The Rhetoric of Sustainability: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy?
In 1991, development economist and American public intellectual Albert O. Hirschman wrote the Rhetoric of Reaction . In this book, which was prescient of more contemporary popular books such as Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine  and James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State , Hirschman proposed a way to understand the kinds of arguments made by conservatives about proposals for change. His compelling trilogy of modes of arguments included arguments of perversity, futility, and jeopardy. I argue here that this schema can additionally be used as a way to understand the limits that are seen to exist to approaching sustainable development. I will demonstrate the pervasiveness of arguments that our best attempts to move toward sustainability in our cities today may present threats that are just as grave as those of not acting. This exercise serves two purposes. One is to urge those who would call themselves sustainability scholars to think critically and carefully about the lines of thought and action that may separate different sustainability motivations from the far reaches of interdisciplinary work in this field. The other is to suggest that, because of the persistence of certain kinds of arguments about the impossibility of sustainability, suggestive of deep and enduring instincts of doubt through human history, we should be skeptical of the legitimacy of these claims about the limitations of achieving sustainable development.
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