It is becoming clear to me that sustainability is a metamodern discipline. In the text below, I briefly review metamodernism and why the term applies so well to the field of sustainability.
Metamodernism is both a philosophy and a social movement that emerged in the last decade or two from post modernism which itself was a reaction to modernism. Modernism can be looked at as more or less the outgrowth of the enlightenment. Our framework of science and even higher education itself is a product of modernism. In the 1980's and 90's, post modernism led to the questioning of modernism and sought to deconstruct the frameworks of modernism to understand, in part, power structures in modernism and to re-emphasize the unemphasized.
To digest down post modernism to an essence, there is no truth. Instead, there are constructions of reality built by those in power to create an understanding of our world. The movie The Matrix nicely creates the feeling of post modernism by totally deconstructing reality to create a new reality that may or may not itself be real. The Warhol prints of Mao and Marilyn also deconstruct the meaning of art and image and the singer Madonna constantly reinvented her image since the 1980’s in an embodiment of post modernity--there is no Madonna, just an annual recreation of identity.
Metamodernism is a reaction to post modernism in that it recognizes the realities of both modernism and post modernism. It seeks to take an optimistic approach to the world by recognizing that both modernism and post modernism exists at the same time. The video, This is America, by Childish Gambino, and the recent Borat movie are cultural representations of metamodernism that provide both real and unreal experiences. It isn’t magical thinking. The reality of the unreality actually exists. Politically this is represented by the Trump administration and the very metamodern policies associeated with COVID. The federal government is both working on the pandemic while not working on it. It will go away, it is a hoax, it is killing thousands, and it is a real public health crisis.
So why is sustainability a metamodern discipline?
I have written a great deal about the different ways that sustainability is enacted, discussed, and implemented around the world. I sometimes talk about it as "a tale of two sustainabilities" whereby one sustainability is the sustainability of the west and the other is the sustainability of the developing world. In other places I've written about surfing and suffering sustainability where western approaches are cool, optional, and quantitatively of comparatively limited value (due to huge per capita consumption) and where suffering sustainability is about existentialism and improving challenging situations. Now I think a better way of framing sustainability is within metamodernism.
Here are two examples of what I mean from the recycling and energy worlds.
If we look at plastic recycling in the U.S., we know that the vast majority of the plastic is shipped overseas and of that plastic the vast majority of it is diverted to local waste streams or litter and is not recycled. We have built a whole infrastructure around plastic recycling but it is of limited actual value. Of course the best thing we could do is not use plastics. But instead, we institutionalize recycling within a sustainability modernist approach even though there are metamodern realities that show that it is of limited value. Should we stop plastic recycling? No. But is plastic recycling a problem? Yes. Do we feel optimistic about recycling overall? Yes. Metamodern.
Green energy is another metamodern issue. We have rapidly ramped up the development of green energy across the world. That is truly a wonderful thing. However, during the same time that we have ramped up these energy sources, global consumption of oil and natural gas, two important drivers of climate change, have increased substantially and the overall world's energy use has gone up and continues to rise. Thus, green energy has not replaced oil and natural gas consumption at the global level. It has only added to the overall amount of energy that is being produced around the world. Do we want to continue to produce green energy? Yes. Has green energy led to a reduction of the global use of fossil fuels? No. Do we feel good about wind and solar? Yes. Metamodern.
The field of sustainability is inherently a quantitative one. We measure a baseline, develop policies to enact change, and then measure the results of the outcome. To some, however, sustainability is about the "feels" of the environment. It feels right to recycle and it feels right to drive a Tesla. However, the feels often mask broader issues with overall consumption. We don't always question whether we needed to purchase the plastic or buy the car in the first place.
When you look closely at the discourse around sustainability, you can find metamodernism everywhere. As a result, I think it is important for sustainability initiatives in the coming years to focus on authenticity and quantitative approaches that clearly demonstrate impacts locally, nationally, and globally. We also have to recognize connections. Solving a plastic waste problem in a community in the U.S. could create a burden for communities in Africa. Adding green energy without serious reductions in carbon-based fuels globally doesn't really impact our global climate change problem.
I doubt that the metamodern issues we are facing in our society will go away soon. We want to be optimistic about a variety of sustainability issues. We think we can manage our way through climate change and most of us live our lives without changing our behavior. Many of us continue to try to live normally through COVID-19 even though we are in the midst of a pandemic. It is the optimism that leads to metamodernism. And it is my optimism that makes me worried.