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Are We Trapped in a Cultural Mythology that Undermines Sustainable Development?

Arish Dastur's picture

Are we trapped in a cultural mythology of boundless economic growth?
(Flickr image courtesy of
David Paul Ohmer under a Creative Commons license)

William Rees—the famous ecologist who together with Mathis Wackernagel developed the concept and method of ecological footprint analysis—has recently published an interesting article on the global ecological crisis and self-delusion. The paper is provocative on several fronts, and while I am in two minds on some of the positions it takes, it certainly opens up some of the fundamental questions we need to be asking if we are to honestly discuss sustainable development. The article is transdisciplinary, and pulls together interesting insights from Heidegger, behavioral neurobiology and cultural anthropology as they relate to the very real dangers of climate change and the global ecological crisis.

Rees’ underlying assertion is that we are trapped in a collective cultural mythology oriented around the idea of boundless economic growth, and that the powerful narrative of this mythology has behaviorally, institutionally, politically and socially disabled us from honestly confronting the foundations of global un-sustainability. Therefore, he argues, we only come up with diversionary, gimmicky, peripheral or subsidiary ways of dealing with the challenge – because our primary motivations are precisely wedded at a deeper level to a cultural mythology that itself is at odds with sustainability.

Looking at it through this perspective, consider the growing craze of eco-villages, eco-parks, eco-suburbs, and eco-cities. While there might be some notable examples out there, most of these actually end up following simple variations of: slap on a few solar panels, throw in some high visibility windmills, incorporate some unjustifiably expensive technological gimmicks at the expense of social housing, landscape some more trees and maybe even a golf course into the plan, participate in a back-door land-grab, divert attention away from the city or city-region as a whole by focusing on eco-enclaves, adopt a few narrowly self-serving sustainability indicators, disregard the larger socio-economic trade-offs and the overall life-cycle costs, ramp up the marketing drive, and befriend the right partners and individuals who will all join the resounding chorus of applauds—there you have it, the new eco-development wave of the future. At best addressing symptoms, these ad hoc measures are merely a cosmetic nudge to business as usual, when what we really need is a fundamental paradigm shift.

A genuine attempt at moving towards a circular urban metabolism: Hammarby Sjostad, Stockholm.
Now consider casting urban sustainability in the light of a different cultural mythology: one centered, for example, on designing cities or city-regions as highly efficient, closed-loop, multi-functional and resource regenerative ecological systems—with a range of technologies and design innovations making this possible together with the right policies, plans, institutional reforms and financial incentives. What if, like ecological systems, cities were designed to have powerful strategies for managing change at the least cost, and for recovering quickly and fully from shocks—strategies such as succession and evolution, self-organization, and adaptive management? What if these innovations were enabled in an affordable, customizable and sequenced manner—and financial instruments, accounting processes, budgets and institutional incentives were all designed and re-imagined to truly capture and reflect the value of all capital assets (natural, human, social and manufactured)? In this case the transformation taking place might be at a different scale, and more importantly—of a different nature. Such an approach might begin to address some elements of the core and the cause of our unsustainable development.

But why focus on cultural mythology? Because it is an underpinning, pervasive and often invisible force shaping the trajectory of development and global events, ranging from wars to the current economic crisis. By shaping our sense of identity and purpose it drives individual and collective behavior. For instance, it could be argued that the non-violent Indian Independence movement led by Gandhi was in fact premised on (and impossible without) a shared cultural mythology and that it derived its most elemental power from the deep orienting principles of this mythology. Carl Jung’s writings provide some fascinating insights into the psychological basis for this, and there is now a growing body of empirical neuro-scientific research that further substantiates how cultural beliefs actually establish specific neuronal networks in our brains (check out Bruce Wexler and Norman Doidge). But I digress...

What is the myth that troubles Rees? He is most concerned about the pervasive myth of ‘limitless and perpetual economic growth.’ He restates the issues of 1) the real and fixed biophysical boundaries of our ecosystems and our planet, 2) the growing population and resource demands of developing countries, and 3) how we as a global society must learn how to share and live within our limits. In the light of these concerns, he raises the question—do governments in developed countries need to plan for less growth (contracting their economies) in order to create the space for developing nations to reach adequate levels of development?

