Thursday, November 17, 2016

Sustainability: Steeped in Values, Animated by Process, and Structured (but Not Dictated) by Experts

A book review of the following for BioScience: Sustainable values, sustainable change: a guide to environmental decision making. Bryan G. Norton. University of Chicago Press, 2015. 344 pp., illus. $37.50 (ISBN: 9780226197456 paper) (Published version at BioScience; below is the submitted version)

How should we as a society understand and pursue environmental sustainability? This question has long occupied environmental scholars, activists and practitioners, and despite multiple decades of intellectual debate, the idea of sustainability remains fraught. What is it that should be sustained? Economic welfare? Ecological resilience? Or something else? In Sustainable Values, Sustainable Change, philosopher Bryan Norton provides a thoughtful account of the issues currently vexing sustainability, refracting them through the lens of environmental values and then drawing together these insights into a practical program of action. His book argues that no single theory of environmental value can tell us what to sustain, and that instead, values need to be described and transformed through the processes of actual place-based decision making. The book provides a philosophical primer for environmental scholars and practitioners, establishing the philosophical and ethical foundations that can both frame and guide the pursuit of adaptive ecosystem management.

This book serves as a culmination of Bryan Norton’s 30+ year career in environmental ethics and policy. Now a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of philosophy and public policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, Bryan has built up a coherent and powerful body of work through his career, making valuable contributions to pragmatic philosophy, environmental ethics, and ecological economics. While Bryan’s core arguments and concerns have developed over time, they remain firmly committed to the ideals of philosophical pragmatism and political pluralism, themes that are crystallized clearly in the present volume.

Norton’s book attempts to shift debates about sustainability away from the terrain of theory and toward a concern with practical processes of decision making. He contends that sustainability conversations are gridlocked in theoretical debate, as ecologists and economists (among others) promote narrow disciplinary concepts of environmental value that are incomplete in their representations of what matters for communities. Rather than trying to win contests of theory, Norton contends that environmental scholars should contribute to the process of deliberation with local communities about ‘what should be sustained’ in particular places. What is ‘right’ and ‘what should be sustained’ cannot be determined by a single discipline or theory; they need to be worked through with communities via a fair and effective process of deliberation. Thus, the pertinent question then becomes how a fair and effective process might be conceived and constructed.

The book’s argument proceeds through two parts. In the first part, Norton critiques the idea that disciplinary theories can (and should) tell us what to sustain and why. He takes aim at economic welfare theory and intrinsic value theory, arguing that both approaches are too narrow and static in their purview to provide a meaningful framework for sustainability. What is needed, Norton contends, is an approach that: 1) works with actual communities to articulate their values, 2) focusses on how specific environments can support desired human experiences over multiple time and space scales, and 3) incorporates uncertainty and change by being part of an iterative, inclusive, and adaptive process. In the second part of the book, Norton proposes and develops a ‘procedural approach’ to sustainability that is concerned with identifying and facilitating an effective and fair process through which communities and experts can generate, analyse and evaluate possible environmental and development futures. Such an approach would organize deliberation toward constructing a place-specific concept of the public interest. A good process would also place expert analysis alongside other forms of moral reasoning, and employ a range of deliberative tools and mechanisms to get participants to construct new ‘mental models’ of their relationships to their place and to nature. Environmental values, then, rather than being static or knowable in advance (as economists and ecologists have often assumed), need to be worked out with actual communities facing specific decisions. Norton’s solution to the challenge of sustainability, then, is valuable and distinct: instead of deriving ‘what should be sustained’ through theory and then measuring ‘sustainability’ as a relative alignment with this ideal, Norton’s vision of sustainability is about creating deliberative forums where a multi-scalar concept of the public interest can be generated, discussed and embedded.

