Why there cannot be any truth(s) about sustainability

The current edition of Harvard Business Review features an article with the heavy title “The truth about CSR”. I disagree with many arguments in this article. I’m also generally skeptical about any claim to “the truth”, no matter about what. More importantly, however, I think that sustainability – and, by consequence, it’s organisational manifestation as CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) – is an area in which it is particularly unlikely that any truth(s) can be asserted for good.

In the following, I use “sustainability” in the sense of an action-oriented mindset of individuals or institutions that consciously integrates aspects beyond their immediate spatial and temporal sphere into their decision making[1]. Why, then, can such a mindset not affirm any truth(s)?

1. All debates about sustainability are in essence philosophical. In order to say anything about what – beyond the “here and now” – should be valued, I need to have assumptions about what can be known (epistemology), how things relate (metaphysics), and what should be done (ethics & morality). A minimum requirement for anyone making a point about sustainability therefore has to be to consciously reflect and explicitly say what philosophical framework they subscribe to. A conservationist, for example, has to state whether they follow an anthropocentric, pathocentric, biocentric, or holistic view, i.e. whether they base their conclusions on the needs of humans, sentient beings, living “things”, or the whole of existence.[2] As centuries have gone by without any philosophical theory coming up with “the” (undisputed) truth, by consequence, any arguments about sustainability will always only be true relative to the philosophical framework they operate in.

2. Discussions about sustainability always depend on scientific facts – or, they, at least, they better should. For anyone to make judgments about what in their environment to conserve, protect, nourish, or destroy and how to do this, they need to have well-researched information on biological, chemical, physical, and other aspects of the entities at hand. However, this scientific information – as we know too well – is bound by its own (theoretical) paradigms[3], and it is also often (practically) contested by various parties holding different data, interpretations, or interests – as, for example, in the heated disputes around IPCC’s reports[4]. As a result of these limitations, the truth of judgments about sustainability will always be limited by the scientific context they are derived from.

3.  Regardless of the specific philosophical or scientific stance that one adopts towards sustainability, the object of sustainability itself is evasive, because it is constantly changing. Human beings are born and grow, they age and die; animals and plants adjust to their environments by adding and subtracting features that vary their interactions with their surroundings; even minerals and elements disintegrate and reassemble according to some law or logic. How can anyone determine what stage or state among all possible emanations is the “right” reference point for defining sustainability? As a variation on Moore’s  “naturalistic fallacy” or Hume’s discussion of “is” vs. “ought”[5], these calamities can only be solved by introducing explicit targets, commitments, principles, or purposes in order to come to conclusions about what to do (or not to do). Sustainability, therefore, depends on deliberately posited goals which, by definition, can never be true.

4. Discussions about sustainability are loaded with emotions. Awe for the sublime beauty of nature, intense compassion for beings who suffer, or the belief in moral obligations of mankind: These are strong drivers for why and how people engage in sustainability. So are sadness at the sight of oil spills on virgin beaches, pain and anger when animals are tortured and slaughtered for human purposes, or outright hatred for corporations, politicians, and others “in power” who supposedly sacrifice sustainability for short-term gains in profits or reputation[6]. Emotions, by nature, are not “true” (or “false”), but highly subjective (and extremely effective) triggers for our thoughts and actions that often define what we consider thinkable or doable. Thus, any argument about sustainability is only true to the extent that the underlying emotions have been identified, named, and analysed in their impact[7].

5. Making decisions with regard to sustainability presupposes some (actually, often quite sophisticated) understanding of the laws of cause and effect. In addition to the philosophical and scientific complications spelled out above (see 1. and 2.), even on a practical level, this poses huge challenges. Assuming that I have the sustainability goal to make a certain rural population better off in terms of income, how am I to judge whether the introduction of new agricultural methods is actually going to contribute to this goal or rather leads to consolidation of land use (and loss of income for local farmers)? And to increased risk of flooding (and more loss of income)? Of course, players in the field are working on finding the best answers to these questions every day in order to limit the unwanted side effects of their actions[8]. At the same time, the – sometimes useful – belief that any correlation between cause and effect can ever be predicted with 100% certainty, is fundamentally flawed unless one also assumes omniscience[9]. Decisions on sustainability are always decisions under uncertainty – and where there is uncertainty, there is no truth.

Now, what to do? No need to give up. The conclusion that there cannot be any truth(s) about sustainability does not mean that nothing can be done. There are no truths about love[10] – and still, it inspires writers, musicians, movie makers, and every (wo)man on the street and drives them towards all kinds of – admittedly occasionally questionable – actions. Likewise, sustainability inspires people and organisations. What to watch out for when under the spell of this inspiration and how to choose actions wisely will be the topic of the next post[11].

[1] I use this definition because it is practical and not too long, while acknowledging that a) there are many other definitions of sustainability out there, b) this one contains a number of terms that would have to be defined in turn (e.g., “mindset”, “consciously”, “aspects”, “immediate”,”sphere”), and c) it does not claim any “truth” over other ways of defining sustainability. I might come back to this definition in later posts. BACK TO TEXT
[2] For a masterful exercise along these lines, see Martin Gorke, Eigenwert der Natur, Stuttgart 2010. BACK TO TEXT
[3] See, of course, Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Chicago 1962. BACK TO TEXT
[4] For a well-researched paper on this based on the references used by both sides of the controversy, see Ferenc Jankó, Norbert Móricz, Judit Papp Vancsó, Reviewing the climate change reviewers: Exploring controversy through report references and citations, in: Geoforum 56, September 2014, p. 17-34, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0016718514001389 [retrieved Jan 20, 2015].BACK TO TEXT
[5] If you have forgotten what these are about, just search for them on the web. BACK TO TEXT
[6] If you believe you’re immune to or insusceptible to these stimuli, watch the movie “Earthlings”, http://earthlings.com [retrieved Jan 20, 2015]. BACK TO TEXT
[7] The sequitur of which is, of course, that only a being with full knowledge (and possibly control) about their own (and others) emotions can make a true argument about sustainability. Most people think that such beings are rare.BACK TO TEXT
[8] The discussion becomes even more complicated when tradeoffs between different sustainability goals come into play, e.g. when weighing the carbon reduction achieved by switching to wind power production against the impact of wind turbines on the surrounding fauna and flora or on the health of those living near them.BACK TO TEXT
[9] Personally, I draw most inspiration on this topic from Nassim N. Taleb’s work, http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com [retrieved Jan 20, 2015]; he might not agree that his thinking has anything to do with the topic discussed here. BACK TO TEXT
[10] P!nk has a different view; see http://www.pinkspage.com [retrieved Jan 20, 2015].BACK TO TEXT
[11] Okay – here’s a tiny preview for those who are not inspired by cliffhangers: In order to “work”, sustainability requires a) counter-intuitive goal-setting, b) an attitude of questioning, learning and un-learning, c) a community of challengers. Stay tuned…BACK TO TEXT

2 responses to Why there cannot be any truth(s) about sustainability

  1. Tough to come up with a meaningful reply. Of course I agree that there is no truth in something as CSR. A claim for truth can be made by a religion – there one has to accept it as long as it is a “tolerant claim” – but not by business people on whatever topic. And the blog makes this point very eloquently. But before I have seen the answer on the question”what to do” I will not know whether the blog is not only intellectually nice but also helpful. Thus, come up with part number two as soon as possible and tell us “what to do when you don’t know what the truth around CSR is”.

Leave a Reply