Sustainability is everything–and nothing

November 2012.  I’m at a community meeting in Cabo Pulmo, Baja California Sur, Mexico.  It’s a gathering that includes members of the community of Cabo Pulmo, scientists, economists, planners, representatives from national and international NGOs, residents from surrounding communities, and development experts.  The subject: the future of Cabo Pulmo and the East Cape.  The problem: mass tourism development is slowly encroaching on the region.  While the East Cape remains relatively undeveloped at present, this won’t last for long.  Development is coming.

Only a few months before, Cabo Pulmo and its allies celebrated when “Cabo Cortes,” a massive tourism development project that was proposed for the region, was cancelled by former president Felipe Calderon (on national TV no less).  Calderon cited environmental concerns as one of the primary reasons why he 86-ed the project (and left the presidency with a nice “green” feather in his cap to boot).  The project plans for Cabo Cortes included approximately 30,000 rooms, a marina, residential units, multiple hotels, a separate community for workers, and multiple golf courses.  It was, effectively, a plan to build a new tourism city in a region where the largest population is approximately 5,000 people.  Cabo Cortes was the epitome of the kind of development that has dominated in Mexico for decades: big, fast, and profitable, with a long tail of problems that nobody wants to deal with over the long haul.  Places like Cancun and Los Cabos exemplify this type of rapid, mass-tourism development that looks wonderful from the national level and often disastrous at the local community level (see, for example, M. Bianet Castellanos’s book Return to Servitude).

When Calderon cancelled Cabo Cortes, Pulmo’s residents and supporters felt they had averted disaster and saved the national park.  It was seen as a major victory. Yet many people questioned how long that victory would last.  And, within a couple of months, Cabo Cortes resurfaced, ironically, as “Los Pericues.”  Ironic, because this is the name of the indigenous people who were almost completely wiped out during Spanish missionary period in Baja California late 17th and early 18th centuries.  The financial backers of Cabo Cortes, and now Los Pericues, were from Spain.  But Los Pericues didn’t last for long; it was suspended my Mexico’s top environmental agency (SEMARNAT), like its predecessor, because of environmental concerns.  But the brief life of Los Pericues was a clear signal that the desire to bring mass tourism development to the East Cape was clearly still alive.  It only seemed a matter of time before it would rise again.

Back to the community meeting.  The point of this community meeting is to open up a discussion about creating an alternative development future for the East Cape.  It’s a sort of preemptive strike against Cabo Cortes/Los Pericues while it was still down and out.  Cabo Pulmo holds an important place in this discussion, in part, because it is home to one of Mexico’s biggest conservation success stories: the Cabo Pulmo National Park.  In brief, Cabo Pulmo was a community of fishermen that made a transition to eco-tourism in the 1980s when it became apparent that their local coral reef was severely over-exploited.  It took some time (like 14 years), but Pulmo’s reef has made a remarkable recovery.  Because of this history, and their active role in the promotion and protection of the national park, the residents of Cabo Pulmo have become strong advocates for conservation in many local and regional conversations.

When asked about what they want and imagine for the future, the residents of Cabo Pulmo speak up, one by one.  One idea dominates their answers: sustainability.  Again and again, when they talk about alternatives to Cabo Cortes–and Los Cabos, which is just around the cape–they speak in terms of sustainable development.  Sustainable development, for the residents of Pulmo, is everything that Los Cabos and Cabo Cortes are not.  It is hope for an alternative future.  This version of development is small-scale.  It emphasizes the rights, needs, and perspectives of local communities over and above the interests of outside investors and planners.  Above all, it is participatory in spirit, meaning that, unlike the top-down development that dominated places like Cancun, local communities would have a say in what happens to the places in which they live.  The residents of Cabo Pulmo were by no means against development, as many of their detractors claimed (some opponents denigrated them as “Reef Huggers” who only cared about their own interests).  Instead, what they (and their allies) advocated was a different kind of development…a different path.  This is what they call sustainable development.


By early 2014, however, Cabo Cortes has been reborn.  This time, it has a new name: Cabo Dorado (which literally means “the gold/golden cape”).  Many of the same players who were behind Cabo Cortes (and Los Pericues) are, once again, key participants and boosters for Cabo Dorado.  This includes John McCarthy, the former head of one of Mexico’s most powerful tourism institutions: FONATUR.  But there are some new players as well: former president Vicente Fox was instrumental in turning the cancelled Cabo Cortes into the revamped Cabo Dorado, with the help of 3.6 billion dollars of investment from a corporation based in China.

One word dominates Cabo Dorado’s web site: sustainability.  Cabo Cortes is back, and it’s more sustainable than it never was.  Sustainability is the new selling point.  Everything has been re-branded in an all-new, sustainable light.  This is exactly what one of my interviewees predicted when Cabo Cortes was first cancelled in June 2012.  You just wait, he told me, Cabo Cortes is going to come back, “and when it does it will be gilded with all kinds of environmentalist rhetoric.”  And here it was, under the guise of Cabo Dorado, with the dual promise of thousands of jobs (the site promises 18,000 direct and indirect jobs and around 900 million dollars of “economic spill-over” per year) and sustainability all at once.  What could go wrong?

