Totalizing sustainability

A hand holding the earth
Illustration: Alexander Öbom

From previously dealing with individual species, the idea of ​​sustainability has expanded to include everything. Owe Ronström and his colleagues will add another perspective to this research field, by focusing on the concept itself.

While natural science has mainly concentrated on what sustainability is and how to get there, Owe Ronström, professor of ethnology, wants to focus on how the concept itself is used and what it produces.

- A simple metaphor: If we want to hang something on the wall, it is wise that we first decide whether we should use a nail or a screw, because that determines whether we need a hammer or a screwdriver. And then it is wise to examine that hammer and that screwdriver, before we start trying to hit something into the wall, says Owe Ronström. We want to understand sustainability as a tool that must be examined in order for us to be able to achieve what we want.

Owe Ronström
Owe Ronström

Still at the idea stage
The research that Owe Ronström will embark on is not yet clearly defined but quite comprehensive, just as the very idea of ​​sustainability has become in recent times.

- In its strongest form, sustainability is one of the most totalizing concepts I have encountered. Because if you accept the idea of ​​sustainability in its essence, then there can be nothing outside, except out in space, says Owe Ronström.

He describes how people used to talk about conservation of individual species, and how it later transformed to concern entire geographic areas, to eventually embrace the whole world. Sustainability presupposes wholeness - that a part of the world could continue to be unsustainable is unthinkable.

- Several major religions are also totalizing, with one and only one god embracing everything. But empirically, we know that totalizing religions can actually live with each other, because they have done so for many hundreds of years, even if they have also fought each other, Owe Ronström says. 

- But under what conditions can sustainability be achieved if it does not cover everything? It is precisely the interplay between different ways of understanding sustainability that we are interested in, he continues.

Gotland can contribute with something concrete
In the fall of 2020, PhD-students will start researching this at Campus Gotland, where Owe Ronström is also based, and the idea is that there should be a focus on Gotland in particular.

- It is a good place, not least because the government has already pointed at Gotland as an experimental area for sustainability. Islands are, in fact, attributed a special role in sustainable development in many parts of the world, as they are comprehensible and delimited. So an island focus is necessary in the research that is about to start, says Owe Ronström.

Even though he has only sketched out some more concrete research ideas, he says that other possible entrances are the tourism and the cultural heritage industries on Gotland. These are industries which have already put the concept of sustainability into use, and which have shaped it for their purposes. The interplay between such different ways of understanding sustainability is what it's all about.

To take control of the concept
In order to be researchable, the subject must be narrowed, and this is exactly what the various actors one might study are doing with the concept of sustainability too. When individual companies active in the tourism industry talk about sustainability, they can narrow it down to "sustainable tourism", for example. Different actors adapt the concept to be able to use it and, of course, to benefit from it.

- The cruise industry wants to establish Gotland as a cruise point. But at the same time, many people here on Gotland ask themselves… is it really right to release even more emissions into the Baltic Sea, which is already the world's most polluted sea? But in the tourism industry, you can distance yourself from such issues, not least by transforming sustainability into economic sustainability, says Owe Ronström.

The cultural heritage clash
There are also tensions between sustainability, cultural heritage and world heritage that should be studied. Cultural heritage was first mostly about the preservation of individual buildings, then, later, it encompassed entire city centers, and now it even involves the conditions in which people live their lives. This is not least felt in Visby inner city, classified as a world heritage, where Owe Ronström himself lives, and where prices have risen to such an extent that most people can no longer afford to live there. Owe believes that the idea of ​​cultural heritage has favored aesthetic aspects at the expense of social ones, for example.

- We cannot install solar panels here in Visby inner city. When someone takes control of the concept in this way, it simply becomes politics. One can exercise power by controlling these concepts. If you can expand it and make it embrace an entire living space, that means you can exercise real power. This is exactly what we want to study when it comes to sustainability, how the concept is used and negotiated in concrete contexts. It is not easy to understand what sustainability is, but it is obvious that it has the potential to embrace most things. What are the consequences?

Text: Alexander Öbom