Sustainability, History and William Cronon

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Sustainability is the buzz word of the early twenty-first century. The Green Party of Canada runs their entire campaign based on the tenant of living and governing in a more environmentally sustainable way – but since they were barred from the leaders debates there are many people who would never know it. The green washing advertisers throw around the word like it is going out of style; while the post-modern and existentialist ponder what ‘sustainability’ really means. It seems like the best way to get funding for environmental studies in all disciplines is to toss in the word sustainable and hope its ambiguous meaning and buzz status is enough to pull in the cash. Even Walmart can make claims to the dollars and ethical pat on the back that comes with sustainability.

It is in this climate and to a theatre full of environmental historians and the like that William Cronon gave the ASEH plenary talk in Phoenix Arizona on April 14, 2011. Titled “Sustainability: A Short History for the Future,” Cronon’s address began with an etymology lesson on the roots of the word “sustainability”; its roots in a 1972 economics dissertation on Say’s Law and its first appearance in connection to environmental and ecological issues in 1980 before the word came to dominate discourse for environmentalism and the environmentally conscious in the 1990s and early 2000s. Is the connection between the resurgence in environmental discussion and sustainability really that straight forward, or will history show it is a situation not unlike the current practice of referring to Aldo Leopold in terms of stewardship despite the complete absence of that word in his writing? Cronon’s argument is that contrary to what the dates of first usage and rise in popular culture suggests, sustainability is no more responsible for the current popularity of environmental concern than Silent Spring was responsible for launching the environmental movement. The word like Carson’s book hit at the right time and timing is everything in popular culture. The ideas conveyed by ‘sustainability’ predate the word by decades but interest in the ideas and issues hit critical mass simultaneously with the word.

There are a number of problems with what society has done with the word sustainability. The biggest issue with placing sustainability on a pedestal as a project, a discourse, and alternative and that is the assumption that sustainability equals a future state of stability without the troughs and peaks that define human history to this point. This is, of course, impossible.

The second problem Cronon identified, which is directly connected to the first, is that sustainability is predicated on waste and the consumption of new stuff. We are pushed to replace inefficient appliances, devices, and various other modern amenities with more environmentally friendly, sustainable alternatives. Throw out your incandescent light bulbs and buy all new fluorescence or LEDs – sustainability predicated on waste, on creating more of what is causing the problem in the first place. It is the riddle of the sustainability as progress model. What is interesting about this problem of sustainability is that Cronon asserted the political left and right embracing of the term sustainability in the early1990s in reaction to the shifting in political climate that came with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Cold War. Based on the reaction of the audience the connection between the end of the Cold War and the reinvigoration of the environmental movement and the emergence of sustainability rhetoric is not something many had thought too much about. I am hoping Cronon publishes something on the topic soon because it is directly applicable to my own research on environmentalism and universities.

The third problem with sustainability Cronon identified is an inability to adequately integrate it into politics through social justice. This was the point that spurred the most questions – possibly because of the invocation of social justice which is always a contentious specter to raise. Yet there is an important point to be taken from need for politics to be integrated into discussion of sustainability to adequately bring together the trifecta of sustainability; ecology, economy, social justice. It would seem that better political engagement with and use of the ideas in sustainability would help bridge the gap between local and global, doing more to illustrate the useful aspects of sustainability than any advertising campaign.

There is on positive thing aspect of sustainability Cronon identified that is worth noting and accounts for the popularity of the word and the willingness of people who would never identify as environmentalists to throw their support behind sustainability plans and activities. Where there is an innate negativity to the message of environmentalism, a doom and gloom about the future, sustainability is positive. Sustainability promises hope through offering an image of the future that sees humans regaining a balanced relationship with their environment.

In a world where the apocalypse always seems to be right around the corner we are Pandora looking back into the box and seeing hiding in the corner hope in the form of sustainability. Can you really blame us for wanting the idea of a sustainable future to fix the mess we made?

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Public Historian specializing in visual representation, memory making, environmental history, and Alberta history. Currently a Program Lead with the Alberta Museums Association. Past NiCHE New Scholars Representative and Place and Placelessness Virtual Conference organizer.

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