That’s a very touchy question. With trade and climate change negotiations, as well as a range of other international and geo-political barters either paralyzed in stalemates or progressing at speeds that render them inconsequential—does Rees’ concern stand a chance for a fair hearing?

The idea of ecological limits in not new at all (neither is it unique to Rees)—in fact the organizing principles of many ancient and pre-industrial societies across the world were based on the intuitive reality of societies and their economies functioning within the sphere of natural systems. Today this thinking also draws on the ‘Limits to Growth’ work that emerged in the 1970s (based on economic growth and resource modeling done at MIT).

My own thoughts on this issue are just a bit more optimistic—while I certainly understand the importance of focusing on our real ecological constraints, might growing in a fundamentally different and more intelligent way (circular & resource regenerative economies), be as much a part of the answer as growing less?

Regardless: I do tend to agree that it would be nice to have a global cultural mythology rooted in organizing principles much more meaningful, imaginative and sustainable than our dogmatic fixation with produce-consume-produce-consume-produce-consume-produce-consume…


Submitted by Paula Lytle on
By reducing the size of the city, destroying abandoned housing, and reclaiming to fields and farmland.

Submitted by Vijay Jagannathan on
I for one find it difficult to understand the relevance of this blog. There is an apocryphal story of a politician, who when asked to comment on culture responded "the only culture I know is Agriculture". The point I am making is that it doesn't take more than five minutes stay in an EAP city to realize that it has reached the limits of sustainability. What is less obvious is the nature and extent of trade-offs people are making in earning livelihoods and living in that city. The answers come from practical analysis of how policies affect the way we organize housing, manage urban services, and treat our living spaces. Solutions of the past - be they technological, institutional or both - are no longer valid today and even less so tomorrow. The willingness and ability to think out of the box, and convert those thoughts into concrete actions are where the challenges lies. Unlike the politician I would say the culture of accountability is the only one that will help cities launch into a path of sustainable development.

Vijay, Thanks for your comments. It seems like your major disagreement with my blog is on the relevance of culture. However, consider the example of the Grameen Bank and its founder Mr Muhammad Yunus (awarded the Nobel Prize). The entire enterprise began functioning by tapping into the cultural attitudes and value systems of poor Bangladeshi villagers. Before its time no one would think of micro-finance as a practical or scalable policy, and in fact many would be cynical about its sustainability. But Mr. Yunus believed in the culture of his countrywomen and countrymen and based on that, he laid the foundation for a global revolution in finance and development. There are many more examples of how culture can be an enabler or a barrier for lasting transformation. I think we often take it for granted. Also, I tend to disagree with you that solutions and technologies of the past are no longer valid. For instance, bicycles and buses might give us our most sustainable transportation options for the future. Also designing homes in accordance with nature has been a part of the architectural history of almost every civilization - and is in fact one of the pillars urban sustainability. A study commissioned 2 years ago by Siemens on Sustainable Urban Infrastructure for London demonstrated that simple technologies like insulation in homes actually have a more powerful impact on carbon emission reduction potential, a higher financial payback, and are more affordable than many of the new technologies being marketed right now. So while I agree with you that it is important to have a very practical approach to things, I also feel that our culture and our past will have a vital role to play in our approaches toward a sustainable future.

Submitted by Anonymous on
A very thought-provoking blog! Although I wasn’t quite sure exactly what you mean by “cultural mythology”, I do agree with the central thesis that cultural values and beliefs fundamentally influence the way that we live and use resources. Here in Laos I’ve often felt that people respond differently to incentives. Elsewhere in Asia I am continually plagued by people trying to sell me something or other. But here it’s sometimes almost impossible to find a tuk-tuk (local mode of transport). And if you want to go a bit out of the way, the driver often shrugs and lies back down to finish his nap- even if you are willing to pay well above the odds. And who can blame him? He’s probably earned enough to feed himself and his family, and it’s hot and dusty. Much nicer to lie in the shade and drink a delicious beer Lao. Maybe I’m completely misinterpreting Lao culture, but it does seem to me that there is something that makes it acceptable to stop when you’ve got “enough”, rather than responding to the “incentive” of every last kip. Maybe if we could just stop wanting more than we need, we’d have a better chance of sustainability. On the other hand, I think the more difficult question is how to change our attitudes to resource use. I think I agree here with Vijay. I lived in Manila for a while. I don’t think anyone there has a “cultural mythology” that the traffic, the shopping malls, the poverty in the slums, are part of a sustainable way of life. Yet the city goes on, and other Asian cities, including Vientiane (where the first two fast food chains just opened this week!), mimic its development path. It seems almost perverse given how much we already know about climate change etc. Can we change that by changing our “collective culture”? And how do we even think about changing a “collective culture” anyway? I’m not sure, but as an economist I think that if we want to make real and difficult changes we have to change the incentives people face. Maybe this can be partly cultural- disapproving of people more vocally when they drive to work rather than cycling, etc. But partly it is has to involve better regulation and enforcement, at national and international levels. Maybe culture will catch up later?

