09/16/2014 06:01 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

Sustainability: The First Postmodern Discipline

As someone engaged with a variety of sustainability research, I am always struck how difficult it is for many of us to define "sustainability" well. I have been slowly coming to terms with the reality that this is largely because sustainability is the first truly postmodern discipline.

Most other major fields of inquiry have their roots firmly grounded in the modern world. Degrees in chemistry, business, anthropology and engineering all have rigid curricula that look roughly the same wherever you may study. They are defined disciplines that were designed in an era of industrialization, expansion of democratic principles, and rationality.

In contrast, the discipline of sustainability emerged in the 1980s at a time of great environmental and social concern around globalization, the meaning of the individual in a globalized world, and inquiries about values-based knowledge and ideological underpinnings of accepted truths. Big questions in the academy focused, in part, on the basic structures of science, the social construction of truth, and the creation of multiple understandings of shared experiences.

Within the environmental movement of the 1980s we also saw basic questions regarding the role of environmental groups in promoting social equity, the impact of globalization on the environment, and the place of supranational organizations in society. We began to understand that every corner of our world was forever changed as a result of industrialization and overconsumption. Many believed that international and national organizations were powerless to address big global issues like climate change.

From this cultural and social mix, sustainability emerged.

Focused early around issues of sustainable development, sustainability quickly became used in a number of contexts in very different ways. Those interested in green building used the word to focus on technological advances in architecture and engineering. Those interested in agriculture used it to frame food supply systems. Those interested in social equity used it to promote dialogue on environmental justice. Those interested in international development used the term to create discussion on globalization and the impacts of consumerism on lesser developed countries. Hundreds of different forms of sustainability emerged in concept and in practice.

A few years ago, I wrote a paper with Richard Vercoe called "A Tale of Two Sustainabilities: Comparing Sustainability in the Global North and South to Uncover Meaning for Educators". In this piece we discussed the vast differences in how sustainability concepts are applied in remote Chile and suburban Long Island. Both regions are embracing sustainability, but in distinctly different, indeed somewhat conflicting, ways.

Which gets us to the postmodern.

In postmodern theory, a process of deconstruction is often used to better understand the ideological underpinnings of an idea. In deconstructing the idea of sustainability, we can find that there are so many different ideological, regional, and contextual underpinnings that it becomes very difficult to define with a modernist disciplinary sensibility. For example, there are certainly Marxist theorists who embrace components of sustainability, while at the same time Wal-Mart has embraced sustainability within their corporate model. The Marxists and the capitalists find common, although bubbly and unstable, ground within the discourse of sustainability.

In many ways, sustainability is in the eye of the beholder. To me, sustainability is all about assessing and measuring how we can be lighter on the planet. I believe that we can find technological fixes in the U.S. and other developed countries to solve some of the larger problems such as climate change, water pollution, and habitat destruction. At the same time, I believe we need to consume less and have a far smaller footprint on the planet. We also must find better ways to address social equity and environmental justice. That's my view of sustainability.

However, many colleagues have very different views of sustainability that focus on very different ideas that range from corporate sustainability to sustainable development in developing countries.

Each of us is correct in our approach to sustainability. We are all trying to find ways to make our planet more livable into the future. What is important to understand is that we are each bringing our own values to the process of "doing" sustainability.

Those of us in the field understand viscerally the importance of the diversity of sustainability, even though it might be hard to articulate in a neat modernist axiom. Because of the variety of approaches, practices, and viewpoints, we do not have clear-cut definitions of the field that fall nicely within modernist disciplinary structures. This is what makes the field of sustainability the first truly postmodern discipline to emerge in our era -- and why it is so hard to explain the field to others unfamiliar with it. But this is also why sustainability concepts are so useful in application in our postmodern world.