The authors from Sustainability: If It’s Everything Is

The authors from Sustainability: If It’s Everything Is It Nothing? have set a rather challenging task, Farley and Smith suggest that the chaotic pathway the sustainable discourse has fallen into is due to the use and abuse of the word. Subsequently, they argue, this brings the need for a new delimitation of sustainability that amends the future theories and actions into the right goals by completing the widely accepted concept of sustainable development from the Brundtland report “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (WCED, 1987).

First, to create a general notion of the book’s structure this paragraph contains a condensed description of how it is divided. The preface starts the thread that is going to be followed and explains how it is organised. Chapter 1 brings a broad and simplified background of events and theories that brings us to the ongoing confusion. Chapter 2 gives a short timeline that has shaped the actual definition and then moving on to talk about the Brundtland report which is one of the bases throughout the work. Chapter 3 talks about the multiple disciplines in where sustainability is applicable and consequently the importance of the new meaning being multidisciplinary. Chapter 4 focuses on the implementation gap (that refers to the disparity between the discourse and implementation level), the international commitments to sustainable development discourse, the OECD declaration and commitment on Green Growth, and National Governmental Sustainability (highlighting specific nations). Chapter 5 mentions the other actors in the discourse such as business, ONG’s, higher education institutions and Individuals. Chapter 6 concludes by connecting all the arguments presented in the other chapters to the definition of ‘Neo-sustainability’ and showing how the current theories could be improved by applying the concept as framework.

The main argument is based on the idea that sustainability’s versatile meaning and the fact that it can be applied in an immense number of disciplines has become the main factor for the current misguided path. In the same way, Farley and Smith elaborate with several critiques of certain notions commonly used in the general discourse and which conform what they called “faux sustainability”, such as:

·       Denying or ignoring the environmental limits in order to justify endless growth meanwhile reaching the extreme carrying capacity of the environment and making the ecosystems more prone to resilience.

·       Thinking that the interlinkages between the social, environmental, and economic systems are linear rather than at least nested (because they would prefer environmental primacy) since is possible to have the environment without economy or society but not the other way around.

·       What they call the “Promethean” perspective that has as a core assumption that the natural resources (natural capital) can be substituted with technology (human-made capital) eternally.

Moreover, the authors also bring emphasis to the conflict that the meaning of sustainability creates within the area of sustainable development where aiming to maintain the contemporary conditions in which we live now, referring not only to the high-living standards of the developing nations but also the downsides (including inequality, economic crises, and environmental degradation) considering it goes against the Brundtland report goal of leaving the conditions to meet the needs of future generations.

Finally, concluding by defining the concept of ‘Neo-sustainability’ as “the ability of an activity to sustain a system by improving its quality and operating within its limits” (Farley & Smith 2013, p.151). And stating it’s based on three rules:

“1. Limits : there are natural limits to growth.

2. Environmental primacy : these limits are dictated by the environment, and therefore actions in any system must adhere to the carrying capacity of the earth’s natural systems.

3. Systems thinking : because environmental, economic, and social systems are nested systems, actions must be based on systems thinking which accounts for multi-level impacts and the influences that generate impacts.” (Farley & Smith 2013, p.151)

The authors present “Neo-sustainability” as the first step of the solution to rethink how we deal with the current environmental consequences the behaviour until now has caused, evidenced through examples in the chapters, but it fails to propose any palpable solutions to solve any of these problems. Then, justifying the lack of solutions by proposing to use the new definition as a start point to rectify the existent theories.

The book targets a general audience from individuals to experts in the sustainability discourse, this is shown when they state “In this book, therefore, we stand behind the need to define because communities, schools, corporations, NGOs, and individuals will continue to define and use definition for action. Defining need not hinder discussion, participation, and debate. Rather, it should be used as a springboard for action that helps unite through common understanding” (Farley & Smith 2013, p.62) but access to the book is restricted to academics, experts and hopefully policy makers for three reasons:

i) Accessibility

ii) The background knowledge required to completely understand the evidence presented.

iii) This work and ‘Neo-sustainability’ are a relatively new entry to the discourse.

Furthermore, elaborating in the first point the term “accessibility” refers and relies simply in the price of the book which is right for the quality of the work, however, realistically inaccessible to all socio-economic levels of the population and with this contradictory to be targeted to a general audience. Similarly, even though theories and evidence presented in the chapters was digested and simplified the reader requires a more in-depth objective insight. In addition, to grasp and evidence how new this idea and work are by simply searching in different engines ‘Neo-sustainability definition’ today -Baidu with 847,000 results, Bing with 29,300,000 results, and Google with 827,000 results (see the appendix)- shows mainly scholar pages or articles besides the evaluated book and no common definition suggesting Farley and Smith’s argument is in the waiting phase to achieve the crucial momentum to be internationally recognised and consequently used in the future as the author’s intended.

This work is outstandingly strong structured, has solid background research and presents considerable evidence. Nonetheless, as the chapters advance it eventually gets redundant while exposing the supporting evidence for the urgent need of a new definition of sustainability and at the same time it becomes a mere critique when pointing out the misapplication or misconception of each theory. Thus, while half-praising the ones that give foundation to achieve the new delimitation of the word which they suggest can be enhanced to fit the goals set by the new meaning of sustainability.

Personally, there is one topic mentioned during the ‘Psychology’ section in Chapter 3 that is never retaken which is significant to highlight because it engages with the dilemma of ‘how are we supposed to make people with different values and backgrounds to agree on what should be done?’ made by the lecturer during the activity session at the Eco-hub. Thus, is put into theoretical ideas when the authors essentially draw attention to the American Psychological Association three barrier types (physical/structural – referring to constraint action barriers like cost or accessibility which are taken into account during policy making; social – pressure from society not encouraging a behavior or society applying peer pressure on individuals; and psychological/perceptual – ignorance, uncertainty, separating ourselves from the problem, thinking someone else should take care mostly the government) which influence on the probability of taking action towards sustainability. Thus, to be able to state “the definition of sustainability must be precise enough for not only structural barriers to be lowered but for psychological barriers to have the potential of being removed as well” (Farley & Smith 2013, p.62). However, at the end of the book, the previous statement is never resumed for closure on how this idea is achieved with Neo-sustainability.

The book evaluates and incorporates practically every theory (such as deep ecology, limits to growth, carbon footprint, Brundtland report, etc.) seen in the 10 weeks of the course in a fully digested manner. Therefore, it should be a must-read for the OTW.230 course since the purpose is to give sustainability’s definition the correct delimitation which was one of the objectives of the lectures. However, the course exposes the theories more objectively and in-depth than Farley and Smith.

In short, the book displays an exceptional background research, integrates a wide range of complex ideas from the sustainability discourse and demonstrates how these ideas are correlated by showing how they convey sustainability. Equally important, the book engages with the course by simple fact that it sets a new direction to analyse through the critical thinking skill developed with the assignments and the objective background knowledge obtained during the lectures.



Farley, HM, & Smith, ZA 2013, Sustainability: If It’s Everything, Is It Nothing?, Taylor and Francis, Florence. Available from: ProQuest Ebook Central.

World Commission on Environment Development, 1987. Our common future, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.