Towards a Sustainable Future:
But Who, Exactly, is Sustaining What?
I’d like to begin with two simple observations: 1) None of us has ever lived in a “sustainable” community or experienced a “sustainable” lifestyle. And 2) When we try to imagine what a sustainable future might look like, we find that we are thinking (whether self-consciously or not) in literary terms. More specifically, our visions of sustainability tend to fall into one of three literary modes or genres: the pastoral, the georgic, or utopian science fiction. If I were teaching an Honors Seminar in the History of Sustainability, I could now launch into a spiel about how twenty-first century ideas of sustainability draw on principles that we can tease out of pastoral visions of an Edenic paradise (lifted from John Milton’s Paradise Lost) or that adapt and update georgic poems, like John Dyer’s The Fleece—sort of blank verse advice manuals on lucrative agricultural practices. But I’d prefer you to stay awake. So I want you this evening to think about sustainability not as a set of policy initiatives but as a set of postulates, a series of “what ifs” that imagine a near-future history that is different from the world that we inhabit today, on March 7, 2012. In climatological and environmental terms, the vision of a sustainable world is a vast science-fiction novel that we are all coauthoring.
I emphasize the kind of projective thinking—the “what ifs?” of sustainability—because in an era of global warming we can no longer take for granted the Nature of John Milton, or John Dyer, or even Ralph Waldo Emerson because their visions of Nature assume that the “climates” of different regions across the globe remain fundamentally stable through time. We experience the weather, but we assume climate. In a very real sense, our embodied experience of climate shapes our ideas of what we mean by “sustainability.” The problem, though, that we face in discussing sustainability is that climate science asks us to venture far beyond our own experience in order to imagine change on timescales of centuries or millennia. If we think of this problem in literary terms, we are not being asked to imagine ourselves in the experiential time of realistic fiction--say, the 1920s of Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein in Pars--but the “what if?” scenarios of science fiction: what our lives might be like on a planet fundamentally transformed. In an era of global warming, then, we really do need to ask the question I posed in my title: “Who, exactly is sustaining What?” While many of us in this room promote and defend ideals of sustainability, and while many of us have commmitted time, money, and energy to working towards a sustainable future, we seldom are asked to think critically about what we mean by “sustainability.” As a moral principle, as a mode of political engagement, and as an environmental goal, sustainability becomes far more complicated when we consider the timescales that it invokes.
In the twenty-first century, we understand climate as a kind of shorthand for the dynamic and consensual knowledge that we piece together—or have pieced together for us--by scientific interpretations of a wide range of proxy data: ice cores from Greenland, tree rings, sediment layers in mud and swamps, patterns of coral growth, and so on. This data is analyzed at universities across the world, and reveals indications of long-term climatic variations based on specific chemical signatures, pollen samples, and gas bubbles trapped in ice. If I ask you why you believe in anthropogenic global warming, you can begin to see the contours of the problem. Very few of us in the room have drilled ice cores, or studied fossilized pollen, or tracked the range of bird species across the British Isles as they have moved northward in response to warmer climates. In practice, we might have to define “climate” as a set of statistical inferences, over years or decades, of what feels “normal” or “typical” to us in March in Atlanta. Although we all know that a cold snap, thunderstorms, or suddenly hot days may occur next week, we talk about the climate by imagining that, over time, Nature in the last days of winter in Georgia will revert homeostatically to what March “should” feel like. When we think about climate in terms of the sciences of paleoclimatology (the record of climate change over the whole history of the earth), we soon realize that we can’t rely on our experiences of the weather, or on our memories of, say, childhood days in March, to understand what a “sustainable” climate for the southeastern United States might mean. Although, the older we get, the more we may remember what the weather used to be like, our very memories now are shaped by a consensualist understanding of global warming. So in my case, I know that March snow storms frequently cancelled grade school in Connecticut in the 1960s, but those memories only become significant when they shape my sense that climate has changed, and now March in New England signals the beginning of baseball season and the opening days for golf courses. This interplay between scientific knowledge and embodied experience has become part of how we understand climate change and how we imagine sustainability. In posing the question—Who, exactly, is sustaining what?—I want to talk about our sense of living through dis(location)s in time: a sustainability that imagines the past less in terms of the present than in terms of a return to or a reclamation of an idealized past.
