Skyscraper

‘I only respect people who disagree with me.’ The engineer looked at me with a glint in his eye, clearly very satisfied with himself. ‘It’s convenient for him that he feels that way,’ I thought. Smiling unconvincingly, I found myself hoping deeply that many others disagreed with him, too.

We had just had a brief but memorable conversation about environmental sustainability. It began when he told me that he had recently given a talk in which he argued that very soon, advances in Science and technology would solve our environmental problems so resolutely, so comprehensively, so permanently that the word ‘sustainability’ will be rendered unnecessary and obsolete. The conversation ended about ten seconds later, when I said that we would never see eye to eye on this issue. To this, he simply chuckled with satisfaction, as though opposition was what he had hoped for in the first place.

To be fair, this engineer is not alone in his views. The word ‘sustainability’ has been fiercely contested for years, if not decades. To many, ‘sustainability’ refers to the problems that the onward march of ‘development’ has not solved… yet. Renewable energy, food and water security, carbon capture and storage, population control: These are the sorts of challenges which, in time, we will develop the tools — the technological ‘fixes,’ if you like — to solve forever.

Policy makers and the public who think in this vein often regard ‘sustainability’ as a logistical imperative. To them, it is something that will most surely be addressed through the same means that we can now boast air conditioning, high speed travel, and those fun motion-activated hand-dryers that can be found in posh restrooms all over the world. Being a ‘modern’ problem, sustainability crises will require modern, cutting-edge solutions. And perhaps it goes without saying that Science is absolutely integral to this process.

Science might be defined as the practice and tradition of arriving at new understandings of the world through controlled experiments and a steady faith in the human mind to devise and reveal previously unknown solutions to empirically discernible problems.

A faith in Science (as defined this way) undergirds dominant notions of progress in what we might cautiously call ‘industrial modernity.’ And industrial modernity, we might propose with equal caution, has often involved the conquest of Nature by Society, governed by Man.

The abundance of capital letters in this article (i.e. Nature, Society, Man), by the way, is meant to indicate the difference between specific constructions and vast experiences. At Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, the faculty propose that we perceive these differences like so:

To take one example: nature (lowercase) is defined in thousands of different ways by millions of different people from diverse historical and geographic contexts. By contrast, Nature (capitalized) is defined by specific people with the aim of securing power for themselves, and for the vision of the world which they champion. ‘nature’ is a word that humbles itself to the infinite meanings it might carry. In its humility, it engages with both lived and transcendent reality. ‘Nature’ is a more precise construction, devised by those in power, with precise and often problematic implications. In the context of the environmental degradation and patriarchy which informs politics today, we can safely assume that power over Nature is granted chiefly to a certain conception of man:

You guessed it! ‘Man’ !

By the logic of industrial modernity (and its close cousin, colonialism), Man is physically strong, ruled by the Mind, male in every stereotypical sense, animated by a desire to control, and thus superior to women, the heart, and all aspects of the Earth which require nurturing and care. The environment, art, sustainability in its diverse and multi-faceted forms: Man seeks to assert dominance over all of these. And historically, Man often enlisted a particular conception of science — Science (I know, I know, these capitalizations are getting old…) — to help in this conquest. And Nature, defined by Man as all of those qualities which can and should be conquered, is inevitably damaged in this onward push for a certain form of progress.

How, then, can we say that sustainability in no way requires an engagement with art, with femininity, with spirituality, with those aspects of life which have historically been outside the purview of Man, and his version of Science? If the last few centuries (at least) have taught us anything, it is that these dimensions of life are not symptoms of weakness. On the contrary, these are the elements of our world which have been opposed to ideologies of control over the Earth, and have kept us alive, all along.

It is certainly true that we need our engineers, chemists, physicists, computer scientists, and mathematicians to care about sustainability. And so many do. But it doesn’t mean that they — or indeed, any of us — have the capacity or authority to ever render sustainability irrelevant through their innovations, no matter how enlightened. And they certainly do not have the power to dismiss sustainability outright.

Sustainability, after all, is the practice of sustaining life. Some of us stay do alive for the joys of science, and many of our plant and animal relatives are kept alive by responsible scientists. At the same time though, many of us are sustained by the joys of life which must be appreciated before they are measured.

The sound of a stream of water. The sight of a meadow on a late winter afternoon. The chirps of tree frogs as they revel after rainfall. A tapestry inspired by the blue of a desert sky. A quiet elephant whose silence ushers in a private awe. If such things do not keep us alive, do not inspire us to insist upon sustainability every day, then I am at a loss as to what sustainability is in the first place. Man, Nature, Science, nature, science, human, whatever… Let them all collaborate to honor and protect a sustainability that that we can love, laugh and heal by.

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