Sunbeams for Indigenes: The New Discipline of Cultural Sustainability

Peter Wood

Goucher College in Baltimore has announced a new master’s level program in “cultural sustainability.” Cultural sustainability?  

That sounded initially like something NAS might like. We are definitely in favor of sustaining the cultural and intellectual achievements of Western civilization. We would like to sustain coherent college curricula. Sustaining knowledge and study of the Great Books seems worthwhile to us. We would like to sustain disinterested scientific inquiry too. Sustaining academic freedom strikes us a worthy undertaking, not least because it is being defined out of existence by some of its supposed guardians. Cultural sustainability sounds like it might have something to do as well with the classical ideal of paideia or the German tradition of Bildung, both of which took the aim of education as shaping the individual through a form of education that emphasized enduring ideals. 

But that’s not the kind of “cultural sustainability” that Goucher has in mind. The FAQs at Goucher College define “cultural sustainability” as “a new discipline” in which specially trained experts help marginalized communities realize their dreams.  That’s to put it a little more succinctly than Goucher does. In the official announcement that new discipline is:

focused on activity identifying, protecting, and enhancing cultural traditions through activism, fieldwork, academic scholarship, and grassroots communications. 

If this sounds a bit like applied anthropology, that’s because “cultural sustainability”:

…uses the tools of culture and applied anthropology, folklore, ethnomusicology, history, communications, cultural tourism, and other traditionally separate disciplines…

These various disciplines are marshaled to a two-fold purpose. First,

 to ask members of communities, “What is it that matters most to your community?”

And then:

to act on their response. 

Goucher does not specify the “communities” that supposedly would benefit from this kind of intervention but graciously leaves the door open:

The cultures, traditions, and communities we try to sustain could be any we actively and passionately care about: a neighborhood, an occupation, an art form, a skill, a village, a city, an ethnic group, a religious or spiritual group, a tribe or any other community with shared traditions and values.

We don’t think we distort the spirit of the new master’s degree program by suggesting that the underlying idea is that only “marginalized communities” are of real interest. Goucher’s “cultural sustainability” program is unlikely to be sending its missionaries to communities of hedge fund managers in Darien, Connecticut or the congregations of mega-churches in Fort Worth, though these tribes too have traditions they care passionately about. 

The “culture” that the Goucher folks want to sustain isn’t Western culture, or “high culture,” or even popular culture. It doesn’t involve ensuring that students have read a little Plato and Shakespeare, have made the aural acquaintance of Mozart and Beethoven, or can discern the differences between Titian and Michelangelo. The Goucher master’s degree program invokes “culture” more in the sense of Cultural Survival, the Cambridge-based advocacy group that aims to help indigenous people stand up to the forces of globalization. 

This may be a worthy cause in itself. We don’t have any principled objection to asking people, as the Goucher program proposes, “What matters most to your community?” Whether this is a “discipline” in any meaningful sense seems doubtful.  It is a question anybody can ask, although a fair number of “communities” might reply, “None of your business!” 

But the second part of the Goucher program (“to act on their response”) seems more central. The program at its core is about training social activists. Activism can play an important part in making the world a better place, though it often enough results in making things worse. Are the wishes of any given neighborhood, ethnic group, or tribe, automatically worthy of support? What if “what matters most” to a community is to get on with the business of ethnic cleansing? Or to obtain better weaponry to support the time-honored custom of brigandry? Or to convert the local rainforest into an up-to-date cattle farm? Or to cut the middlemen out of the lucrative local drug trade? As Madison observed, “Men are not angels.” (Nor women either.) Often what a “community” wants is its neighbor’s property, or worse. 

We suspect that the Goucher program has some hidden provisos. Its authors declare an uncompromising commitment to sustaining whatever a community cares about “passionately,” but our guess is that they imagine a world where passions run only in wholesome directions. “What matters most” is not “hunting down and killing the intruders who have stolen our land,” or “first, kill all the witches,” but ideals such as, “We want to live in harmony with nature as our ancestors have since the beginning of the world,” or, “We desire a better price on the world commodities market for our sustainable-harvest crops.” 

It’s a new program, and perhaps Goucher will work out the kinks. It has, however, given itself a tough assignment. It has started a program that from the outset confuses inquiry and activism. And it has tied up the whole bundle in the rhetoric of sustainability, which brings some heavy baggage. Consider that what a lot of “communities” want is rapid economic development, no matter the environmental costs. That puts those would-be Goucher grads in an untenable spot. Are they supposed to respect the indigenous communities’ views of the matter, or preach to them why sunbeams are better than diesel generators? 