Let me put this another way: we are concerned about a sustainable future primarily because environmental devastation and global warming wreak havoc with our intuited, embodied senses of what March “should” feel like where we grew up and where we live today. Sustainability becomes an issue precisely when humans fear that they are living in a world so changed by ecological crises that we no longer can imagine Nature as unchanging and resilient. If you’re taking (or teaching) courses in the Humanities, however, you face a problem: much of what we think of as environmental thought—the Green movement, ecocriticism, Sustainability Studies—consciously or semi-consciously adopts an image of Nature that needs to be preserved, stewarded, shepherded, or restored; but this Nature exists outside of what we know scientifically to be the dynamic history of the planet. Think, for a moment, about what we mean when we say that we want to preserve “the world our grandchildren will inherit,” or when we urge others “to save the earth for future generations.” When we use these phrases, we take our individual, embodied experiences of wind, heat, cold, rain, drought (the thousand climatic shocks that flesh is heir to)—and extend them into a future that is imagined specifically in terms of what Nature will look and feel like for our descendents in the future. This notion is actually weirder than it first appears.
When we think through what we mean by “saving” Nature for the future of our genetic offspring, we begin to see that sustainability reinforces ideas of time and inheritance that date back (at least) to the Old Testament. In this sense, it evokes a succession of individual lifetimes–an unbroken sequence of embodied experiences--that extends from the past and into the future: our experience of sustainable Nature envisions time as a kind of biblical succession as ecological Abrahams beget Isaacs who beget Jacobs, and so on. This vision of environmental stewardship links eco-politics to an orderly transfer into the future of moral and political authority, property rights, and social justice. But underlying such an idea of sustainability lies a fundamental question: what exactly do we imagine being sustained? the stability of the planetary ecosystem as a Gaiaesque whole? or the productivity of the natural world so that we can maintain, improve, and extend first-world standards of living? In a “positive” sense, sustainability suggests the persistence through time of a world ordered by Romantic or Transcendental visions of Nature. In its “negative” sense, notably in the recent works of James Lovelock, sustainability becomes a receding horizon of lost ideals of climatic stability and of human beings living in indefinite harmony with a green world. In both of these senses, sustainability is marked by ideas of embodied experience, to particular moments in time that we somehow preserve and hand down to future generations.
Another way of putting this is to recognize that sustainability means different things in different orders of time: the lifetimes of individuals, the recorded histories that we can track of environmental degradation (say, the loss of wetlands since the 19th century in Louisiana or Florida), and the four-billion year history of the earth. Paradoxically, imagining a sustainable future forces us to think about the time scales of sustainability—and about the ways in which our sense of climatological history is accessible through, and mediated by, a range of complex technologies.
What we might call climatological time, measured in millennia, exists beyond daily experiences of the weather, beyond the duration of individual lifetimes, beyond the accumulated memories of generations, and beyond the recorded history of humankind. One of the paradoxes of Sustainability Studies is that for most of human history, until just over two hundred years ago in the West, climates of individual regions were considered permanent and God-given; the only history of climate that one could write in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries was a theological history of the disasters that had been befallen the planet since Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden. While I’ve written about these histories of the fall from Nature elsewhere, I think it’s important to understand where ideas of the unsustainability of the Earth come from and how new understandings of climate affected how people began to imagine timescales that extended far beyond the history of humankind.
Two generations before Charles Darwin’s Origins of the Species, the idea of climatological time started to take shape in three areas of science. In different ways, all three recast conceptions of Nature by banishing humankind from the center of a divinely-created universe. In the 1790s the nebular hypothesis of planetary formation advanced by Pierre Simon de Laplace in Exposition du systême du monde (1796), the argument for species extinction by Georges Cuvier in Recherches sur les ossemens fossiles des quadrupeds (1812), and the “discovery” of geological time by James Hutton in Theory of the Earth (second ed. 1795) suggested that the past had been radically different from the present, that neither the climate of the Earth nor its creatures had been sustained across the dark backward and abysm of time.
Laplace’s nebular hypothesis anthropomorphized the life cycle of planets in terms of youth, maturity, old age, and heat-death. It offered a history of climatic changes on Earth as the consequence of irreversible, universal processes. The birth of planets in coalescing clouds of gas could be seen in Saturn and its rings. This stage of planetary formation was succeeded by a brilliant youth as a gas giant (Jupiter), and followed by an adolescence in which dense clouds, water, and land masses formed (Venus). The Earth was a mature planet with a life-sustaining atmosphere and abundant water, but as its atmosphere slowly leaked into space, it was doomed to become a drier, dying planet (Mars), and eventually a dead, airless world (the Moon). Laplace, quite simply, removed Isaac Newton’s God from the mathematical principles that governed the origins, evolution, and fate of the solar system.
Hutton’s vision of geological time with “no vestige of a beginning,–no prospect of an end” presented a cyclical history of erosion and upheaval that continually reshaped the Earth. His theory of geological history told readers that they could not rely on their experiences to understand time; eons before the eighteenth century, the land on which they stood had been submerged beneath a shallow sea. In describing evidence that the upheavals and reshaping of the Earth’s surface lay far beyond biblical references to an antediluvian world, Hutton redefined Nature as geologically and climatologically dynamic, with changes occurring over periods of time that no human being or her descendents could experience.
