Sustain-Ability?   /   Summer 2012   /    Introduction


An Introduction

Joshua J. Yates

© Victor de Schwanberg/SPL/Getty (detail).

The term “sustainability” has become ubiquitous in our society. From “environmental impact statements,” to “sustainable growth” in urban planning and economic development, to the voluntary adoption of sustainability principles in industry best practices, to sustainability advocacy by NGOs and foundations, sustainability has developed today into an ethical and political language of wellbeing.

At the same time, there seems to be little agreement on what it is that needs sustaining, let alone how we should go about it in practice. Progressive activists rely on the concept to promote social and environmental justice through governmental policy, while economic libertarians and conservatives are suspicious of it as a shibboleth of socialism even while they champion the cause of fiscal sustainability; agrarian localists use it to defend community-based food systems against the domination and homogenization of industrial agriculture, while corporate giants like Walmart have made sustainability central to their brand and core corporate values.

The pervasiveness of the term is telling. Many different constituencies in contemporary society are clearly concerned about our ability to sustain the particular goods they hold dear. Confronted by growing resource demands of a globally interconnected, increasingly urbanized, and potentially warmer world of seven billion people (and climbing), many understandably worry about the sustainability of their standard of living and that of their children, as well as the adverse impact of unsustainable practices and ways of life on the poor and the nonhuman world. Add to this the enormity of a fifteen trillion dollar deficit, the harsh realities of unemployment, and the growing impact of fiscal austerity, not to mention fears of American decline, and we can see why sustainability has become an urgent matter of political and moral concern and controversy in this country.

In this issue, we want to engage the issue of sustainability a bit more critically and deeply. Why has sustainability emerged in recent years as the prevailing and ostensibly indispensible “solution” to so many of the tensions between social, economic, and environmental goods? What social and ideological conditions gave rise to it, what internal tensions does it contain, and what other “solutions” has it displaced, or does it threaten to displace? What does the growing ubiquity of this term tell us about ourselves as a society at this moment in history?

To this end, cultural sociologist Joshua J. Yates examines the underlying cultural logics driving the turn to sustainability in so many sectors of contemporary life, while environmental historian J. Donald Hughes reflects on sustainability through the prism of world history, especially in its longstanding relationship to imperial conquest. Benjamin R. Cohen, a scholar of science, technology, and society, writes about the underside of sustainability, that is, the historical construction of “unsustainability” and how we have become so adept at keeping unsustainability going. The issue also includes a conversation with two icons of the sustainability movement in the U.S., novelist, essayist, and farmer, Wendell Berry, and soil scientist and director of the Land Institute, Wes Jackson. Close friends and collaborators for decades, it is difficult to imagine two figures better suited to lead us in a critical discussion of the cultural meanings, limits, and possibilities of sustainability as an ethic for our time.

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