The Culture of Sustainability (2)

An Address to Focus the Nation II Cal Poly
February 5 2009

The words of Bob Dylan’s 1964 anthem, “The Times They Are A Changin’” have never rung truer than during the last few years of apocalyptic uncertainty, threat, and promise. It’s been a period of sudden collapse–from the Twin Towers and the Global financial system to species diversity and climate stability–and of miraculous growth—from the Internet and biological research to community organizations and acceptance of diversity.

Change, when you’re in the middle of it, is mysterious, lacking adequate name or narrative. The package isn’t labeled, the story is still unfolding. In the sixties, before the words “hippy,” and “counterculture” were coined, we referred to our transformations of consciousness simply as “the Movement.” The positive change going on today remains unnamed. In his latest book, Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken calls it “the largest social movement in all of human history.” He claims “noone saw it coming.”

But Hawken is one of the visionaries who have seen what’s coming and have provided it with various names and stories. His earlier books, The Ecology of Commerce, and Natural Capitalism, envisioned the present as one of “Restorative Economy” and “A Second Industrial Revolution.” E. J. Dionne calls it “The Revival of Civil Society,” Thomas Berry, “The Great Work,” David Korten, “The Great Turning.” I’m calling it the Sustainability movement.

One way to make sense of this movement is to place it in historical context.  As I look back at my own story, I remember childhood in the nineteen forties and fifties governed by postwar, coldwar, economic expansion, consumerism, suburbanization, homogenizing TV, and patriarchy. The sixties and seventies rejected all that in favor of peace, community living, spirituality and ecology. The eighties and nineties reacted again, privileging individualism, greed, branding and technology over nature. The new millennium took those tendencies to an extreme and then reversed direction toward where we are now.

Such a pattern of oscillations was characterized by Friedrich Hegel as thesis-antithesis-synthesis. He believed history was driven by the progress of the collective spirit of humanity expressed in science, art, and philosophy. Changes in ideas were then manifested as material progress in technology, economics and politics. Karl Marx famously turned the pattern on its head, claiming that economic arrangements, particularly the flow of financial capital, provided the base that determined the rest, which he called superstructure.

This dialectical pattern can apply today. The movement we call Sustainability seems to synthesize the sometimes unrealistic idealism of the sixties and seventies with the shrewd yet often short-sighted materialism that followed. Sustainability is grounded in science and deals with resources, technology and business, but it’s also grounded in consciousness and deals with morality, aesthetics, and religion. Its trinity of values—Environment, Equity, Economy—can be emblematized not as base and superstructure, but rather as a triangular recycling moebius.

As a prominent polytechnic institution, Cal Poly should be a leader of the Sustainability movement in technology, industry and economy. But as teachers and students in the College of Liberal Arts, we have a role in advancing it as a mental, moral, and artistic revolution. Our proficiency lies in the realm of culture. Our task is to learn, enrich and spread the Culture of Sustainability.

Culture has many meanings, but the relevant one here is: “The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and other products of human work and thought…considered with respect to a particular subject or group.”

A culture’s identity is most simply articulated by difference, by what it opposes. Sustainability culture opposes much of what corporate culture celebrates and markets in its mainstream media: egoism, excess wealth, conspicuous consumption, overconsumption, horsepower and firepower. Sustainability culture turns off the TV and inhabits a world mediated less by mass media than by the decentralized and self-generated social networking of new media.

Sustainability is also defined by difference from “environmentalism,” a category often associated with a preference of wilderness over civilization. Sustainability arises from the recognition that the human impact on the earth has reduced wilderness to preserve, that humans are part of nature, and that civilization can only survive by respecting the natural systems that support it.

Nevertheless, sustainability’s association with environmentalism remains in its adoption of the marker “Green,” especially when applied to locations it formerly avoided: green jobs, green business, green building, green chemistry.

Among the many definitions of sustainability, the most widely adopted is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The shared beliefs that characterize the culture of sustainability have broad scope and concrete specificity.

A canonical one is the Land Ethic formulated by Aldo Leopold: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Derivable from this are principles of sustainable natural resource management relating to climate, air, water, energy, materials, and food.

Sustainable perspectives on the world food system include critiques of dominant modes of production—monoculture, petroleum based farming, commodification and transport—as well as of consumption—starvation, malnutrition and obesity– and promotion of alternatives: organics, slow food, local and domestic food production, and healthful, low impact diets.

Sustainable Technology, also called Industrial Ecology, involves reforming manufacturing processes to eliminate toxics and waste and promoting recycling, cradle-to-cradle product development, renewable energy, biomimicry, dematerialization, and whole systems approaches to innovation and design, particularly in building and transportation.

Sustainable technology also attends to “appropriate” technology–elegant, low impact methods developed by traditional cultures and ignored by modern practice, for example passive heating and cooling, woodlot management, and use of animals in small scale agriculture.

Sustainable economics advocates a shift from from More to Better, from determining value by aggregate growth of money to aggregate growth of human happiness and health of living systems. Sustainable business calculates the value of human capital and natural capital along with financial capital and uses a triple bottom line in accounting to measure success.

Sustainable government deploys the powers of regulation and taxation to foster Smart Growth in land-use planning, thereby reducing sprawl, gridlock and alienation and regenerating pedestrian-friendly urban spaces, viable downtowns, and civic identity.

Sustainability promotes localism.  It values cultural diversity as well as biodiversity. It respects traditions and ancestors. It encourages the growth of small communities where people responsive to the concerns of their own regions are empowered to take charge from the bottom up rather than the top down.

