Sustainability can mean different (and sometimes competing) things to different people. The most common word-based image of sustainability is a balanced three-way relationship between the environment, society and the economy. The idea is that if you consider all three equally you will have a sustainable outcome. Several years ago, I began to try to understand how this particular formulation came into being and discovered that the particular historical moment of its creation stamped it with unresolvable contradictions. In this message, I will explain why balancing the environment, economics and society is impossible.
Kathleen Smythe received her Ph.D. in African History from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her study of Africa and her experiences there lead her to the fields of economic development, sustainability, and globalization, as she sought to understand for herself and then explain to her students the dynamics—historical and current—that have led to global apartheid and ecological devastation. Much of her teaching and research currently focus on these issues, including a book manuscript derived from her teaching, Why We Need African History, which explores ideas and institutions that are long-lived and might broaden our economic, political and social responses to the aforementioned crises.