Is Sustainability an Empty Signifier?

In 2008, I wrote my Honours thesis on the topic of sustainability. Drawing on the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and Ernesto Laclau, I developed the idea that sustainability could be thought of as an ‘empty signifier.’ After hammering out the details intermittently in the years that followed, I had my ideas on this topic published online in Antipode, earlier this year.

When I use the term ‘empty signifier’ most people immediately think I’m trying to dismiss sustainability – implying that it basically has no meaning and only facilitates ‘empty gestures’ on the part of politicians and public officials. My argument is actually a little different. While it is true that sustainability is often used by elites in a slippery, evasive manner, I don’t think this misuse exhausts its radical potential. Indeed, I suggest that through its very ‘emptiness’ (its lack of attachment to any particular content), sustainability is able to represent concerns and aspirations that appeal to all of us.

Laclau described empty signifiers as ‘signifiers without a signified.’ What he meant by this was that they serve to stand in for those things that are impossible to say in public discourse. In various ways, mainstream discourses are unable to truly signify the complexity of reality – in fact, worse, they often exclude aspects of reality to serve the interests of the powerful. Orthodox economics excludes the reality of the lives of workers and the entire field of production to construct a largely fictitious universe based purely on the exchange of commodities (i.e. ‘the market’) – an exclusion that serves the interests of capital. Patriarchal discourses construct narratives and practices that exclude and marginalise women’s knowledge and lived experience – reinforcing a society based on male dominance. When we recognise this mismatch between discourse and reality, this is referred to by Laclau as dislocation. For Laclau, empty signifiers have their conditions of possibility when diverse forms of dislocation are articulated as equivalent to each other – as a generalised failure of dominant discourses to symbolise a reality that evades them. Empty signifiers are politically powerful, because they speak to the aspiration for inclusion within the signifying system – the aspiration for a world in which the concerns and perspectives that had been systemically excluded can finally be recognised.

My contention is that ‘sustainability’ serves to represent things that are ‘impossible to say’ and, as such, can be considered an example of an ‘empty signifier.’ It strikes me that in discussing matters relating to the impending global ecosystemic collapse, there is a fundamental disconnect – an incapacity to speak about the issue in a manner that recognises the true stakes involved. You only need to watch the news to see this in action. A report on the collapse of the Antarctic ice shelf, which spells major disaster for the future of humanity, receives a fraction of the coverage of the latest meaningless political melodrama. But this is not just the corporate bias of the news media – this gap in signification is embedded in discourse at a very everyday level. It’s by no means unheard of for a middle class person who claims to accept climate science to invest in a property by the seaside – without even considering the possibility that within a few decades, their house may be underwater. At some fundamental level, we seem unable to integrate the threat of climate change (and other future environmental and social disasters) within common discourse. When we come to recognise that there is something unacceptable about this failure of signification, sustainability politics have their conditions of being. Sustainability stands in to signify the generalised aspiration for a future in which we can take issues like climate change more seriously.

But what makes sustainability special? How does it differ from other empty signifiers? I argue that sustainability is a goal, because currently our future is out of joint. The logic underlying our current global social and economic systems seem unable to recognise and respond to the future challenges we face. Our inability to think through the future ecological consequences of our actions is only one example of this. One could also list a range of social issues – from the proliferation of slums in the Third World, rising inequality, indebtedness and social alienation – which also appear to be rendering our futures unliveable. Despite the enormity of these issues, we carry on, as though the current status quo will continue without end. When sustainability behaves as an empty signifier, it links together diverse sources of angst about the future and makes a powerful claim that a very radical change is called for. We need a society in which ‘the future’ is a meaningful and major consideration.

It is true that, in practice, sustainability has often been used to put forward a far less revolutionary agenda. This is most apparent within the ‘sustainable development’ paradigm, which basically seeks to make modest reforms to the current order, whilst maintaining the conditions for continued capitalist accumulation (surely, one of the greatest obstacles to sustainability at present). This is mostly an attempt to placate the radical concerns that sustainability politics throws up. It helps to make the public feel at ease that those in power have the situation under control, whilst in practice, continuing to serve their (fundamentally unsustainable) interests.

The global economic and political elites have a great deal of control over the institutions through which sustainability has been articulated to date (the United Nations, the World Bank, etc.). For this reason, ‘sustainability’ often takes a conservative guise. Nonetheless, as long as we continue to neglect consideration of our collective futures in our current decisions, as long as scientists and other intellectuals continue to project looming disasters and as long as communities continue to protest against the disastrous ecological and social consequences that capitalism is already having, then a more radical expression of sustainability continues to have its conditions of being.

If we want a society that can last, a society that can provide acceptable standards of equity and well-being for our children and grandchildren, we urgently need to articulate a more radical version of sustainability. This would be in recognition of the fact that, at present, the main obstacle to a sustainable society is neoliberal capitalism. Overthrowing neoliberalism may well be the first and most urgent political task of sustainability as empty signifier; though it certainly will not be its last. Coming to terms with the tremendous creative and destructive power unleashed by science, technology and industrialisation will be the task of centuries.

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1 comment

  1. Ash P

    I really enjoy reading all these articles, Trent. Keep em coming please

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