Dr. Peter Jacques
Associate Professor of Political Science
November 2015

Q: What does Sustainability mean to you?
A: To me personally, sustainability means living well on a finite planet in perpetuity—Buckminster Fuller called this “making the world work for 100% of humanity, in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.” That is the positive—the negative side to sustainability, when we fail, is death. Death of whatever we are talking about—civilization, the human prospect, the world’s diverse web of life, people on the margins, death of the future.

But, sustainability has many meanings. Since there is no definition that we can all agree on, sustainability is “essentially contested”—we can agree on some general principles, but in practice, reasonable people can disagree wildly about what is really sustainable and what is not. Indeed, we should think very hard about this question, but not be immobilized by the fact that there is no conclusive definition everyone agrees with—it means a lot of things, but we should not be paralyzed by this and refuse to solve problems. Making decisions in society among disagreement, as for many things, is and will be required.

We can go farther, however. For example, the Latin etymology of the term comes from sus tenere, or “to hold up.” So on one level, sustainability is about holding up things and keeping them going. However, the problem structure of sustainability means that as we live our lives, we consume the preconditions of our existence. This means that we have to make very tough choices—such as choices between more development in South Florida and the loss of the Florida panther. The panther comes out on the short end on this conflict, and that suffering and loss is emblematic of sustainability conflicts generally where often some choices are made by powerful forces in society that foreclose on the future of others, like the panther. This means that sustainability has both objective and normative “first principles” that I believe look like the following, which is elaborated in my book, Sustainability: the Basics:

Principle 1: Without ecological life supports, there is no society. This relationship is immutable. A sustainable society must maintain the integrity of Earth systems and cycles that provide critical life supports. The threshold between a system with integrity and resilience is non-linear and the point of change often is unpredictable. Ecological and social systems are profoundly interdependent and changes anywhere in any system cause other, often unintended, consequences elsewhere.

Principle 2: What kind of society that grows in an ecological space is a value-based question, but sustainable societies must observe normative constraints:
A: The social system will not be sustainable if it undermines ecological life supports (principle of accountability and restraint).
B: The social system will not be sustainable if it sufficiently militates against itself or is annihilated by others (principle of justice).
C: The social system must be adaptive to challenges and changes to avoid evolving vulnerabilities (principle of foresight).

You can see that observing Principle 2 is entirely about norms, or arguments about what “should be” instead of simple observations about what “is” and is deeply political. Normative failure however creates death of all the things noted above, so the stakes are as high as they can possibly be for the whole world. If sustainability is deeply political, then civics and education are decisive factors in our survival.

Q: Describe the class you teach.
A: I teach a host of classes about environmental politics. One class relevant to this discussion though is Sustainability (PUP 3204). The goal of this class is to introduce students to the main issues and orient them to some of the debates noted above. We move through the contentions about framing sustainability, contentions around ecological science (“environmental skepticism” such as is seen in doubting climate science), international development, and the theory, history, and archeology of the collapse of civilizations. Once we understand the problems, we can then begin to think about how to work through them.

Q: What do you do at UCF to advance sustainability initiatives?
A: The most important thing I can do is educate and push students to think sharply about living well together. I also conduct a lot of research in sustainability, mainly focused on the politics of deception in civil society (where powerful forces attempt to make the public think something is a public good, when it usually is a good for elites) and issues of coastal and marine sustainability in the World Ocean.

Q: How can students get involved in your work?
A: First, students interested in these issues should take the classes. Second, very interested students should contact me about joining my Political Ecology Lab, where a small group of students work on research with me.

Q: What is your vision for sustainability?
A: To live well together, we have to be aware, care, and act. Awareness means paying attention to education, science and our civic lives, including issues of justice. When we are aware of problems and challenges in the world, such as the worst income inequality in the US since the Great Depression or the fact that we are now in the Sixth Great Extinction, we should care about it. Once we know something about the problems, and these problems matter to us, we have the capacity to act. To act, however, means something more than recycling on the individual level, but to act together on the social level. Social change requires us to work on the rules of society, not just personal behavior. Let us hope that we will have enough foresight, justice, and restraint to make the world work for 100% of humanity and the rest of life on Earth.