sustainability: saving us from ourselves

David Leonhardt’s piece in the NY Times on reforming health care caught my attention today. As I’ve come to expect from him, it’s well written and makes an important point. But for the moment, I’m more interested in its implied critique of the economy. Specifically, I have been wondering whether we are seeing a shift away from critiques which emphasizes fairness and equity and toward ones built around sustainability and I think his article helps articulate what this might mean.

The last time health care was seriously debated in the 1990s, the rhetoric centered on the 40 million uninsured: How could the richest country in the world allow that many people to go unprotected? This time around, the framing has shifted. As Leonhardt lays it out, disparities in distribution are inevitable; some people will get less out of the system than others as a matter of course. But the way we use the system is unsustainable and it threatens to bring low the rest of the economy.  And that justifies getting the government involved.

This is a big shift. The argument for health care in the 90s was based, primarily, on an ideology of fairness. Leonhardt is arguing from a perspective which I see as fundamentally based on an ideology of sustainability: the health care system is so deeply intertwined with other aspects of our society that failing to act presents a fundamental challenge to the rest of society (and, by extension, the economy).

Similarly, look at the proposals for reforming the financial system which were released today. While there was a brief puff of smoke earlier this year about the excessive income of CEOs (and there is at least a token effort in this reform package at addressing that) its motivations have little to do with fairness. They are all about preserving and sustaining society. Banking—this argument goes—is integral to the functioning of just about everything we do. But it is threatened by the baser impulses of individuals acting in their own self-interest. So the government needs to act.

That, to me, is about sustainability. It is apparently what led Ken Lewis, then Chairman and CEO of Bank of America, to advocate in favor of accepting government intervention when his and other big banks were confronted with it by Hank Paulson last year:

I basically finally said: “We are so intertwined with the U.S. that it’s hard to separate what’s good for the United States and what’s good for Bank of America. So don’t do it on the basis of us being told; do it on the basis that things could get a lot worse in America and therefore for us. And they’re almost one and the same…. [W]e thought we were doing somebody a favor, or the country a favor for that matter.

What kind of regulatory policy does this lead to? Here is Columbia Business School Dean R. Glenn Hubbard reacting to the crisis last fall (before becoming one of the advisors to the Administration on the regulatory brief released today):

The financial meltdown that engulfed Lehman and the uncomfortable responses of policymakers… highlight[s] the need for regulatory reform. The problem is actually not too little regulation — both lightly and heavily regulated institutions are in trouble. And some regulations encouraged the growth of high-risk mortgage lending. We do need smarter regulation: a key step is to broaden capital and liquidity requirements and increase them during financial booms to lean against excessive risk-taking.

In other words, there came a point at which failure to act became morally repugnant—first on the part of Ken Lewis and then on the part of regulators—because doing so would undermine the broader social system. But on what basis? It is not out of an impulse toward fairness or even personal gain. Fundamentally, it is rooted in the impulse to maintain the long term stability and viability of society.

What’s going on here? The idea I’d like to explore (at some length, sorry) is whether this is evidence of a shift in mainstream critiques of the economy.

Traditionally, the left’s critique has been that the economy is really about power. Those who have more power within the market extract rents from those who do not. But at some point, the disparities between haves and have nots becomes so morally repugnant that some force—generally the government, but for a brief period of time in the 20th century, unions—is needed level to the playing field. In the end, the ideological justification for this is fairness or the value of equality. Institutions are temporary settlements which emerge out of power-laden battles over conflicting interests.

The right, on the other hand, traditionally aimed to conserve (conserve being the root of conservative) the institutions, principles and values passed down through history. Institutions embody principles which have been vetted and have withstood the test of time. Classical—Burkean—conservatism is part-in-parcel of Selznick’s insightful comment that “institutionalization constrains conduct… by making it hostage to its own history.” Ideologically, conservatism trusts that history—embodied in institutions—is smarter, in the long run, than one individual or group of individuals acting in their own interests. So policy makers should be weary of undermining the wisdom of history. As a matter of principle, institutional change should be a slow process in which human agency should be as limited as possible.

