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“Cool” Sustainability

I should have been in bed half an hour ago, so I’ll try and keep this short.  I just finished cleaning the kitchen after feeding the dogs and making myself a small snack, and now I’m catching up on email and writing here.  For some reason all I can smell is sheep manure – I expect one of the dogs is still dirty from training tonight.  I’ll have to figure out who it is and keep them from getting up on the bed!

Tonight I am feeling tired and overwhelmed.  I’m still not sleeping well (I have not slept well since my car accident in November) and woke up this morning feeling tired and a bit anxious.  I have a ridiculous amount of work to do and feel like I am slipping farther and farther behind every day.  And this is my ‘slow’ time!  Yikes.  I am worried about the year to come.  If I’m tired now, how I am going to survive come the school year?

Today I reviewed five books as potential texts for one of the courses I’ll be teaching in the fall.  The upside is that the books I’m looking at are really interesting.  One is called “The Essence of Capitalism: the Origin of our Future,” which traces the history of corporate power, with a focus on Coke.  Fascinating stuff and very much the foundation I’d like to present to my students.  And then there’s “Cool Capitalism,” which argues that neoliberal capitalism (the present form of our economic system) co-opts its resistance, making symbols of the resistance “cool” and then marketing them, thus making itself stronger.  In this way, Capitalism consumed the radical ’60s and made quite a profit.  Indeed, the present day heads of Big O-organics (i.e. corporate production of “organic” food) in the US were in fact the leaders of the ‘back to the land’ hippie movement.  This certainly explains why we don’t see much attempt at change these days.  No flag burning or protesting anymore, at least not on the scale we saw a few decades ago.

Next I looked at the No-Nonsense Guide to Globalization.  These No-Nonsense Guides are neat little books that present very clear arguments in an easy-to-read, short presentation.  The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food is another, and is an excellent read.

Because I am trying to sort out textbooks, I didn’t get any dissertation writing done today.  Tomorrow I’ll get back to it.  I am trying to get a rough draft of one chapter written by the end of the week.  I need to discuss it with my supervisor as this particular chapter is going to be the framework for analysis throughout the rest of the discussion.  The chapter is on Sustainability.  Specifically, I am tracing the origins of the term, and it’s use.  Sustainability is such an over-used word now that I question whether it has any meaning at all anymore.  The word is used to describe everything from small-scale organic farming to Monsanto’s GMOs to the growth of the economy.  Talk about co-optation!  So when I say I’m studying sustainable food systems, what do I mean?  What definition am I following?  Why?

While this sounds potentially boring, it’s in fact surprisingly interesting in its complexity.  The word sustainability emerged from economics, and thus has an inherent economic side that works in tension with social and environmental efforts.  Indeed, sustainability includes the notion of trade-off.  Who knew sustainability involves compromise?  And here I thought things either were, or were not, sustainable.  Hmm…. Sounds like a term of convenience, no?

In addition to it’s market focus, sustainability has a strong environmental component as well.  The word was adopted by environmentalists at pretty much the same time as the economists were embracing it.  I shouldn’t be surprised, then, by the dual focus on economics and environment that I am finding in the literature.  Heck, it inspired a whole new field called “ecological economics.”

This certainly explains why the third aspect of sustainability – the social component – is largely left out of most discussions around sustainability.  Or if it is mentioned, it is almost as an afterthought or side-bar.  I suspect that this is because it’s hard to come up with a way to make social sustainability profitable.  Most ways I can think of involve radical change to the current economic structure, such as returning to the concept of the commons and other more collective ways of living.  What was I saying about convenience?  Restructuring capitalism doesn’t exactly fit the bill.

I’ve written before about the impact of language, and this is indeed another example.  The words ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustainability’ invoke warm fuzzy feelings, but the deeper I delve into the real meaning behind them, the less comforted I am feeling.  Are these more terms of co-optation?  Is all the language we are using around trying to identify modalities of change merely means co-optation by those in power? “Alternative,” “organic,” “ecological” – and so on.  These words all sprang up with certain intention but have taken on other meaning altogether now.  That is the dance: those attempting change are kept busy coming up with new words with which to distinguish their efforts while the mainstream keeps consuming these terms and making them part of the mainstream.  Making them “cool.”  And then marketing them and making a tidy profit.


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