Cabo Dorado faltered out of the starting gate.  It was quickly shelved, much like its previous development doppelgangers, because of criticism from environmental groups.  It has been in this purgatory, waiting, for months.  More recently, however, a Mexican court ordered Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment to revisit the 2012 decision to revoke the project’s permits.  When this news was released a few months back, all of the networks of resistance in Cabo Pulmo and beyond geared up for action.  Nothing has happened.  Yet.  And this is where my research left off.


Development is coming to the East Cape. But what will development mean for the people who live and work there?  In interview after interview, people told me again that it wasn’t development that they were against–it was the kind of development that Cabo Cortes promised to bring.  Many people saw Cabo Cortes just another Cancun-style project that would bring crime, crowds, pollution, pavement, and walls of hotels to the East Cape.  What people wanted was an alternative to the mass tourism development models that have dominated tourism development in Mexico for decades.  This desire for something different, and for something else, was often talked about in terms of “sustainable development.”  The term itself is a call to arms and a source of both inspiration and optimism for many of the East Cape’s residents and supporters.

Sustainable development.

But the very same term is a vehicle for marketing and political green-washing that is being avidly co-opted by factions with very different ideas for the future of the East Cape. For anyone who has studied the history of the concept of sustainable development, this won’t come as a surprise.

The fight continues.  Sustainability is the rallying cry for all sides.  And so it means everything–and nothing–all at once.  What “sustainability” ends up meaning for Cabo Pulmo and the East Cape, then, will be a matter of pure, hard-fought, politics. Nihil sub sole novum. A good reminder that it is not just the novel, but also the persistent, that deserves a watchful eye.




Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

4 thoughts on “Sustainability is everything–and nothing

  1. This is fascinating. I recently wrote a chapter for a book on sustainability in Asia. Mine was on Thailand. I quickly found that sustainability, which encompasses a wide range of ecological concepts, is vague enough to be used in quite different political contexts. In Thailand, sustainability is interpreted in a Buddhist context, but again that differs depending on the politics of the users. On the one hand, there is the King’s Sufficiency Economy Philosophy, which advocates that people not desire more than they have and live within their means. As Dan Unger put it, it’s a kind of citizenship. Do not spend, save. It is, in addition, a statement from the richest monarch on earth (the King) that rural people should not demand a place in the economic booms of the 1990s. The Sufficiency Economy Philosophy has now been built into the nation’s 5 year plans. There are projects supporting organic agriculture, with no recognition of how deeply imbricated farmers (and the national economy) are into the global export economy. On the other hand, there’s the more left-wing perspective that teaches that nature gives us what we need and that anyone, including the rich, who mis-uses that environment with overuse of resources is creating a non-Buddhist world. This, then, includes the rich and those who alienate the land of rural farmers for national export activities such as eucalyptus and pine plantations.

  2. Thank you for this Ryan. I have seen the term sustainability alternately as an organizing principle for understanding my own ideas of justice, and the cloak behind which contemporary technocratic development hides its short-sighted intentions. This reminds me a bit of how terms like “ethnography” and “empathy” are bandied about out here in Silicon Valley, loosing much of their meaning as they become embedded into the business parlance.

  3. “Sustainability” implies at most resilience, the ability to return to a prior state following damage or environmental challenge. Nassim Nathan Taleb has challenged the sufficiency of this goal in his book Antifragile, arguing that, in order to endure and adapt to changing circumstances, systems require the ability to become stronger by overcoming challenges. Adaptation to a niche is a death sentence in a world where niches may rapidly disappear. Kate Gillogly’s remarks about the Thai King’s Sufficiency Economy are also relevant here. Should sustainability mean that the children of, say, Amazonian tribes or South Asian peasants should aspire to no better lives than the ones that their ancestors enjoyed in some imagined past?

  4. Kate: “I quickly found that sustainability, which encompasses a wide range of ecological concepts, is vague enough to be used in quite different political contexts.” Ya I think I basically stumbled upon the same thing, Kate, although I never intended to focus on sustainability. It was something that came up so often that I had to pay attention. Thanks for sharing some of your experiences–more evidence of just how much the term can be stretched to fit various political agendas. What I find most interesting that people know this is going on, and they still stick with the concept even though it might also being used by the “other side.”

    Jeff: Ya, I think terms can lose meaning in a sense…but they can also take on other/new meanings, even though they might be contradictory to earlier definitions. Maybe this is where the social conflicts arise–or maybe the term itself is the social battleground, or a proxy for it, or something. In the case of developers, I tend to take a somewhat jaded view that many people use the term not because they are all that concerned with the core meanings of the term, but instead because it has purchase and marketing power. But the term has no less meaning, really, just different meanings with different intentions and agendas behind it. The term “development” has similar issues. I have always found it fascinating how these kinds of terms can carry so many meanings–often so different–and still be used un-ironically by so many people.

    John: There was actually a bit of a debate about using the term sustainability at one of the community meetings I attended. I should write something about this. One member of this meeting proposed a different concept–what he called “regenerative design”–instead of sustainable development (which he saw as passive and static). The new concept held sway for about two days, but was then almost completely dropped from the conversation. It vanished, and sustainability/sustainable development continued to dominate. Even then, the meanings that many people attached to the concept often expanded beyond many of the more official definitions. At certain points it was used as if it was a sort of panacea to everything that had gone wrong with development on the other side of the cape (Los Cabos.)

    Anyway, thanks for the comments folks.

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