The book is well written, although there are bouts of jargon and the text is dense. At 291 pages, what should be a short read was not, owing both to the density of ideas and terms as well as several conceptual detours. The claims and logic of each chapter are not clearly stated up front or in summary, so each chapter is somewhat of a circuitous journey. The book is at its strongest when discussing environmental values and communicating the implications of different concepts. It is at its weakest when it evaluates social science relating to sustainability and adaptive management, or when it offers tangible advice beyond the ivory tower. The book employs a helpful but comical narrative device for readers to keep track of the argument as it progresses. Optim, a wonkish cartoon hedgehog, and Adapt, a stylish fox, are used to represent distinct approaches toward sustainability. Optim—the straw-man of the book—seeks to derive a goal theoretically and optimize his pursuit of it, whereas Adapt seeks to learn her way toward sustainability in an incremental and iterative fashion. The characters appear throughout the book to clarify how the two approaches differ, and the book introduces and defines ten ‘heuristics’ that guide Adapt’s behavior.

The book has one major contribution for each of its two intended audiences. For critical and reflective practitioners of environmental management, the book provides a grounding in ethics and a conceptual framework for the pursuit of sustainability through adaptive management. Put simply, it helps practitioners to understand and articulate why adaptive, process-focussed approaches are needed in terms of environmental values. For scholars of environmental values and adaptive management, the book provides a unique theoretical contribution linking environmental values to the practice of collaborative and adaptive management. By characterizing and evaluating the utility of adaptive management through the lens of environmental values, Norton shifts the axes of environmental values debates to a concern with process in place. The book also provides a nuanced justification for the roles of ‘experts’ on environmental values with respect to community decision processes. By positioning experts as equal contributors of reasoning into community deliberation, Norton democratises the decision making process where citizens can shape (and not merely receive) environmental metaphors and developmental pathways. These are important points for scholars of environmental values and/or adaptive management. Despite Norton’s intent to reach a practitioner audience, however, the jargon, structure, and density of concepts and terms will mean that the book is of most use to an academic audience.

The book suffers from its refusal to engage with power. For some readers, Norton’s proposal to unite communities to work collaboratively toward ‘sustainability’ will ring of naiveté and idealism. Norton caveats this omission by stating explicitly that his analysis assumes that political institutions will work for the public interest. He leaves for other scholars the task of figuring out whether this assumption is true (or how to make it so). Thus, the book’s thesis is predicated on the assumption that all members of a community are willing to come together in ‘good faith’ to work through their differences and change their ‘mental models’ to arrive at a normative and multiscale concept of the public interest. Troublingly, Norton assumes that a “free trade in ideas” will yield the best ideas, that broad acceptance is the “best test of truth”. One need only look at the success of Donald Trump in US politics to see that truth is not the arbiter of popular acceptance. While we wholly agree with Norton’s project to champion adaptive management, we remain unconvinced that one can legitimately outline such an approach without delving deeply on the question ‘adapting for whom?’, especially given the messy real world of special-interest politics.

Sustainable Values, Sustainable Change would also be more compelling if it more explicitly addressed the messy mechanics of societal change and individual thought. Much of the book treats as the primary choice that between hedgehog Optim and fox Adapt, as if sustainability is truly the product of pointy-headed policy, which currently operates by identifying (sans politics) what to optimize, and then structuring society so as to achieve that. However, our world does not change only as a result of such intentional policy choices, but also through messy social processes wherein the influence of corporations and non-governmental organizations are key. Norton says little about such organic changes, instead writing as if humans were rational agents (‘think first’). Since abundant evidence demonstrates that people are largely intuitive or emotional agents, perhaps what is needed next is a treatise on feel-first sustainability designed specifically for affective thinkers, which might help level the playing field of entrenched power, and unleash the agency of the disempowered and the latent sustainability values in all of us.

In sum, as scholars of environmental values we enjoyed reading Norton’s book and we would recommend it to others with strong intellectual interests in the topic. The book is a novel bridge linking environmental values to adaptive management, and practitioners in both fields will benefit from a close read and reflection.

Marc Tadaki ( is a PhD candidate at the Department of Geography at the University of British Columbia, and Kai M. A. Chan ( is a professor and Canada Research Chair at the Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability at the at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, Canada.

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