Abby Wilson on strong vs weak sustainability

In her final paper for the 2011 field course, Abby Wilson looked at the controversy between environmentalists and fish farmers in Clayoquot Sound. She notes that it can be tempting to characterize their disagreement in terms of two different views about sustainability. Weak sustainability condones human use of natural resources, as long as those resources are replenished. Strong sustainability prohibits any major impact on the environment, regardless of whether it is replenished.  It might seem that fish farmers adopt the former view of sustainability while enviromentalists adopt the latter. 

However, Abby argues that, contrary to initial appearances, this is not what distinguishes the two groups. They do not disagree about the correct definition of sustainability (strong versus weak), although this is how one side of the debate --environmentalists-- would  portray the issue. The actual debate  turns on whether sustainability is a moral or a scientific issue in the first place. Environmentalists characterize sustainability as a moral issue, whereas industry tends to view it as a scientific one.  

You can read a summary of this interesting thesis in what follows. 

Envisioning Epistemological Sustainability: Salmon Farming in Clayoquot Sound as a Challenge to the Sustainability Concept

By Abby Wilson

The controversy over open-net salmon farming in Clayoquot Sound points to deeper, critical problems with the concept of sustainability. While sustainability is generally accepted as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future to meet its own needs, the specific entailments of what is sustainable are contentious. Friends of Clayoquot Sound, a local environmental group, claims that open-net salmon farming is irredeemably unsustainable;yet Clayoquot’s two salmon farming companies, Mainstream Canada and Creative Salmon, heavily disagree. The problem with sustainability is that it is too ambiguous- its meaning is used in too many contexts. “Sustainability” gets invoked to describe everything from the tar sands to wind turbines to the total collapse of industrial civilization.

Many theorists distinguish between ‘weak sustainability’ and ‘strong sustainability’ to explain how the term can be used in so many different contexts. Weak sustainability prioritizes the continuation and growth of the economy while strong sustainability prioritizes the integrity of the environment. Weak sustainability values economic continuity whereas strong sustainability values environmental preservation. The model of weak/strong sustainability often gets applied to explain environmental conflicts such as Clayoquot’s fish farming controversy; one could argue that Friends of Clayoquot Sound is appealing to strong sustainability whereas the salmon farming industry appeals to weak sustainability. This is how Friends of Clayoquot Sound portrays the controversy- they emphasize a fundamental conflict of values between environmentalists and the salmon farming industry, suggesting that the industry prioritizes profits to the detriment of Clayoquot’s ecosystems. According to Friends, the controversy is rooted in a value-difference.

However, Mainstream Canada and Creative Salmon give a very different account of the fish farming controversy. Both companies emphasize the dependency of their operations on the health of the ocean, the need to manage environmental harm, and the inter connectedness between economic and environmental interests. The weak/strong sustainability model implies that there are competing values beneath different economic paradigms; however, Clayoquot’s fish farming industry portrays a case where it would be impossible for these values to conflict. Instead, the industry suggests that the salmon farming controversy is rooted in a knowledge-difference, where environmental advocates are refusing to recognize the technological improvements, scientific studies, and environmental policies that both salmon farming companies had incorporated.

However, environmental conflicts do not often become resolved once both sides share the same information and evidence.There is a deeper epistemological problem below the salmon farming controversy and the concept of sustainability: how do we know what is ultimately going to be sustainable? While scientific studies are currently used to measure present environmental impacts, they can only make predictions about what will be sustainable. Furthermore, the scientific community has difficulty reaching consensus on complex environmental issues and environmental problems are often situated in a globally complex web of variables. All of this points to a need to consider the epistemological limits of the sustainability concept in the context of contemporary environmental conflicts. Rather than simplifying environmental conflicts into value differences, the ambiguity of sustainability needs to be explored as an epistemological problem.     

For more information contact Abby Wilson 

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