Long before Goucher started to offer a degree in it, “cultural sustainability” was in the air.  David Orr’s 1994 book, Earth in Mind, one of the first education-oriented sustainability manifestoes, urges particular attention to culture. He hopes to see a love of the living world, which he calls “biophilia,” take root, and part of biophilia is developing a sense of the small, local community. “It means rebuilding family farms, rural villages, towns, communities, and urban neighborhoods,” Orr wrote. “It means restoring local culture and our ties to local places…” 

The “culture connection also appears in the influential 1995 Essex Report on “The Principles of Sustainability in Higher Education,” described in Ashley Thorne’s “A First Look at Second Nature.” The authors of the Essex Report insisted that the sustainability critique applies to culture as well as the ecosystem, the economy, and social institutions. Thus the notion of “cultural sustainability” seems coeval with the sustainability movement as a whole. 

Goucher isn’t even the first college to put “culture” in its sustainability’s sandbox. 

The University of New Hampshire, home of the Wildcats, for example, proudly notes that its Office of Sustainability, founded in 1997, was the first of its kind in the United States and included “culture” along with biodiversity, food, and climate among the things that it aims to sustain. 

UNH also has a “Culture and Sustainability Initiative.” It doesn’t provide specific academic offerings but is housed in the university provost’s office, on whose authority it infuses “sustainability” into all aspects of the UNH community. UNH’s Chief Sustainability Officer carries a weighty charge:

Sustainability is not about business as usual; it should not be confused with incremental technical approaches to managing the status quo more efficiently nor with the “greening” of consumerism. It is a question of culture: of our sense of meaning and purpose as Americans and as human beings. As citizens of the Earth system and citizens of the world, we have inherited a culture that is ours to interpret and bequeath to future generations. Sustainability requires us to critically examine our cultural choices in light of the myriad interactions of art, science, politics and economics, not simply to study them in isolation.

“Citizens of the Earth?” Have the folks at UNH been watching too much Star Trek?

Actually the UNH program looks fairly benign as far as sustainability programs go. The UNH has signed the usual declarations; it belongs to the usual groups such as AASHE; it hosted the first of the annual Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium summits (in 2004); it posts “Embracing Sustainability,” an address by its president, Mark Huddleston, originally delivered on Earth Day 2008;  and it sprouts the usual forest of sustainability clichés, on diversity, equity, and social justice. This makes UNH by sustainability standards pretty much par for the course. 

Yet the “Culture and Sustainability” section of UNH’s website devotes some space to “Campus Aesthetics and Public Art,” touting a documentary about a pioneer of the “modern studio pottery movement,” and picturing an image of a recently installed sculpture of a morose looking wildcat, who is perhaps pondering the imminent extirpation of his species from the New England forest. UNH cannot wholeheartedly embrace anything so frivolous as the arts in an age of impending ecological doom. Hence there is some sport in watching the Sustainability Office attempting to make rhetorical room for the finer things in its picture of how sustainability and culture mesh:         

What makes life worth living? What gives meaning and purpose and value to who you are and what you do?

What do you need to not only survive but to thrive?

When you start to think about sustainability in this way, you start adding things to your list beyond just clean air and water. You start adding family, community, and democracy. You start including diversity, equity, and social justice. You list jobs and healthcare and education. And you even wax poetic and include love, beauty, art and music, history, heritage, and, yes, even poetry itself.

If the university has given rise to any more grudging justification for the arts, we have not seen it. 

Putting It All Together

The National Association of Scholars has embarked on an examination of the sustainability movement. Our aim is to characterize that movement as a whole. We want to portray as accurately as possible its history, its aims, its arguments, its tactics, its role in higher education, and what distinguishes it from environmentalism per se. We are pursuing this because we believe the sustainability movement is emerging as the most significant ideological force in contemporary American higher education. 

Our project will, we hope, bring into focus major players and key themes. The account we posted Monday of the role of the advocacy organization Second Nature, for example, is a contribution of that kind. It will be hard henceforth for anyone to present an intellectually credible account of the sustainability movement on campus without reckoning with Second Nature. 

Today’s posting on “culture and sustainability,” however, has a more modest goal. We are still discovering new pieces of the sustainability puzzle. Goucher’s new “cultural sustainability” degree program prompted us to look into the sustainability movement’s claims about “culture.”   Those claims appear to be a distinct thread in the fabric of the movement, but so far not much more than that. 

Might that change? Could the Goucher program herald an emerging theme that picks up where Orr’s Earth in Mind and the Essex Report left off?  There are hints of something like that. Cultural sustainability has long been part of the UNESCO’s advocacy, and there is an International Conference on Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability scheduled to convene at the University of Cuenca in Ecuador next year, the sixth such gathering to be held since the initial one held in Hawaii in 2005. The conference sponsors, Common Ground publishers, also publish a refereed academic journal on the confluence of these four flavors of sustainability. 

Sustainability’s “social justice” component is a capacious circle. We have the sense that the sustainatopians can add to it almost anything. The fights against racism, sexism, capitalism, and so on are prominent, but sustainability also has a strain of deep nostalgic romanticism about small-scale societies, low-tech communities, and the rural past. Those are fertile grounds in which to plant the seeds of “cultural sustainability.”                        

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