The tension between the left’s interest in fairness and the right’s interest in conservation set up a tug-of-war which defined politics for much of the 20th century. The equity crowd agitated for government intervention with the goal of achieving more fairness in society. The conservation crowd argued for restraint. The resolution was a “social contract” in which careers unfolded inside large bureaucratic organizations and workers had the right to organize unions, all buffered by a sizable welfare state. All of this was ultimately acceptable to conservatives because it preserved social order. That contract broke down in the early 1980s. The reaction to the organizational state was the reassertion of the individual and individual freedom as a guiding ideological principle (see Jerry Davis’s new book or Chiapello and Boltanski’s take on this in their book, the New Spirit of Capitalism).

As we discussed before in the context of Jerry’s argument, an unchecked ideology of individualism holds less water than it used to. But it’s not entirely clear what has replaced it. The left—at least in the US—has largely abandoned fairness as its guiding principle and critique. And, outside of social issues, the right has abandoned the “conservationist” strain of conservatism. I wonder whether what we have seen in the last year or so with the financial crisis and, ultimately, with the election of Barak Obama is the emergence of a new orienting philosophy: sustainability.

Sustainability is related to the notion of conservation in the sense that it is interested, primarily, in the preservation of the social system. But it shifts the nature of that argument significantly. Rather than focusing on the maintenance of order and stability through systematization, sustainability focuses on interdependence. Its origins are in the environmentalist movement, but I would suggest that statements like Leonhardt’s and even Ken Lewis’s suggest that is has spread to form an ideological basis for government action outside of concerns about the environment.

The argument goes something like this: We live in a highly interconnected society which operates within a series of interconnected systems. Resources (physical, material, social, and political) are not only scarce, they are extinguishable. Institutions are needed, not so much to keep social order, but to ensure the reproduction of the resources needed to reproduce society over time. Undermining any of the systems on which society depends threatens to have ripple effects on others. But importantly, the biggest threat to the system comes not from external threats, but from individuals acting in their own self interest in ways that could undermine the delicate balance on which interdependencies of the system depends. Government action is needed, not to ensure fairness, but in order to save us from ourselves.

The shift from conservation to sustainability is one that the environmental movement made years ago. There was a time when being an environmentalist meant essentially preserving the beauty of nature for ourselves and future generations. But the movement took on much greater urgency as its justification shifted toward energy use and global warming. What had seemed like particularist concerns of a few nature lovers were shown to be intertwined with a general set of concerns about the sustainability of society and of the economy.

Politically, I think this is what explains the ability of erstwhile conservatives like Andrew Sullivan to embrace Obama’s “progressive” agenda. (It goes the other way too, allowing British Conservatives to lure voters away from Labour). Sustainability maintains an interest in the maintenance of the system; but it marries it with a justification and rationale for government action. In the US, it has allowed the left to co-opt and incorporate the notion that history is smarter than we are while rejecting the brand of conservatism which argues that any form of government intervention upsets the delicate natural balance among social systems. The environmentalism movement exposed the fundamental problem with this logic, succinctly captured by the tragedy of the commons: individuals acting independently in their own self-interest can ultimately destroy a shared limited resource even though it is in everyone’s long term interest to prevent this. That idea, I would argue, has migrated to influence the way we think about a range of public policy issues well beyond the environment.

And that leads to some interesting implications for orgTheorists too: it is what underlies Kathleen Thelen’s call to shift emphasis within institutionalism from the particular distribution of rules, powers and outcomes associated with institutions to the mechanisms that reproduce the institution itself. Whereas much of sociology came to focus on stratification or the power-structure debate, attention shifts now toward movements and the collective action problems.  And, for social movements in particular, it suggests a basis for why movements seem to undergo a shift from arguments of fairness toward the “business case”; not because doing so fits them into a myth of rationality, but rather a myth of sustainability.

Written by seansafford

June 17, 2009 at 11:29 pm

15 Responses

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  1. […] Safford, one of the OrgHeads, has just put up a very astute post about movements in contemporary U.S. political ideology. Essentially, he thinks that the ideological axis in the U.S. has shifted away from an emphasis on […]


  2. Interesting post Sean.

    Sustainability has a lot to do with externalities doesn’t it? Individuals acting in self-interest will do things that hurt the public good. So regulation, in this sense, is all about inhibiting individuals (or organizations mostly) from taking actions that have adverse consequences on the environment, economic stability, etc.

