From intersection to interaction: reconceptualizing social sustainability

 Guest post by Sarah Bell
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Sustainable development is often depicted as a Venn diagram, with sustainability at the intersection of society, the economy and the environment. This has been a useful representation for communicating the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability, but it limits our understanding of the social and its connections to the environment, economy and everyday life.

Our division of sustainable development into these different circles parallels broader divisions of knowledge that underpin the structure of professional and academic disciplines. Modern disciplines are based on an essential separation of nature and culture, science or society. Scientific disciplines have emerged in increasingly specialised detail to produce objective knowledge about the biophysical world. Humanities and social science disciplines address questions of values, power, politics, beauty and creativity. Science and culture are supposedly distinct. Science deals with the world of things, the cultural disciplines deal with humanity and society. One is the world of facts, the other the world of values.

Bruno Latour, in his book ‘We Have Never Been Modern’, points out that the separation of nature and culture has never been complete. Our systems of knowledge are based on the separation of nature and culture, but very little of the world we live in can be broken down that way. Latour takes the example of the reporting of the depletion of the ozone layer in his daily newspaper.

On page four of my daily newspaper, I learn that the measurements taken above the Antarctic are not good this year: the hole in the ozone layer is growing ominously larger. Reading on, I turn from the upper-atmosphere chemists to the Chief Executive Officers of Atochem and Monsanto, companies that are modifying their assembly lines in order to replace the innocent chlorofluorocarbons, accused of crimes against the ecosphere. A few paragraphs later, I come across heads of state of major industrialized countries who are getting involved with chemistry, refrigerators, aerosols and inert gases. But at the end of the article, I discover that the meteorologists don’t agree with the chemists; they’re talking about cyclical fluctuations unrelated to human activity. So now the industrialists don’t know what to do. The heads of state are also holding back. Should we wait? Is it already too late? Toward the bottom of the page the Third World countries and ecologists add their grain of salt and talk about international treaties, moratoriums, the rights of future generations, and the right to development.

It is not a co-incidence that Latour’s chosen example is an environmental problem, with economic, social and political implications – a sustainability problem. Problems like the hole in the ozone layer or climate change mix up social, technical, political, environmental, economic and other concerns. It is all very well to point to the intersection of the three circles, but how on earth to we understand what is going on in there? None of our conventional disciplines can solve these problems. It might be argued that these complex problems of sustainability emerge in the spaces between nature and culture precisely because our disciplines and institutions are blind to them. If it is not nature, science can’t see it. If it is not culture, the social sciences and humanities can’t see it. And so we find problems proliferating in the space between our well-established structures of knowledge. We might try to break these problems down into social or scientific components, but in doing so we fundamentally misunderstand them.

So what does this mean for sustainability, in particular social sustainability?

Firstly it is to say that all sustainability is social. Even so called technical fixes reflect certain social values and drive certain social behaviours. A technical fix like carbon capture and storage stabilises current modes of fossil fuel consumption, which itself is a political, economic and social judgement. We should push back against the idea that technology can solve sustainability problems in a way that is isolated from politics or social values. This can lead us to the question ‘what are we sustaining’? If our new technologies help us to sustain the existing industrial economic system and profits of large corporations, let’s be clear about that. If we want to sustain local communities and economies, we may need to design and implement a different set of technologies.

The second is that social change is unlikely to be achieved without technological change. Changing people’s behaviour to reduce energy consumption is more likely to be achieved with technologies that enable or force low energy lifestyles, rather than current systems which are designed with mass consumption in mind. Expecting social change within existing technical and economic structures is perhaps naive.  Again, what are we sustaining? Are we sustaining existing social structures or looking to create positive social change? How does technology constrain or enable that?

Thirdly it means that we need to find new ways of working and knowing about the world that can help us to move forward, without stepping back into the divisions that created the problems in the first place. If all we can come up with is that everything is connected to everything else, then we have failed as scholars. We need analytical tools that can reduce the complexity of these socio-technical problems without losing vital connections. Our tools should make problems tractable. If not, then they should at least be able to identify where that is not possible. Some problems are highly uncertain and highly contentious and it may not be possible to define a sustainable solution. We need to have the wisdom to know the difference.

Moving past the pillars of knowledge into a post-disciplinary world of sustainability presents us with considerable challenges as academics, professionals and community members. Our disciplines and our experience give us useful, specific knowledge about sustainability problems and how to solve them. We should not throw that away, but we should be brave as we step into this messy world between nature and culture, the overgrown alleys between the main streets of knowledge. Rethinking the social in sustainability provides a great opportunity to develop new ways of working together to address real problems on their own terms, not as our well-disciplined minds would like them to be.

About Sarah Bell: I am an engineering academic at University College London where I work on the sustainability of urban water systems. I am interested in the role of engineers and technology in sustainable cities. I also like gardening, community style. I was born in Geraldton, Western Australia, studied in Perth, worked in the aluminium industry in Queensland and taught sustainable agriculture in New South Wales before making the move to London in 2005. 

Her blog is at