As Time Goes By: How Pro-Environmental Behavior Might be Tied to the Concept of Time

Catharina Rebecca Bening
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One of the cornerstones of the idea of sustainability is it’s future orientation. This future orientation, however, depends on a certain concept of time which in turn is not universal so that the meaning of sustainability should be regarded as highly contextual.

2’530’000 hits for “sustainability” and still 1’140’000 hits for the German “Nachhaltigkeit” when entering the word in the search engine “Google”. A not really academic but nevertheless insightful result which shows the abundance of usages. Searching within the “Science Citation Index” (ISI) gives a similar picture: 8’968 hits for “sustainability” in-between 1945 and 2005 while 5’249 hits were counted in the last five years. These findings draw our attention to two notions: The word sustainability is a big hit and – or as a consequence of the former – the word is used in many ways, contexts and meanings: Next to sustainable development in the economics arena we also find sustainable housing, information management, change, evaluation or sustainable asset management and all kinds of sustainable products and services.

But what does the adjective “sustainable” precisely mean? Taking a first look at the myriad of definitions tells us that there are at least two dimensions within sustainability: It is synchronic in space (e.g. for a development model to be sustainable, it has to be possible all over the world to supply the wants of people) and diachronic in time (e.g. the development model has to work over time) (Lipietz 1998).

Parallel to the concept of sustainable development a lot of approaches to measure the effectivity and efficiency thereof have been developed (e.g. Becker 1997). When measuring and even predicting the sustainability of, for example, a society or the use of wetlands, it has to be taken care of the problem of an ex ante analysis of these complex systems. The scale and the time horizon applied have to be chosen very carefully, underlying assumptions and preconditions for the operationalization of sustainability in order to quantify it have to be made transparent; and last – and this is where this paper comes in – the underlying philosophical map and the incorporated value system is of interest when interpreting the numbers and findings of these attempts to measure sustainability.

But this claim is neither in academia nor in the day-to-day application taken very seriously. This is why this paper tries to shed light on the conceptual background and the implications of the existing sustainability-paradigm in order to get to know the normative elements and intentions of the different sustainability concepts. These normative elements are of particular interest when applying the sustainability idea on a global basis and therefore in different cultural contexts because it is questionable if the idea of sustainability is a universal one. An example in this field is the case of China: While showing impressive economic growth the question of sustainability naturally comes up from a western perspective. Will the idea of sustainable development be implemented in an early stage of economic progress or will China follow the path that the western countries took during their times of industrialization or is this an idea that is incompatible with the country’s cultures?

A first step to an answer to this question is the precise analysis of both the term and concept of sustainability. Subsequently, the concept of time or it’s perception in different societies and the influence of these on the idea of sustainability in different cultures is crucial. Because time and it’s value is not a naturalistic category, but is always affected by cultural and economic valuation. From a sociologist’s point of view it is assumed that societies have there own time-concept, “Eigenzeit”, which is of essential importance for the functioning of society. Because “what we call time”, citing Elias, “is neither an a priori condition of the human being nor an inherent peculiarity of non-human beings” (1998, p. 197). Philosophers take a similar stance and refer to divergences in these valuations. In this paper we will compare different philosophical perspectives on the concept of time and by that point at the possible problems of spreading the idea of sustainability without any adaptations globally.

The centerpiece of this paper is the analysis of the relation between sustainability and time which starts with a precise definition of the two concepts. This is a challenging task as a universal and in that sense neutral definition is hard to find. We will therefore take a look at a whole range of definitions and at the genesis of the most popular ones. Against this background it can be evaluated where or if there are tensions between the respective concept of time and the idea of sustainability. These tensions are the starting point for an analysis from a sociological, psychological and a philosophical perspective.

Intergenerational justice will be identified to be one of the key drivers or even to be the aim of any activity under the name of sustainability. This in turn presupposes that the disrespect of this responsibility can have negative consequences what inhabits a future orientation (or a linear time concept). If one agrees on this notion of sustainability, a concept of time with a pure orientation on the present (or a non-linear time concept) is denied. As time concepts vary by culture, answering this question is crucial for the idea of sustainability itself.

Keywords: Concept of Time, Sustainability, Cultural Dependency
Stream: Cultural Sustainability
Presentation Type: Virtual Presentation in English
Paper: A paper has not yet been submitted.

Catharina Rebecca Bening

PhD Student, University of St. Gallen

Ref: S06P0268