A Question to Ponder

Posted by Sustainable OKC | Posted in Community, Jennifer Gooden, Social Justice | Posted on 01-09-2008


by Jennifer Gooden

I sat down to write a post about social justice and sustainability in an attempt to tie together my experiences working to alleviate homelessness and volunteering for a sustainability organization. I expected that I could draw the two together fairly easily, given that 1) sustainability purports its three pillars to be economy, environment, and social justice, each carrying equal weight, and 2) I spend a lot of time thinking about them both.

Disappointingly, I wasn’t able to tie together social justice and sustainability, at least with the time and resources I had available on a Sunday afternoon. I found I couldn’t make an argument that withstood scrutiny.

Here’s the crux of the problem. To sustain something means, essentially, to keep it going. If something is unsustainable, then it can’t be kept going. To say that social injustice can’t be sustained is, well, false.  Sadly, social injustice has been sustained for centuries, likely millennia.

I should clarify that the question of whether social justice and sustainability are connected is a separate question from whether either of them is right or wrong. I think it’s widely accepted in our culture that both social justice and sustainability are concepts that are virtuous.  But we cannot fall into the trap of assuming “sustainable” and “right” are synonymous.

Since I was not able to answer my own question, I would like to throw it out to our Fresh Greens readers:

•    Why do you think social justice is described as a necessary and required component of sustainability?
•    We know that social injustice is wrong, but is it fair to assume that social injustice is unsustainable?

I look forward to hearing your answers. In the meantime, if I come across any convincing arguments, I’ll post a response to share the good news.

Happy thinking!

Comments (4)

Great questions, Jennifer. I really appreciate it when people are honest about the results of examining their own assumptions. It helps us all deal honestly with our doubt rather than shove it in a corner and carry on as usual.
The first glimmer of an answer to your riddle seems to lie in looking at the system as a whole rather than an isolated consequence of the system like homelessness. I believe that the same key aspect of our industrial/knowledge economy that makes it unsustainable in the environmental sense also leads to most forms of injustice. Once again, the most pernicious aspect of our economy is that it holds no tangible connections to real communities.
Since our economy is only loosely based in our own community, local leaders lack the power or perceived authority to address these issues in whole. That task falls to national leaders who of necessity deal in abstract and repudiated concepts of trends and the greater good. No national leader is capable of devising a policy with the practical end of ending all homelessness since they are all too far removed from the actual people and situations such a scheme would need to deal with. The causes of homelessness are highly individualized and can only really be handled by a local community manipulating its own social structure to solve its own specific problems. However, an economy owned almost entirely by outside interests will be largely unresponsive to the needs and desires of individual communities.

Because social injustice has been a “sustaining” feature of the recorded history of the human race, that same history is a constant cycle of the rise and fall of one “pyramid” society after another. The cycle is depressingly similar in its essentials, although of course the details are historically determined. Consider European feudalism, which perhaps has its epitome in the form of Marie Antoinette’s infamous, “If the poor have no bread, let them eat cake.” It wasn’t long thereafter before that society collapsed in revolution and violence. The reason social justice is integral to sustainability, is that without social justice, any given society is doomed to perish in violence, sooner or later. Generally, “more injustice” equals “sooner”; “less injustice”, equals “later”.
Violence is essential to the maintenance of social injustice, which contributes to the destabilization. Consider the old Soviet Union. In the history of the human race, few systems of tyranny were as all-encompassing. Yet, despite the gulags and the KGB and the deaths of literally tens of millions of people, today the Soviet Union is on the ash heap of history.
Such is the fate of all societies that incorporate social injustice as a defining characteristic, which is why no such society can be considered to be “sustainable” in the way we use the term.

jennifer — thank you for the thought-provoking questions and love the comments of john and bob.
social justice, the environment and sustainability are like looking at three sides of a pyramid – they are all part of the same structure — yet separate and distinct – but when one is out of balance the structure is skewed and doesn’t function well. if one side is too out of balance, the entire structure can collapse.
this is the metaphor of our so-called “civilization” which often seems much less civilized than bees or ants who mangage to accomplish astounding things without destroying everything around them.
it could be argued humanity as a whole is perhaps better off today than during feudal times, but lately we seem to be slipping backwards and perhaps that is what has to happen to wake people up to the clear and present danger of the growing disparity in incomes and wealth.
recently read this cree indian prophecy:
Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.
– Cree Indian Prophecy
the actions described in the prophecy above are the opposite of what is sustainable, yet they are a direction humanity seems determined to pursue.
what is most ironic to me is that quite often those who speak so ardently on behalf of social justice, ignore the connected planks of sustainability and environment, which perhaps is yet another symptom of just how disconnected humanity is from reality and the natural world. i would argue too that ignoring the environment and sustainability yet arguing for social justice, only prolongs the injustice.
it does seem that at times people think they will always be able to “eat cake” and have no idea where the “cake” comes from.
another way to sum this all up is this pithy quote from William McDonough:
“How do we love all the children, of all species, for all time?”

Maybe social justice and sustainablility both require the same degree of consciousness; an ability to imagine a different way of living.