intervention strategies. The study analyzed different regions and proposed region-specific strategies of intervention. Applying the economic modeling to analyses of plastic “waste,” the study remained within the parameters of the neoclassical economic models for understanding “the environment”; however, the study also suggests the power of the model in applications of this nature. Through the neoclassical lens, the study found that, by 2020, improving infrastructure and plugging post-collection gaps can reduce annual leakage by 50% (Stemming 34). In the medium term (2025), the development of commercially viable waste treatment can reduce annual leakage by an additional 16%. And in the long term (2035), a number of additional measures applied to the problem of leakage from multiple plastic streams of production could curtail rebound effects of leakage based on the propensity to create additional plastics to meet additional demand (34–36).

More promising still, however, is the paradigm shift signaled in the World Economic Forum’s New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics (2016). The paradigm pursued in the report is governed by the following question: “how can collaboration along the extended global plastic packaging production and after-use value chain, as well as with governments and NGOs, achieve systemic change to overcome stalemates in today’s plastics economy in order to move to a more circular model?” (3). By “circular model,” the authors “overarching vision of the New Plastics Economy is that plastics never become waste; rather they reenter the economy as valuable technical or biological nutrients” (7). The logic underpinning both of these (overlapping) approaches to plastics can be applied to others streams of waste. Although these do not represent a whole-scale paradigm shift, these approaches do represent a significant step forward in reversing the paths of destruction increasingly evident in the ocean today. Paradoxically, for the ocean to continue to provide humans with significant benefits – for ocean and human habitats to survive – land-based interpretations of value, and the models upon which these are built, must be understood as indivisible. The paradigm shift necessary is simple to phrase, if difficult to enact as a daily experience: everything we do becomes the ocean.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Woodbury UniversityBurbankUSA

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