How sustainable is sustainability?

A critical-reflexive inventory

“Do not cut more wood than grow back” – this vivid explanation of forestry people is 300 years old for the concept of sustainability (see Grober 2013) – actually a banal old wisdom.

Capitalism, however, with its “time is money” and profit-maximizing strategy, exploits natural and social resources and increasingly depletes humans and nature. The social and environmental costs have become too obvious to be ignored socially and politically. As a “child of the crisis” and a solution to ecological, social and economic problems (see Erenz 2013), the term “sustainability” has entered the public debate since 1980 and has long since become a much discussed social “guiding principle” – a “social fact” (see Durkheim 1984) and subject of sociological research.

From a critical debate on future research on social dimensions of sustainability, which took place at the University of Hamburg’s Chair of Social Analysis and Social Change, chaired by Sighard Neckels and its scientific staff, since 2016, this small volume titled ” Die Gesellschaft sustainability. Outlines of a research program “. The objective is to present a sociological diagnosis of the present, not only “on the background of ecological crises, but also on the current social change as a whole” (p. 7)

The book presents various approaches and concepts of sustainability, both normative and descriptive. On the one hand, different sustainability developments, which are understood as capitalist modernization processes, and on the other, growth-critical approaches to a social transformation beyond the capitalist economy are discussed.

The seven contributions in this volume outline a broad spectrum of economic, legal, political as well as social, ecological and psychological aspects of sustainability, thus offering readers a look at the social complexity of this term.

U. a. topics such as “Financing sustainability” as an instrument of sustainable development, certification, awarding and classification of economic actors – at the same time causing ecological problems and shaping sustainable change – as well as sustainability practices in the form of ecological lifestyles as a social distinction, which among other things also amplify social inequality and moralizing authority are taken up. Another field of research deals with sustainability as a “subjectivization program” in that sustainability is both the task and the responsibility of the subject to behave “sustainably” in his everyday life and, on the other hand, as a mode of action of the individual in dealing with himself and his body, eg. B. as a wellness, Achtsamkeits- or resilience program, as a result of the “use of mental health” is understood.

The last article deals with social theoretical drafts of alternative social practices beyond economic growth, such as post-capitalism, post-growth society, convivialism, and real utopias. In these designs, sustainability is normatively understood as a social transformation project for overcoming capitalism as a form of society.

The authors see this publication not only as a “program” of the current social change, but at the same time would like to suggest “in which fundamental analytical perspective sociology should negotiate sustainability as a social phenomenon” (p. 8). To understand sustainability in sociological research as a problem and to take a “problem-oriented and reflexive position”, which also puts “the contradictions, dilemmas and paradoxes” in the focus. This is the only way to identify emerging ecological, economic and social conflicts, social inequalities and power relations (see page 13).

This book is not only profitable and extremely interesting for sociologically interested researchers, but also for practitioners who are interested in actively shaping a sustainable society. There is a great deal of (research) potential in each of the short but concise contributions, above all because, with its critical-reflexive perspective, it also casts a glance at otherwise “blind spots” in social sustainability developments.