Reviewed by Peter R. Mulvihill, Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University, Toronto, Canada

Worldwatch Institute’s latest edition of State of the World uncovers the rampant misuse of the term “sustainability” in marketing today and attempts to restore meaning to the cause.


State of the World 2013: Is Sustainability Still Possible?, by The Worldwatch Institute, Island Press, 2013, 200 pp.

This latest report in an ongoing series manages to be fresh and provocative, even as it reiterates messages that are depressingly familiar to many. More than a compilation of sobering news, trends and indicators, State of the World 2013 offers fresh perspectives and alternatives. At a monumental 34 chapters, it leaves few sustainability issues unaddressed, and it offers, as usual, a wealth of data and analysis.

While acknowledging the pitfalls of “sustainability” as an overarching term, the report seeks to add nuance in exploring the many dimensions of “true sustainability,” an even deeper and more complicated challenge than was probably imagined not so long ago. The implications are far reaching: novel interactions unfolding amidst increasing connectivity, speed and scale; footprint and planetary boundaries increasingly exceeded; and wicked problems and social inequities confounding solutions. Compared to earlier State of the World installments, the tone has shifted. In past decades a core message involved the possibility of a grand global turnaround. However, now it is clear that irreversible losses have been incurred, and we must turn our attention to more strategic management of diminishing options.

Notwithstanding the relentless gloom, some will be inspired by the many possibilities. For example, not all of the freshwater sustainability thresholds have yet been reached; increased consumption of anchovies offers an alternative to tuna collapse; opportunities for advances in renewable energy abound; and waste management solutions continue to be identified. In the education sector, greater emphasis on “Big History” may lay the groundwork for changing values and attitudes and re-engineering cultures.

Among the more provocative chapters, we are offered a highly critical examination of environmental studies programs and their “big tent” ethos, an exploration of missionary movements and their lessons for environmentalism and a discussion of the “Cuba Paradigm” as a possible sustainability model. On the strength of its comprehensive reach and insights, State of the World 2013 should be of considerable interest to both newer and older audiences.

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