During Friday’s class, Hunter mentioned extensive squabbling that occurs in the green community over the definition of sustainability. To me, this seems like a sort of inefficiency, the social equivalent of a factory not having its pipes laid out right. This is more than an issue of semantics — there is a lot of work to do, and if leaders in the sustainability movement constantly spend precious time trying to agree on semantics then it’s at least worth asking why the semantics matter.
Traditional thinking tells us that semantics do matter. If the word “sustainability” means one thing to me and a radically different thing to you, it would easily become difficult for us to communicate and frustrating for us to work together. By spending the hours it takes to hammer out a single definition that we both agree on, we’re establishing a common vision that we can both work towards.
In other words, the solution to the problem of miscommunication is to create a norm that everyone agrees on. It’s up to the group to then indoctrinate new members with these norms, and enforce the norms when they are violated. All of that indoctrination and enforcement can make the group somewhat hierarchical and confrontational. In order for the group to survive, the norm has to be constantly reaffirmed, and contrasting ideas become a threat to group cohesion.
Strongly norms-based thinking tends to make movements look a little like medieval Europe. Each norm is a fiefdom: complete with a king, a court of intellectuals and bloggers who trumpet the norm and enforce it when it is broken, and an army of rank and file believers who use the norm as their philosophy. When these norms meet they tend to clash just like medieval fiefdoms did, and the result can be epic semantic battles that last months and rip entire movements asunder.
Just to be clear — I’m NOT saying that this is how the sustainability movement works, but there are definitely traces. Rockstar intellectuals and clashes over semantics are symptomatic of this kind of thinking, and the sustainability movement has its fair share of both. Norms allow people to unify and create change, but they come at a cost.
There is an interesting alternative to norms-based thinking, one that is also present in the sustainability movement, one that I know best from queer politics. Queer politics emerged in response to the AIDs crisis as a way to challenging heteronormativity — the idea that straight, “normal” people are good, and queer, “abnormal” people are bad. The result was a movement that opposed almost ALL norms, including internal ones. Queer people don’t go to conferences and spend hours debating the definition of the word “queer” because it’s widely accepted that establishing such a common definition would be unhealthy. Instead they do what we’re doing: each come to terms with their own definition and their individual reasons for being there, then share those stories as a way to build relationships. It’s those relationships, not any unifying mission, which connect the movement and allow it to function.
The result looks less like an army and more like Burning Man- a bunch of small groups of friends working on their own projects and supporting one another wherever possible. Relationship-based movements integrate seamlessly with other causes (queer organizers have been on the frontline of everything from the WTO protests to healthcare access) and shy away from leaders or defining ideologies. It’s harder to measure the impact of these kinds of decentralized movements, but there are plenty of examples (the antinuclear movement, open source software, etc) of them being extremely effective.
I guess I just wanted to put these two visions of a sustainability movement out there for people to think about. Personally, I find relationship-based movements more sustainable than norms-based ones. All of those little groups are better able to listen and react to their environment, which makes it easier to treat that environment with respect. Participating in that kind of movement means focusing on the relationships that I form rather than the ideas that I follow, it means worrying less about people’s allegiances to causes or corporations and more about their passions that motivate them, less about power and more about empowerment.