“Sustainability” generally means the ability to be maintained at a certain level, but in recent years the word has come to refer almost exclusively to environmental sustainability: the perhaps fantastical set of circumstances under which life may continue on this planet under conditions similar to those prevailing now.Footnote 1 While the word “sustainable” was not used in the contemporary sense of minimizing environmental impact until 1976,Footnote 2 the concept has a much older history: historians of northern Europe, particularly Germany, have traced the development of sustainable forestry management and other agricultural practices back to the middle ages.Footnote 3 But the concept (or perhaps we should say anxiety) really got a kick-start with the publication of the Reverend Thomas Malthus's Essay on the Principle of Population in 1798.Footnote 4 The argument of that work was simply that population increases geometrically while food supply increases arithmetically; the two upward curves meet at a crisis point where famine becomes inevitable and population growth will thus be “checked.”Footnote 5 The enormous cultural impact of Malthus's thesis is one good reason to date the birth of the modern sustainability idea to the nineteenth century. Others include the sharp increase in environmental stressors—in terms of pressure on both resources and environmental sinks—occasioned by the industrial revolution, and the birth of political economy as a professional discipline in the early decades of the century.Footnote 6
For sustainability is essentially an economic question. Its two central components are issues with which political economists have long grappled: population and resources, including food. (Two other important components of sustainability could be mentioned: the management of waste, including carbon sinks, and climate change. Waste recycling was an important topic in the nineteenth century, but it was almost always invoked in the context of soil fertilization.Footnote 7 And while Jesse Oak Taylor has demonstrated that anxiety over pollution was a crucial part of “green” Victorian consciousness—and late-Victorian texts such as Richard Jefferies's After London and M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud evince a significant concern with what we can loosely term “climate”—the pressing fear of imminent environmental and economic collapse due to climate change is of course not a prominent feature of popular discourse until the late twentieth, or even twenty-first, century.Footnote 8)
Victorian discussions of population and resources together, then, form a proto-sustainability discourse that closely prefigures our own. In addition to Malthus, whose thesis influenced a wide range of Victorian thinkers including Darwin, a central figure in the population debate was William Forster Lloyd, whose Two Lectures on the Checks to Population (1833) introduced the concept of the tragedy of the commons, which occurs “when the constitution of society is such as to diffuse the effects of individual acts throughout the community at large, instead of appropriating them to the individuals, by whom they are respectively committed.”Footnote 9 The “individual acts” in this case are the decisions to marry and bear children, and the “effects” are the costs of care and feeding of the results. Lloyd effectively extends Malthus's dismal prognosis by noting that, because of this diffusion of costs, rationality and restraint are not effective checks on population: “the simple fact of a country being over populous … is not, of itself, sufficient evidence that the fault lies in the people themselves.”Footnote 10
On the resources side, writers such as William Stanley Jevons, Edward Hull, and William Armstrong worried that economic crisis was inevitable due not to the exhaustion of food supply but instead to the depletion of fossil fuel resources.Footnote 11 The “coal question” debate of the 1860s was in many ways a continuation of earlier anxieties about wood and forest management, with the added ingredient of a post-Lyell sense of the vast time scales involved in the creation of fossil fuels (rendering them effectively and practically nonrenewable). As Benjamin Morgan has argued in a recent discussion of the “coal imaginary,” “new scales of energy use and of geological time shared certain figural and rhetorical resolutions.”Footnote 12 Elizabeth Carolyn Miller's recent work has considered the narrative formations attendant upon these resolutions in the work of William Morris, George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, and others.Footnote 13
The conceptual synthesis of long-term population and resource management is the stationary or steady-state economy—characterized by a zero rate of profit and growth, a fixed stock of wealth, and a stable population—which is a direct nineteenth-century precursor to certain strains of economic/environmental sustainability. While Adam Smith and David Ricardo lamented the stationary state as the inevitable and unfortunate future of capitalism (Marx referred to the stationary state as the “bourgeois ‘Twilight-of-the-Gods’”), later thinkers such as J. S. Mill and John Ruskin heralded the stationary state as, in Mill's words, “a very considerable improvement on our present condition.”Footnote 14 Steady-state economies are thus the conceptual obverse (either voluntary or involuntary) of capitalism, which is characterized by perpetual growth—which often relies on colonial markets, resources, or labor secured by violent appropriative imperial expansion.Footnote 15 Recent versions of zero- (or even negative-) growth economies in response to ongoing environmental crisis have been championed by ecological economists, most prominently Herman Daly.Footnote 16
The sustainability concept has recently absorbed a number of direct body blows from the academic left. Important recent critiques by Stacy Alaimo, Allan Stoekl, Jeremy Davies, and Leerom Medovoi, among others, have pointed out the inconsistencies, contradictions, and even outright bad faith inherent in the concept.Footnote 17 As Davies eloquently notes, “to talk of sustainability and steady-state economics is to deal in abstractions that would be equally applicable at any time; it is to engage in a romance of stasis.”Footnote 18 In other words, sustainability discourse attends to spatial constraints (resources, population, the “carrying capacity” of the planet) while fantasizing that temporal constraints can be overcome—that the current state of affairs can go on nearly forever.
Criticisms of this kind are cognate with the strain of queer theory, emerging from the work of Leo Bersani and Lee Edelman, skeptical of “reproductive futurity.” One of the unstated—and nearly unstatable—assumptions of sustainability discourse, after all, is that we should care about the future of humanity: this is an assumption that makes sense only in the context of a commitment to the reproduction of our species, if not ourselves. The paradox of futurity was intuited long ago by our dismal population theorist William Forster Lloyd, who noted that when the consequences of individual actions are borne by the social body, “the future is struck out of the reckoning.”Footnote 19 The problem with thinking about environmental stewardship as sustainability is that to care about the future in these terms one must have a personal investment in it, but because of Malthusian population dynamics the planet cannot indefinitely maintain all of the personal investments needful.