Sustainability has taken root within the classical preserves of the Liberal Arts. Psychologists treat “nature deficit disorder” by ushering children away from screens into the outdoors, and they find ways to overcome resistance to environmentally friendly behavior and activism.  Poets, novelists, and essayists create Ecoliterature.  Ecocriticism analyses it.  Rhetoricians teach writing as Ecocomposition. Environmental artists use materials in nature to celebrate its beauty and grieve its loss.  Philosophers ponder issues of Environmental ethics: the rights of the individual vs. the commons and of humans vs. animals, species and ecosystems, and they formulate imperatives like the precautionary principle. Theologians and scholars of religion study Spiritual Ecology: creation stories, relationships between God and nature, and divine mandates for earth stewardship.

Passing from beliefs to action, the culture of sustainability calls for behavior that maintains health and happiness, reduces negative environmental impact, and promotes equity or social justice.

Such behavior includes following the maxim of thrift: reduce, reuse, recycle, thereby minimizing both consumption and waste production.  It also includes shrinking one’s personal ecological footprint by cutting back on the amount of resources required to support a lifestyle–for instance turning down the heat and air conditioning, using alternative transportation, traveling less, occupying smaller living spaces, eating locally produced, minimally processed and packaged food, and participating in cooperative procurement and distribution networks. This is a tall order for individuals, often more affirmed than practiced.

Although they would seem a necessary component of sustainable beliefs and behaviors, the venerable virtues of simplicity, poverty and charity have yet to be emphasized in sustainability discourse—perhaps because they require sacrifice, a principle unfashionable for the last forty years but which recent economic and political developments may make more attractive.

The culture of sustainability has the generational component of a youth movement, evidenced in the history of Empower Poly, the coalition of student groups largely responsible for the CSU’s adoption of a Sustainability policy, which organized this and last year’s teach-ins. Other manifestations include national climate action groups like “Its getting hot in here” and media networking groups like “gen-we.org,” which, by contrast to the previous “me generation,” promote solidarity and collaboration.

Whether young or old, the culture of sustainability’s strongest impact so far is not in the transformation of individual lifestyles, but in the mobilization of voluntary groups of people who associate to keep the movement going—often referred to as Civil Society.

Hawken has catalogued over a million NGO’s and non-profits around the world that  “address poverty, climate change, pollution, globalization, resource issues, hunger–in short, the political, economic, and ecological problems that affect us all.” In addition to these are “socially responsible businesses that are creating practices that are permeating all of commerce;  [and] responsive local, state, and national governments which are embracing sustainability as the key to a better life for their citizens.” He surmises that this outpouring is an evolutionary adaptation of the human species, acting like the immune system of an individual organism or the self-healing restoration of a damaged ecosystem.

Along with shared beliefs and actions, a culture is embodied in its heros and expressed in its artifacts. The Sustainability movement offers even more of these than the million groups inventoried by Hawken. Here are a few which have inspired me:

Among essayist-activists, Amory Lovins, CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute, who along with co-author Hawken, introduced me to the concept of Sustainability with their 1999 book, Natural Capitalism, and David Orr, whose 1994 book, Earth in Mind, convinced me that “all education is environmental education.” Among literary writers, Wendell Berry, a great American poet and a farmer whose ideas about sustainable agriculture since 1970 have finally gained traction.  Among artists, Andy Goldsworthy whose “land art,” produced with gathered materials and bare hands, enhances my own enjoyment of natural beauty. Among publications, Orion magazine, whose mission is promoting and refining the culture of sustainability, which it does in an advertisement-free journal, packed with material that’s fresh, haunting, and wise. Among websites, Andrew Revkin’s blog, Dot Earth, which presents daily news about sustainability, especially climate change, with a sharp and inclusive perspective. Among organizations, AASHE, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, founded in 2006, at whose conference last November 1700 committed professionals gathered to teach, learn and strategize.

The culture is vibrant here in San Luis Obispo, manifested for example in last month’s second annual Business of Green Media Conference at Cal Poly, in the “Greenspot” columns of the Mustang Daily, in Hopedance Magazine published by Bob Banner, in the Environmental Center of SLO County (ECOSLO), in the indispensable monthly newspaper of Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club, and in the new anthology of work by the SLO Plein Air Poets titled Poems for Endangered Places.

Despite its promise, the Sustainability movement raises troubling questions.

First, does the concept of sustainability itself have adequate definition?  Can strivings for economic viability, social justice and environmental protection always be affiliated? Is it asking too much from individuals and organizations to pursue all three at once? Can a tiny grassroots organization dedicated to earthworm distribution be classed with a huge landowner like the Nature Conservancy?  Can currency trading billionaires align with exponents of voluntary poverty? Can Superstores with solar panels on their roofs conduct sustainable business?

Second, can the culture of sustainability avoid self-righteousness, rigidity, orthodoxy and intolerance of competing ideas?

Third, will the positive change that the movement seeks to realize be overwhelmed by catastrophic changes like climate disruption, economic meltdown, and war at a scale and speed beyond management?

The answer to these questions, to quote the poet again, is blowing in the wind.  But such as it is, the Sustainability movement offers me an alternative to denial and despair.  It encourages me to pursue my beliefs in action and to collaborate with others of like mind. That together we have created such a rich culture during the darkness of the last decade makes the next few years a future I embrace.

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