Culling sustainability

–Readers advocating sustainability are familiar with a policy narrative that runs roughly as follows:

Sustainable land uses—e.g., hunting and gathering or, later, traditional pastoralist systems of mobile (“nomadic”) herders and livestock —have been more beneficial to the environment than are today’s large socio-technical systems, which have exploited and degraded that environment. Dams and hydropower have caused irreversible damage and have long displaced the earlier, more sustainable uses. Pastoralist herding systems, for their part, continue to be edged out of existence by encroachments that are themselves unsustainable.

Making matters worse, those electric grids, water supplies, and transportation systems are preoccupied with real-time operations to the detriment of longer-term sustainability. As these and associated “developments” have spread and circulated throughout the arid and semi-arid lands, the effects on and damage to dryland ecology have been acute and pernicious.

What to do? Minimally, we have to institute and abide by sustainability principles, criteria and indicators. While it is no longer possible to restore much of the landscape to its pre-disturbance state, we must ensure indicators are in place to tell us how fast we are moving away from or back towards sustainability.

–How to assess and evaluate this policy narrative?

The obvious strategy has been to criticize it, point by point. Just what do you mean by “traditional”? Why aren’t overgrazing and overstocking identified as unsustainable features of so-called traditional livestock systems? Are there no cases where large water supplies or electricity or improved transportation have helped rather than harmed the semi-arid and arid lands? More, why ever in 2020 are you focusing primarily on dryland ecology? And anyway, just what do you mean by “sustainability” and where is “context” in all of this?

The questions are easily augmented, with—you’d assume—narrative death following in due course through a thousand such stings. But these narratives don’t drop dead the way some of us hope. We think we’ve amputated their legs, and they still walk the earth

— I suggest there is at least one more way—and more useful than criticism on its own—to evaluate that dominant narrative: parsing it through sustainability narratives that already exist.

The aim in this case is seize on already-identified sustainability narratives that enable you to identify and focus on the weakest links in the dominant narrative. In contrast to a full-blown, point-by-point critique, you want a narrative that more clearly shows not only what is wrong (more than less) with the dominant narrative, but also how to proceed ahead instead.

Let me illustrate what I mean.

–Those who read the sustainability literature have also, I believe, come across such statements as:

. . .So, while sustainability has been shown to be a key existential issue, less acknowledged has been the fact that many sustainability indicators currently mis-specify the system to be sustained. . .

When I read such a statement, I mentally cut it out of its surrounding text. This way I create moments not just to guess what the author is going say next (that last “. . .”), but how I would fill in a text before and afterwards now that it’s opened to my own recasting.

–On reflection, statements like that just italicized remind me that indicators are always indicators with-respect-to-something. Asking with-respect-to-what? forces me back into the author’s text to search for just what is the specific system or system behavior that deserves monitoring in the author’s view.

This is important, because the sustainability literature I’ve read includes far too many instances where the indicators recommended have no such specifics or priorities. Instead, having an indicator for each thing that might matter has become the mirror reflection of critiquing every point equally.

–So what?

Let me cut to the quick by continuing to fill in the last set of ellipses my own way:

. . .currently mis-specify the system to be sustained. This mis-specification of sustainability indicators occurs along many avenues. Most important, indicators must always have bandwidths when it comes to high reliability performance at the system level.

By bandwidths, the reliability literature means upper and lower ranges of, or limits on, actual group behavior, the breaching of which triggers adjustment responses among the group. In this way, normal operations at the system level are not static but fluctuate within tolerance levels.

Or, if you prefer, resilience without bandwidths isn’t resilience, and that resilience—fluctuations within bandwidths and adjustments back when breaching bandwidths—is the starting point for working out sustainability under mandates of high reliability. Most important, “adaptive capacity” or “flexibility,” to the extent they are unbounded or left unconstrained, do not capture this key bandwidth feature of resilience. . .

In contrast, note how a good number of sustainability advocates would conclude that earlier phrase, “currently mis-specify the system to be sustained” with some variant of “. . .which today is global if not planetary,” thereby begging the question of the extent to which the bounded versus unbounded features to be monitored determine the scale rather than the reverse, which presumes scale determines the appropriate indicators.

–This isn’t the place to argue the merits of any such alternative reading, The bigger point here is that instead of treating the dominant pastoralism narrative—and let’s be honest, in a world of this many pastoralists, versions of the dominant policy narrative as well as counternarratives must be expected—as if its/their every assumption could be major and all major assumptions require major attention, we are doing something very different by means of the italicized rewrite.

We’re relying instead on already-existing sustainability narratives to hone into what primarily matters, at least from their perspectives. In our case, what matters as a priority is better thinking through measures (qualitative/quantitative, broadly writ) of acceptable group behavior under conditions of high uncertainty across multiple scales.

–Which then raises the question: How do I know I’ve identified the “right” sustainability narrative from the many out there with which to parse the dominant narrative?

But that is the wrong question. There is no right choice; there are only more or less useful ones. Or probably closer to the truth: There is no right choice, but many wrong ones.

By way of example, it’s more useful for me with respect to my policy and management perspective, if at a practical level, I ask: Just what are the bandwidths associated with, say, place and time in the herding itinerary?

I’m thinking here of the very useful insight of Saverio Krätli that pastoralism is a “livestock based livelihood/production system specialised in taking advantage of variability and centered on managing grazing itineraries at a variety of scale”. Does that scale, presumably both spatial and temporal, imply bandwidths of a particular kind?[1]

More, if such bandwidths do exist, they are not set by the control-imaginaries of rangeland ecologists, water point engineers or livestock veterinarians, but in practice by those following such itineraries—where “practice” here is more consonant with, say, pastoralist participatory gaming and simulation exercises than with credentialed experts isolating their grid maps and log frames.


[1] Geoffrey Grigson, the poet, writes: “I am a walker. I like the walker’s broken and restored rhythm. I take paths, including animal ones, which permit latitude, are uneven, allow pauses. My walk varies the variation of what is given.”

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