Submitted by Anonymous Bank staff on
I found the Rees paper overstated. It strikes me that he's viewing the problem from the lens of his own cultural mythology. Though I don't blame him for that: we can't escape culture. Everyone, in fact, is drenched in culture; we swim in it, we breathe it in and out. A discourse on important ideas that is not mediated (and hindered) in some way by culture is not possible. While I think it's important to identify the prevailing cultural mythologies at work, and to be aware of one's own, I agree that the working out of solutions on a practical level is the main thing to focus on. In my opinion it's not so much cultural mythology that undermines sustainable development as it is the lack of advancement in certain technologies, especially energy technology. As long as we continue to release energy from carbon in the same basic ways we have been for millenia, our efforts at development will become slowly but increasingly less sustainable as the impact of climate change begins to make itself felt.

Submitted by Clifton Lemon on
I came across your blog while researching "sustainability myths" for a book I'm writing. I've worked for the last 6 years in a deep green engineering company, so I have a very close understanding of the promise and limitations of design and technology. We can deal with technology easily- we have all the technology we need, including simple and elegant strategies frm the past (in green building, things like thermal mass, natural ventilation, daylighting, hydronic systems, etc.) By far the most difficult part is behavioral- we just don't have the science, research, tools, or "mythology" yet to change "unsustainable" behavior rapidly on a mass scale if we're in a race to save the planet. Maybe we can win the race, maybe we can't, but we should run the race anyway. Even if we can't have the kind of direct impact on global warming that we want, most attempts to make civilization more sustainable can bear fruit in unintended and positive ways. I believe that we just don't have a clear idea of the complexity of potential outcomes, positive or negative...everyone thinks we're headed for an ill defined global catastrophe, but attempts to deal with it falter in the face of overwhelming odds. Real collapse may be quite different than anything we can imagine, and real sustainability may be as wel. Myths do organize individual and social thought and behavior in a deep way, that's why we need new ones to deal with our new economic, social, and environmental conditions. We can find valuable sources for new mythology in the past, the present, and the future. SInce the Enlightenment, mythology has been viewed in opposition to rationality, but we are now seeing the limitations of both religion and science as sources of knowledge. We need both, and we need something beyond both- we just don't quite know what it is yet. But I'm interested in helping to invent it.

Clifton - thanks for the great comment. I particularly like the idea of needing "both" as well as something "beyond both" when you refer to science and religion. In fact I did my undergraduate degree in neuroscience and religion - and I could not agree more. I would be interested to hear from you more about this book you are working on... Maybe a part of it is that since the enlightenment modern societies started organizing themselves around the evolving tension between emerging (scientific) and residual (religious) myths, assumptions, ambitions and values. And as nation states took more solid and legitimate form - and as they expanded their power and reach, these myths, assumptions, ambitions and values significantly influenced (and in some cases became the basis of) national constitutions, legal systems, state institutions, state narrative, educational systems, economic policy, media and popular culture, and so on. Off course these trajectories unfolded differently across the globe, but through colonization at first and now through globalization and vastly enhanced connectivity - there is a convergence (and negotiation) of these - and also the prospect of considering refreshingly new alternatives. To imagine these prospects we need to just look at the massive shift unfolding in the Middle East right now. In a sense, we are at a very interesting moment in human history to collectively reimagine some of our driving myths, assumptions, ambitions and values. A lot might be at stake - and if folks keep focusing on subsidiary and symptomatic issues (either due to habit, or worse - due to their vested interests), we might miss a significant opportunity as a global community. - Arish

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