    It seems to me though that it’s difficult to completely take power out of the analysis. One of the reasons that more sane environmental regulations haven’t been put in place sooner is that powerful corporations have strong lobbies and they’re successfully “convincing” legislators that bad regulation is good for business. Combine this with the resource differential between corporate lobbies and social movements, and sustainability initiatives have quite an uphill road to climb.

    I agree with you that shifting attention to social movements and collective action is a useful thing to do when trying to understand institutional change, but social movements are fundamentally about conflicts over power distribution, aren’t they? Invoking my inner-Piven and Cloward, social movements are the tools that the powerless use to counteract their resource disadvantages.



    June 18, 2009 at 4:06 am

  3. I agree Brayden. I don’t think power has been taken out of the equation. But I suppose I am also making the case for ideology.

    For instance, its more difficult for — in this case — companies or doctors or banks to oppose government intervention when that intervention is framed in terms of an ideology of sustainability.

    Channeling my inner Foucault (or really Benford and Snow), I am making a case for ideology as a powerful resource in the sense that it compels (and also shapes) action.


    Sean Safford

    June 18, 2009 at 2:36 pm

  4. […] Sean Safford has a longish post on today about the shift in health care debate from fairness and equity to sustainability: Sustainability is related to the notion of conservation in the sense that it is interested, […]


  5. I can’t disagree with Benford and Snow (and Foucault scares me into submission every time). I really do think that framing is an important part of this story. Someone ought to write a paper about how the frames that movements have used to justify corporate changes have shifted with the kinds of macro-cultural trends that Jerry is talking about. Anyone, anyone?

    Re sustainability: There’s an interesting post today on HBR by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey about why the current system of executive compensation is unsustainable. The sustainability frame seems all the more powerful coming out of the mouth of an actual executive.



    June 18, 2009 at 3:36 pm

  6. This piece covers a lot of ground, but the basic distinction between issues of sustainability and distribution is i think a useful one
    analytically . And it certainly captures the way we are coming to talk about the issues in political debate right down to the use of the term sustainability to talk about the economy . [ Not quite sure what the implication is of
    extending the term sustainability from the way we use (and abuse) nature to the economy I would rather use the term viability when talking about the economy].
    But in fact one of the problems which the crisis has revealed is that distribution and viability/sustainability are not so easily separated. The is however –to pose the problem the way economics does — because we have had only one instrument (compensation) to achieve multiple goals, (motivation, viability, distribtion), etc) . Part of the role which sociology and organizatonal studies should play is to point to additional instruments which we could use to circumvent this conflict (e.g., orangizationall structures and non monetary forms of motivation)


    michael piore

    June 18, 2009 at 8:49 pm

  7. Sean, this is an engaging post. I wonder, though, if you’ve missed something by characterizing conservation (in the environmental context) as synonymous with the “isn’t that pretty, natural, and undefiled” crowd. In fact, the language of conservation—as, I recognize, you probably do know—gained currency in the late 19th/early 20th century as a rhetoric around which corporate types, nature lovers, hunters, and efficiency wonks (as well as those who were a little bit of all of those, like Theodore Roosevelt) could rally.

    Conservation, like sustainability, turned nature into something that could be given a dollar value. It made the stewardship of natural spaces and natural resources a problem that made as much sense to a balance-sheet-toting executive as it did to hiker.

    The public health movement got in on the game soon after the natural resources people. Recognizing “conservation” to be a linguistic currency that was widely accepted, reformers like the economist Irving Fisher and a few prominent life insurance executives began talking about the “waste” of valuable (in dollars) human life that was brought about by insufficient investment in life extension and health preservation. Health advocates won over policymakers and corporate leaders, as well as a large portion of the masses, by talking up the conservation of lives as an economic as well as moral good.

    I think this strengthens your argument ultimately and suggests how it can be generalized. New coalitions often seize on some new way of talking about the world in order to get stuff done. Figuring out what that new language is, as you’ve done here, is important work.



    June 18, 2009 at 10:23 pm

  8. Well, since this is a post about a rhetorical shift it is important to get the language right. Mike takes issue with the word sustainability (vs. viability). Dan and Goose Commerce take issue with the term “conservation”.

