Sustainability is often addressed as an environmental issue. Scratch the surface, however, and you will find that it is really an issue of human psychological thought, value systems, and decision-making. Psychology is at play in how people make decisions around living more or less sustainably, and more essentially, in how they define what ‘living sustainably’ means to them in the first place. If global sustainability is, at its core, really an issue of human psychology (insofar as we, as a global society, are able to take rational, consistent, and decisive actions to achieve a common goal), the sustainability movement faces at least one major issue: research has repeatedly shown that when it comes to decision-making and judgment, people are decidedly irrational, contradictory and inconsistent.
In his book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, Hal Herzog reveals the inconsistencies in how we think about and treat animals. For example, most American’s are horrified by the practice of cockfighting, while happily consuming factory-farmed chicken nuggets, made from chickens that have endured living conditions resembling Dante’s Inferno. In fact, even those who choose to forgo meat entirely are often no exception. Several studies have revealed that two-thirds of those who call themselves “vegetarian” admitted to eating animal flesh just the day before.
The contradictory nature of human thinking may be apparent in the very term “sustainable development”. It is well known that while most people and politicians agree that sustainable development is a good thing, few agree upon its definition. Which makes putting it into practice a little challenging. How can we sustain and develop? Conserve and extract? Safeguard and exploit? On a personal scale, the contradictions inherent in the concept of sustainable development can be seen to reflect the contradictions many of us live with, as we both see environmental protection as a critical need, yet make a myriad of decisions that contradict that value everyday. How are we to think about such inconsistencies? Are we all hypocrites?
While the contradictory and ambiguous nature of the term sustainable development has generally been considered a weakness in its conceptualization, or even a deliberate tactic to satisfy opposing value systems (e.g. ecological economics versus neoliberalism), perhaps such contradictions can be reframed as a new system of thinking; one that moves away from narrow-sighted absolutism towards complexity, holism, and embracing multiple-perspectives. Attempting to define sustainable development in terms of either environmental protection or economic growth, or downplaying its utility due to the ambiguity of the term, misses an opportunity to reflect on the complexity of our often contradictory values, beliefs, and behaviours. Rather than being a shortcoming, recognizing the conflict, contradiction, and complexity inherent in concepts such as sustainable development may help elevate us towards a more holistic, collaborative, and complexity-embracing global mind frame. Perhaps we ought to see strength in contradictions and contradictory thinking, insomuch as conflict can be the hotbed of creative thinking and solution building. After all, behind every concept, behind every movement, behind every revolution, are people; if research has shown us anything, it is that people are complex, layered, and constantly changing. Our concepts, if they are to be at all useful, must reflect us. It is possible that only this type of complex thinking may be adequate to face today’s global challenges.
This article was originally posted via Sustainable Collective, which has since joined forces with The Starfish Canada.