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Words by Xavier Casanovas

Sustainability: from words to action. Diagnosis and challenges of a dystopian future

Rethinking the idea of sustainability

The definition says that a sustainable thing is one which “can be maintained indefinitely, especially without affecting the ecological balance”. Probably anything that helps us today when we want to tackle the question of sustainability would fall outside the model: “sustainability” = “environmental responsibility”. If we give a more profound, imaginative meaning to the word sustainability, there are other sustainable models that also crop up, related to the above definition and linked to the sustainability of the planet. These ideas about sustainability are also worth exploring. Since it is far from easy to affirm what sustainable means, beyond an ecological or environmental framework, having a sustainable attitude or working towards sustainability, we must try to define what is not sustainable and delve more deeply in order to discover criteria that enable us to explore further.

And if we do so, I believe it is possible to affirm that unsustainable is:

  • anything that, although inoffensive in isolation, when scaled up to large numbers has such an impact that we can see we shouldn't be doing it. In other words, every activity that cannot be universalised. If we review our day to day lives, we find many actions, or options, that are totally impossible to universalise.
  • everything we do, solely and exclusively in order to reaffirm ourselves and transcend ourselves in a completely self-centred way. In other words, everything that, when carried out, seeks individual self-affirmation and ignores peaceful coexistence, mutual dependence, future generations. Therefore, all activities that are purely aimed at reaffirming the individual ego are unsustainable.

These two above-mentioned criteria provide us with an approximate answer to the question of whether our actions are unsustainable, not only in their consequences, but also in their origin and purpose, and therefore, deserving of being questioned or rethought. Furthermore, these criteria open the way to new terrain, where we can explore the idea of sustainability and which require a longer article than this one.
However, it is possible to state that:

  • a.   The unsustainable use of resources and means and the exploitation of the planet. Economic growth and progress are based on the exploitation of natural resources that either belong to no one, or belong to everyone. This leads us to a serious reflection on the ownership of what is communal, on the universal destiny of goods, on permissible levels of ownership and exploitation.
  • b.   The unsustainable nature of social reproduction: and there are two vectors here, the reproduction of life, and the reproduction of the community. In other words, the care of the most vulnerable - especially at the beginning and end of life - and the care of community dynamics - social dynamics, political or trade-union representation - require time. Time we do not have. We need free time to make community life “sustainable"
  • c.   The unsustainable nature of our ways of life and our personal aspirations: mass tourism, the commodification of cultural products, uniformisation brought about by globalisation, being uprooted from the places we live, are all direct consequences of a clearly unsustainable, consumerist way of life.
  • d.   The unsustainable nature of structural economic inequality. In the last 40 years, in spite of the rampant economic growth occurring in the world, the gap between the richest and the poorest has continued to grow ever bigger. This dynamic generates democratic crises (we can see this in the way transnational elites which cannot be controlled democratically co-opt power), and migratory crises that always occur on the borders between the planet's richest and poorest areas.

Our socio-economic system is based on these 4 big unsustainable factors. This enables us to see that sustainability is not a word without content, but that it is connected to rights, global justice, citizens, to people's roots, etc. It is also linked to processes of change and transformation, which may be either revolutionary or reformist.

From words to action?

The danger of words stripped of content is that everyone adopts them and they lose all their transformative potential. Nowadays, everything is sustainable: from mass-consumption products to life insurance. They sell them as sustainable items. If everything is sustainable, why is nothing changing? Why is there this decoupling between what I hear (the end of the world is nigh) and what I do (continuing with my life as if nothing is happening)? So what is to stop us from starting to “transform reality”? I list three hypotheses:

  • We don't have any ideas on how to tackle this future. We lack imagination, we live in a world that is increasingly homogeneous; without plurality and diversity new possibilities cannot flourish.
  • We don't know how to change the correlation of forces nor reverse dynamics. Who has decision-making power today? Remember that, at the beginning of the 20th century, Bauman certified the divorce between power and politics.
  • There is a credulity that alienates and pacifies us: technology will fix it. It allows us to sleep peacefully. But nothing can assure us that this is so, even if it has been true on occasions in the past.

As this reflection aims to shed light on the work carried out in the central cultural facilities of today's cities, such as museums, I believe that the type of work undertaken in these places depends to a large extent on how we interpret the reality we are experiencing. Nobody can deny what we are seeing, our reality, but everyone can create their own narrative:

  • a.   For some, this will be an apocalyptic narrative. We are sinking and there is no chance at all of refloating the vessel. We need to man the lifeboats and seek out new islands, new places to live in. The apocalyptic or breakaway narrative is certainly dangerous, but why? Because if we are not careful, and faced with desperation there is a strong nihilistic temptation, we can fall into the “every man for himself” mode: a terrible cannibalism that destroys peaceful coexistence and eliminates neighbours. If we don’t want to fall into this trap, we need very large doses of imagination: a capacity for utopia and therefore for thinking, and rethinking, linked to what we are and what we have been, but perceiving totally different horizons: are museums the places where, by recovering and repositioning the most valuable parts of our history and tradition, we can exercise our truly revolutionary collective imagination? Rethinking ourselves as a civilisation?


  • b.   The other narrative is reformist or possibilist. Everything is not lost, we can trim the vessel, we still have the strength (and the time) to do so. Some people believe that this is too optimistic, that we are at the point of no return. But others are confident that we can truly reactivate society in order to change our path or direction. What do museums need to do, or what role can they play in this case? Probably the role of reactivating ourselves politically and communally, i.e. helping to make ourselves aware that we are one body, that we have the critical capacity to remedy the situation. Not so much activating the utopian imagination as the social and community imagination in order to help find the tools that activate all the possible dynamics of change and transformation.


I believe that these are two paths towards a sustainable future. Two paths that first of all require a halt to this escalation of unsustainable behaviour that governs our lives and which will end the planet, ourselves and any possibility of common sense. This change must be accompanied by a future perspective based on sobriety, justice, making things cost-free, solidarity, etc. We cannot separate one from the other. And in the end, we will need a lot of courage, imagination and capabilities offered in the service of a cause which is the cause of humanity.