    At the root of both of these is an important distinction. I may have been a little glib in my treatment of the word ‘conservation’; but whats more important is contrasting it to ‘sustainable’. Sustainability focuses on reproduction; it implies an organic — self perpetuating — engine which reproduces a system. It assumes the economy and society are processes and its emphasis is on the continuation of that process. That is the idea which I think is migrating out of environmental concerns and into policy more broadly.

    I think viability is often used interchangeably with sustainability… particularly the phrase “long term viability”. I could quibble: it has a somewhat different meaning; it connotes the capability to grow whereas sustainability points more directly toward the idea that society/the economy/organizations are processes in a constant state of reproduction.

    As for conserve and conservation; rhetorically, conservation has to do with protecting against loss. Dan’s right: the language of “losing value” made environmental issues commensurable. And, in general, I think that is a move that all movements need to make: first, they need to expand particularistic concerns to generalist ones and the easiest way to do that is to attach a dollar value.

    But what I think is interesting is the logic. Very interesting point you make about not realizing the full potential of lives. The logic there is to utilize the resources of the economy most efficiently. Eventually, that gets translated into fairness: the idea is to expand the pie so that all members of society benefit.

    But its different (as I think Dan recognizes) from a logic of sustainability which, in theory, would sacrifice current efficiencies to ensure long term viability. Most importantly, the word “sustainability” brings in this processes and reproduction. So if I get your drift, Dan, you are saying it strengthens the argument to be more precise about the differences in the terms. If so, then right on.


    Sean Safford

    June 18, 2009 at 10:54 pm

  9. You do get my drift, Sean. I’m also, though, hesitant to buy into the heuristic of a single “ideology,” when I think we might get more traction by thinking about how, in the case of health care, the Orszag-Obama crowd are making use of a variety of cultural resources. First, they’re leaving aside arguments about fairness or equity—as you noted—for arguments that hang on the balance-sheet. That’s a move that is similar to the old conservation story, as well as one that some saavy environmentalists got wise to in the eighties. I’m not certain, though, that there was direct influence of the environmentalists on that choice by the health economists. The crucial change that you’ve also picked up on is that these balance-sheets now are concerned more with the long-run than were those of the conservationists. That’s a way of running the numbers that I’m more ready to believe has been adopted from development and environmental sustainability folk.

    I might be picking a few too many nits here. I’m sold on the basic premise and mainly interested now in thinking about how to theorize the decisions of people and groups to pick up or discard various cultural resources.



    June 18, 2009 at 11:20 pm

  10. How does the fact that this (Obama’s) was the *change* campaign fit into all of this? Given the obvious relevance of this fact to any discussion of the political dividing line(-s) (whether single or, for Dan, multiple or perhaps non-linear) over the nature and value of change, I must be missing something.

    First point aside, I think Sean is right to press back against too much bickering with his use of the term “conservation,” particularly because Dan seems too ready to make the jump to the “conservation” movement (Pinchot et al.), which might get too far into an elision between what I take to be Sean’s higher-order argument and the historically-specific “resource selection” of the conservationists (vs. the preservationists? Another story…).

    To operate on that higher level for a second, and to throw another axis into the mix, what if we focus on possible differences in the conceptions of *time* (and its value) of the factions in question? Might we not arrive at a different sort of “tug-of-war” that might define “politics for much of the 20th century” in a different way?

    That is to say, is there a sense in which certain parties (the Burkean conservatives, as Sean would have it) were backward-looking while others (change, change, change!) were forward-looking?

    What does reorienting around that axis do to our understanding of the debates in the period? Might it help remind us that it’s not just those focusing on sustainability that assume “the economy and society are processes” and emphasize “the continuation of that process.” I’m no Burke scholar, but the man himself was no stranger to organic metaphors and the (normative) necessity of continuity. Natura non facit saltum, &c.



    June 19, 2009 at 3:20 am

  11. Getting the terms right is important. Robert Reich pronounced in 1992 on the term ‘competitiveness’: “rarely has a term in public
    discourse gone so directly from obscurity to meaningless without an intervening period of coherence.” So it is with ‘sustainability’ 1 2/3 decades later. Is the health care reform about economic sustainability (the balance sheet metaphor above), ethical sustainability (which includes power and distribution issues), or environmental (conservation, Pinchotism)? Probably not not much of the latter, whereas most meaning that is attached to sustainability in general discourse is about the natural environment. Do all y’all drink Fair Trade coffee because it is environmentally, ethically, or economically sustainable?



