Stepping through the complexities of everyday life, we find ourselves already immersed in a familiar world of ‘tasks and equipment’, as philosopher Martin Heidegger would call them. We become preoccupied with performing projects with the use of equipment that are used as instrumental tools for action, tools to help us reach our desired goals. For example, the environmental consultant returns to the job each day in order to perform actions that will provide desired services for a client.
When action is linked to values, and tools are linked to ethics, human existence can be characterized by its natural tendency to 1) always seek value or meaning (which is done through action) and 2) always seek a method or baseline for appropriate action. Thus, in order for the consultant to immerse himself in the project for his client, he/she must seek to use tools that will lift the consultant to the point where he/she can successfully perform said action. This action makes the project a valuable and meaningful one. For example, if the consultant seeks to measure the carbon emissions of a particular company and compare it with baseline standards, he/she might rely on standards established by the internationally recognized Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHG Protocol). The consultant provides meaningful assistance for his/her client and is successful in his/her role as a consultant.
It is only when something goes wrong–when the tools fail to meet our expectations–that we see things ‘in-themselves’ and are compelled into existential questioning, or what is called thinking ontologically (Solomon, 1981:53). Ontology is an obtuse but helpful word that refers to the study of being, or ‘what is.’ Ontological questioning includes re-examining the true nature of our methods or baselines. An example used by Heidegger is that of a hammer. When we use a hammer to fix a door, we don’t see the hammer as a hammer, but as a tool to perform our action. We’re focused on the action and have little care for the tool itself beyond its role in fulfilling the desired outcome. It is only when this hammer breaks that we find ouselves standing in the workshop asking, ‘Is this still a hammer?’
When we think ontologically, we question our foundational worldviews; our metaphysical and ethical assumptions and our theories of knowledge (Dreyfus, 2006: 137). The concern for the consultant changes from ‘how can I use these protocols to do what my client needs’ to ‘do the calculations provided by the GHG Protocol actually mean anything?’ The Protocol helps people make informed decisions, but informed by what? By whom? Who has the ultimate say on whether these calculations actually provide the appropriate guidance? This shift in thinking brings attention to things-in-themselves and not the goal-specific tasks these things are involved with.
This ontological thinking is a unique feature for humans, or for what Heidegger, in his seminal work Being and Time, termed Dasein: an entity that “in its very Being… Being is an issue for it” (Solomon, 1981: 40). Human beings are unique in the sense that they are Dasein and think in this unique way; it’s the very essence of our reflective consiousness. We are uniquely capable of looking at a broken hammer and contemplating what the hammer can be when separated from its task. Thus, the consultant is able to question the GHG Protocols and ask what the calculations actually mean – and from what perspective that meaning comes.
Sustainable development is a goal for humanity, but it’s also a product of Dasein, as the concept’s fundamental concern with existence lends itself to ontological thinking.
The concept of sustainable development emerged as a reaction to the failure of traditional global development strategies in addressing increasingly unacceptable environmental costs and human injustices (Bebbington, 2001:14). Uneven wealth distribution, the global North-South divide, and the increasing consequences of climate change help to form a so-called global problematique in which it is recognized that our current modes of existence, our current tools, are unsustainable and deficient (Meadows et al, 1974). In other words, our current methods and baselines no longer perform our desired action, beit sustained growth and expanding prosperity, or happiness and environmental balance and equity. This recognition is the uncomfortable awakening of Dasein, the originator of the call for sustainable development: a sensibility directed towards redefining global development strategies (our tools) so that these strategies can better approach what we constitute as economic, social, and environmental sustainability (our task).
In terms of hammers, this would be like us changing our desire to hammer a nail in the door to screwing in a screw. Through ontological thinking, we must recognize the hammer as an object that cannot screw, an object that cannot hold us together the way we need it to. Sustainable development involves not only a shift in how we approach our methods and baselines, but also a shift in how we approach our values and meaning, a shift in how open we are to ontological thinking.
According to the Brundtland Commission (1987), wherein the term was originally derived, sustainable development should be understood as a process of “seiz[ing] control of our common future through a new and more active management of global change” in order to form a “world worth living in both for present and for future generations” (Taylor, 1992:x). No matter where one stands on the political spectrum, certainly this can be agreed on as a common goal: to strive for a world worth living in.
This new direction of thought makes sustainable development specifically an existential issue, or a human issue, both for society and the individual, because it is a vehicle for recognizing a crisis of existence – a global existential crisis – and, instead of putting our heads in the sand or denyin responsibility, taking control by reflectively redefining our ‘tools’ and ‘tasks,’– i.e. redefining through ontological thinking how we wish to exist as humans among all the species whose lives are now dependent on our decisions. Thus, it is particularly relevant to examine sustainable development from an existentialist perspective. By focusing on common existential themes of ontology, uncertainty, freedom, and responsibility, this paper will demonstrate how advances in existential thinking over the past several centuries may help us in promoting a more ‘authentic’ sustainable development.