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In my keynote for Staging Sustainability 2014, I was asked to define “sustainability.” “The implicit meaning of the term refers to its opposite,” I told the group. “We fear having damaged ecosystems so much that life on Earth will soon be unsustainable, so sustainability names our search for whatever can heal that damage and allow us to carry on.” But I have some problems with the word’s way of setting the bar too low, of putting a supreme value on continuation.

David Buckland of the Cape Farewell Foundation (which I wrote about in my previous blog) said that he preferred “resilience” and so do I, because it encompasses the thing we must now all do, learning from loss. But Adrienne Goehler, a impressive fellow speaker at the conference, wants to rescue “sustainability” from the various forms of abuse and dilution to which the term has been subjected. She understands it as “continuous renewal.” And I’m down with that, understanding that the process of renewal entails leaving behind whatever no longer serves our capacity to thrive as we carry whatever supports our well-being into the future.

In Conceptual Thoughts on Establishing a Fund for Aesthetics and Sustainability, published by the Heinrich Boll Stiftung and downloadable from their site, Adrienne preferences her mission this way:

Sustainability has remained an abstract term that does not connect to the interactions between different participants, and it has not managed to free itself from the psychological resistance to prohibition, asceticism, and morality. The term does not have any positive connotations, at least not yet.

She and I use different language (and I don’t just mean German and English), but we see much the same emergent reality in which culture is the matrix for all social creativity, and the skills and habits of inquiry characteristic of artists must be much more widely distributed to equip us to face the challenges ahead. Adrienne defines “aesthetics” as “the participation of all senses in feeling, perceiving, and fashioning the world,” and calls for an end to the separation between aesthetics and sustainability, arguing (much as I do with respect to the US in my two most recent books that

Sustainability needs new forms of learning. Aesthetic education means sensitive, perceptive, creative education, which, in the words of Hannah Arendt, culminates in creative action. This enables children and young people to do what will be demanded of them in the future: generate a creative approach to a loss of traditional structures that includes finding and inventing new life and work activities. We claim that neither experts nor schools currently meet that demand.

Pick a country or a continent: you won’t find much evidence to refute that claim. Funders in the US and elsewhere should find this document as instructive and inspiring as the German and other European audiences it addresses: go ahead and share!

Conceptual Thoughts uses a number of illustration’s from Adrienne’s other major project, examples to follow: expeditions in aesthetics and sustainability, a touring art exhibition comprising the work of dozens of artists from around the world:

We need visions of a sustainable life that interconnect with the sensuality, lust and passion of acting on our own. examples to follow! intends to encourage this and to move the cultural and aesthetic dimension of sustainability into the awareness of the senses, thus counteracting the visible erosion of the term. The exhibition aims at raising awareness for the fact that a constructive sustainability cannot make do without the arts and sciences. It needs to learn from them how to think in transitions, interim solutions, models, and projects.

Click around the site to see a remarkable range of work beginning with Robert Smithson’s 1970 “Spiral Jetty” to He Xiangyu’s amazing cola project of a few years ago or Dodi Reifenberg’s carpet of plastic bags. Or buy the impressive catalogue for a tour of this encompassing vision. If you only have time for one astoundingly moving example, click on the heartbreakingly beautiful installation of Minimum Monument by the Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo. Imagine seeing it on the steps of the US national capitol!

I am hoping to connect with someone who might help this exhibit appear in the United States. It doesn’t necessarily need a museum or art gallery; in fact, a scientific facility or environmental community venue would do just as well. If you have thoughts, please contact me and I’ll be glad to pass them on.

The late Chris Whitley’s “Big Sky Country” speaks of resilience in another sphere:

When this is over, over and through
And all them changes have come and passed
I want to meet you in the big sky country

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Comment Preferences

  •  Regenerative (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Never liked the term "sustainability."  Also preferred the term "regenerative" instead.  

    John Ehrenfeld's book Flourishing also confronts some of the problems with the term "sustainability":

    In his [Ehrenfeld's] words, "If we learn to make a product or service more sustainable, all we've probably done is figured out how to make the wrong thing last for a longer time. What we need to learn is to make not just any thing, but the right thing, and make it to last for as long as possible."  To him, most of our efforts to address sustainability are focused on reducing unsustainability, which is not the same as creating sustainability…..

    So, John defines sustainability as "the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the Earth forever"…  As a result, John does not refer to sustainability per se;  he refers to sustainability-as-flourishing.  This modified term adds a culturally meaningful end to our act of sustaining;  we strive for a context in which all life can flourish.

    All my notes on Ehrenfeld's book are available at

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