Campbell’s piece on sustainability and the triangular model sets up the succeeding articles to expand on the competing forces that make up each corner of the triangle, the conflicts between them, and the concept of sustainability at its center. Both Campbell and Gleeson say that the idea of sustainability has not fulfilled its promise. Experts have not settled on a clear definition, and many of those that most strongly advocate for sustainability have far too idealistic aspirations for a sustainable world.
I am often inclined to agree that advocates of sustainability –shorthand here for advocates for justice and the environment, as I believe the prevailing societal objective is economic growth – do not pursue their goals pragmatically enough. However, as someone who prioritizes environmental and social justice, that the social discourse on these issues can be thought of as an example of the dialectical method at work. While the pragmatic voices at the center may sit at the negotiating table, the positions they take there, the latitude they may take with their positions, and the magnitude of the demands they make of the other side all depend on those more “idealistic” forces. In other words, pragmatic proponents of sustainability must portray their position has constrained by the fringe in order to negotiate more effectively for their own interests.
I realize as portrayed above, I am collapsing the triangular model into line with economic growth on one end and environment/justice on the other end. Campbell decried precisely this “simplification,” although I think there is more merit to it than he lends. While it is true that frictions can exist between those that advocate for environmental stewardship, and those that seek more equitable access to and distribution of resources, I believe it is reasonable to collapse the triangle for three reasons.
- Environmental protection concerns itself with equity more than anything else. I am not speaking just of the environmental justice movement, which seeks equitable environmental and health outcomes for demographic groups that do not dominate the upper echelons of the socioeconomic hierarchy and are traditionally subject to the negative externalities of economic activities carried out for the benefit of those at the top. At its core, environmentalism concerns itself with intergenerational equity.
- Taking into account the preceding point, I think there exists significant overlap between advocates of urban justice and environmentalists. The same ethos motivates both points of the triangular model, and many advocates that fall within the bounds of one corner, often incorporate the goals of the other.
- Campbell would likely point to the conflict between social justice and environmental protection – the development conflict – as reason enough to expand the line out to a triangle. Yet, philosophical divides exist within other points of the triangle as well. As Fainstein noted in Spatial Justice and Planning, a very real divide exists between those that place importance on a just process and those that prize a just outcome. Similarly, the efforts to pursue material equality, diversity, and democracy are not necessarily mutually supportive.
In fairness, Campbell does say that the triangular model need not be a triangle. Other parties with goals separate from the three in the triangular model also compete to implement their agenda. This model is not simply a heuristic for understanding the points of conflict and agreement between different parties, but is centered around the three primary agents of “sustainability”. And the triangular model is useful, as he points out, for implementing a process to produce sustainable solutions. I do think, however, that he plays up the divide between social justice and environmental protection more than is necessary so that they fit more neatly into this framework, when in many ways environmental protection exists as a sub-category of social justice.