    June 19, 2009 at 4:31 am

  12. I like your riff on whether justifications are shifting away from equity. But the word “sustainability” has come to un-usefully blur various ideas about environmentalism, “GDP growth” and “keeping our way of life” which with a moment’s thought seem to still be in high conflict.



    June 19, 2009 at 3:04 pm

  13. I suppose I don’t really have a take on whether I think the shift to “sustainability” is good or bad. I see it as just an interesting fact worth unpacking a bit. But that isn’t be entirely true; I find it compelling on a few levels. I do see the issue though. As with any process model (if you unpack it, this way of talking about sustainability isn’t all that different from a Giddens-esque conception of structuration with all the attendant drawbacks), it becomes an obfuscating black box which provides cover for taking a lot of actions that may have little bearing on achieving “sustainability” let alone desirable outcomes.

    Without getting too deeply into actual politics (my attempt here was just to point out and unpack the shift in the rhetoric of justification rather than divulge my own take on it), I would note that Obama was always been something of a contradiction on this question of “change”. There was always a fairly “conservative” (with a small c) strain to his policies even while the campaign slogans shouted change. Despite the number and scale of his initiatives, I’d say he’s he’s governed with a small c conservationism so far…


    Sean Safford

    June 19, 2009 at 4:14 pm

  14. An interesting discussion. Sustainability, conservation, and preservation all have histories that resonate with different social movements and political identities. I’m not sure I’d limit myself, however, to this slice of history.

    Rather, in the present moment, I would focus more on debates about the “great power” issues related to the rise and fall of American leadership. In this framing, sustainability is about sustaining American primacy. Conservation is about conserving the American dream and related deeply held myths about the American socio-political order. Change is about recapturing the confident and righteous, if naive, identity we enjoyed for much of the 20th century (“Yes We Can!”). Claims about the persistently disfunctional state of our politics and the explosion of analogies to the Roman Empire, for instance, underscore our anxieties in these realms.

    The sine qua non is progress. What are we progressing toward? Greater economic might? We’ll soon be overtaken by China and eventually India too. Military hegemony? Our military is capable of projecting great force, but incapable of defeating our foes. Moral leadership? Conservation, preservation, sustainability (of the environment or the social order more generally)? Sure, let’s lead that, and oh, while we’re at it, let’s try to slow down the pace of change so that we can keep the sun from setting on the American century.

    Just a historian’s $.02.


    David K

    June 20, 2009 at 1:48 pm

  15. Mainly a note to myself here (I am planning on turning this into a more serious essay), but the NYTimes had a story this weekend about the question of “to big to fail“. It contrasts the current TBTF arguments to Brandeis’s invective against businesses which get too big. Quoth Eric Dash:

    [Brandeis] warned that banks, railroads and steel companies had grown so huge that they were lording it over the nation’s economic and political life. “Size, we are told, is not a crime,” Brandeis wrote. “But size may, at least, become noxious by reason of the means through which it is attained or the uses to which it is put.”

    Note the shift in the logic of taking action:

    * from an argument about too few wielding too much power over many

    * to an argument about a few becoming so crucial to the persistence of the system that they threaten the robustness of the system itself.

    Also, I should respond to David K; situating this “shift” in the broader scheme of America’s self-image in the world strikes me as astute. There’s certainly a pinge of worry that we stand at the cusp of the fall from grace that Britain suffered as its Empire slipped away. So, if I get you, this emphasis on sustainability may come as a result of insecurity.

    Its certainly a plausible hypothesis. I’ve made this kind of “changing axes of mobilization” argument in other venues before and the unanswered question remains why existing tropes fall out of favor and the much more difficult question of how whatever replaces them came to be favored over multitudes of alternatives. Situating “sustainability” within the grand arch of the American narrative is certainly one viable approach. But there is a teleology to that which I find myself resisting… not that I have a better alternative in mind at the moment.


    Sean Safford

    June 22, 2009 at 3:02 pm

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