Sustainability Across Disciplines Conference 2
Come check out the second Annual Sustainability Across Disciplines Conference March 8-9th at Concordia University. This conference is open to the general public. Admission is free but registration is required. You can register via Eventbrite here.
I’ll be participating in a panel on the “Importance of Place in Sustainability” on Thursday morning 10h45-11h30, as well as a round table discussion on “What, if Anything, is Sustainability?” on Friday March 9th 10h30-12h00.
Update: the panel was recorded and the opening comments where made into an episode of the Worlds We Want Podcast. Check it out:
The text from my presentation follows:
Sustainability is a cultural practice
(I prefaced the talk by mentioning that I was undertaking a thought experiment rather than reflection on years of research onto this topic, being that I’m not a person who studies culture in particular. I treated this as an opportunity to share a provocation, rather than as a debate wherein I would defend my particular beliefs on the topic).
I’ll just state that I feel that sustainability is ultimately about human survival. While we do think about “saving the planet” or particular at-risk species, we are mostly talking about saving a planet that can support humans – and at the moment we are looking to save us, from ourselves. That is, if we were to develop an AI that was programmed to “save the planet” while eliminating the fewest species possible, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that this AI would likely eliminate us first and foremost. Perhaps it’s a noble goal to save humans, but it’s also very likely that we are a little bit biased.
So in this way, the pursuit of sustainability is ultimately an approach to securing human survival. If we accept this, I would suggest this allows up to draw a parallel between sustainability and culture, in that culture, amongst other things is the accumulation of generations of adaptations enabling a people to survive in their particular environment. Culture is, in part, what allowed a bipedal ape designed in the African continent to survive in climates that it (we) never had time to fully adapt to physiologically. When biology lags behind, its culture that steps up to fill the void to help us to evolve… in order to survive.
Culture is the cumulative collection of technologies, practices, expressions, and methods of communicating within and between groups that has helped communities continue from one generation to the next. Sure we have had some regional physical adaptations – differences in skin tone, metabolism, height, and even the ability to digest certain foods. However, we also have clothing, building, cultivated foods, language, and ritual – that have been, until very recently rooted in place. That said, they are not static, history points to the disappearance of numerous cultures, even if we know today that the genetic ancestors of these people survived, thrived even… whether it be a slow decline in response to the invasion of other cultures or a climate change induced migration, that forced new cultural adaptations…. We persisted.
In this way, it may be fair to suggest that our present day unsustainable behaviours… that is, the behaviours that threaten the survival of future generations… lacks culture… in it lacks a real connection to the very things that will enable us as a collective to survive. From the global scale of our demands on and from the earth, to our assumptions about what constitutes “a good life,” Western culture (whatever that means) is struggling to understand its relationship with this wider context. And for this, a lot of us feel lost and disconnected.
All this to say, if any of us survive this, and some will (at least for a time), we know that those people will develop cultural practices around living in this new world. What we can’t know is if those cultural practices will be fair for the most number of people.
Architect and visionary Buckminster Fuller suggested that
“Whether it is to be Utopia or Oblivion will be a touch-and-go relay race right up to the final moment.”
It is a race, and I think we are approaching to the final stretch of it. But the interesting thing about culture is that it’s something that we participate in making. It’s reassuring to think that at least some of these problems can’t be shrugged off as human nature and accepted as inevitable. We can participate in creating the kinds of places that are re-rooted to place and to one another, we can share and learn from the models developed by people around the world that are already doing this in one form or another. We can adapt, it’s one of our strong suits, but we have to be proactive about it if we want a culture that goes beyond survival, towards one that is also fair and good.