Cuvier’s account of the extinction of fossilized species raised profound questions about the limits of biblical history and the mechanisms of speciation. To a society that had been taught that species were divinely created and persisted throughout time, the skeletal remains of giant sloths and mastodons that were exhibited in London, Paris, Philadelphia, and New York in 1800 suggested 1) that Nature had bred exotic and now-extinct species, and 2) that these prehistoric beasts had inhabited primeval environments no human ever had seen or described. Neither these beasts nor their worlds had been sustainable.
Even before Darwin, then, scientists had begun to challenge biblical conceptions of history by offering radical visions of the creation and reshaping of the Earth and its ecologies. The popularity in the nineteenth century for end-of-the-world stories, beginning with Mary Shelley's The Last Man, testifies to the ways in which the specter of species extinction could be re-imagined on a massive, planetary scale. A world without the prospect of re-generation or rebirth becomes the abode of a civilization without the hope of redemption or salvation.
It’s not surprising, then, that the task of the Romantic poet or the Transcendental philosopher in the nineteenth century becomes to re-enchant the mechanical universe of Laplace and reclaim humankind’s potential to imagine a sustainable Nature. In his essay "Nature," Ralph Waldo Emerson turns the threat of extinction into an opportunity to locate the human imagination once again in the experience of individual moments that transcend scientific reductionism. In contrast to the seemingly infinite extension of time envisioned by Laplace, Hutton, and Cuvier, Emerson locates "perfection" and "harmony" in individual days. He begins this essay by observing:
There are days which occur in this climate, at almost any season of the year, wherein the world reaches its perfection, when the air, the heavenly bodies, and the earth, make a harmony, as if nature would indulge her offspring; when, in these bleak upper sides of the planet, nothing is to desire that we have heard of the happiest latitudes, and we bask in the shining hours of Florida and Cuba; when everything that has life gives sign of satisfaction. . . . These halcyons may be looked for with a little more assurance in that pure October weather, which we distinguish by the name of the Indian Summer. The day, immeasurably long, sleeps over the broad hills and warm wide fields. To have lived through all its sunny hours, seems longevity enough. (Emerson 1983, 542)
In contrast to the time-scales of Hutton and Laplace, Emerson finds time both focused and dilated, intimations of immortality distilled into the "sunny hours" of "pure October weather" that bring to the climate of New England the kind of "satisfaction" we experience in the tropical sunshine of the Caribbean. This purity becomes a distillation of thought and experience, an imaginative transcendence of the dank realities of the "bleak upper latitudes" of Masschusetts. His "halcyons" locate human experience within the matrix he calls "harmony." Multiplying complexities do not produce confusion but lead to an enlarged understandings of Nature as "the circumstance which dwarfs every other circumstance." We are not alienated from Nature, but recognize that it generates infinite experiences of "that power which does not respect quantity, which makes the whole and the particle its equal channel." In short, Emerson reimagines Nature in terms of what we now would call sustainability rather than in the mathematical formulas of deterministic causation and irreversible time.
The physical environment thus becomes the interweaving of mind and matter. The transcendental imperative that "does not respect quantity" encourages humankind to embrace the processes of an ongoing reintegration of self and environment rather than to succumb to the profound alienation of what Emerson terms "custom." To turn away from "our life of solemn trifles," he says, humankind must recognize that Nature can be described only as a kind of double negative—as a negation of a natural world that is already alienated by "the ambitious chatter of the schools [that] would persuade us to despise" material existence in favor of metaphysical abstractions. Nature's sustainability therefore exists as the primeval negation of humankind's efforts to measure and institutionalize time: "Here no history, or church, or state, is interpolated on the divine sky and the immortal year." In an important sense, the threats that Laplace, Hutton, and Cuvier posed to traditional beliefs are shunted aside by Emerson's efforts to define change as the organic regeneration of both mind and climate: "We come to our own, and make friends with matter." The dynamic and unpredictable changes that Hutton envisions are transformed into energies of self-renewal. Emerson’s “Nature,” in this sense, is not about October days in Massachusetts, it’s about the how we might imagine the very possibility of environmental sustainability.
In the 170 years since Emerson, climatological science has not so much rejected the goals of a sustainable future, but displaced in time and space what we might call the observational authority that sustainability requires. We know that our current consumption of fossil fuels is unsustainable not because we’ve run computer models ourselves but because we recognize that scientific understanding results from complex networks and dynamic analyses of data that go far beyond what we, or any single individual, can experience. Disembodiment, not disenchantment, is critical to understanding what climate science is and the vision of sustainability that it offers. Earlier I described sustainability as a science fiction novel that we’re all coauthoring; and for the remainder of my talk, I want to turn to the novelist who first used that phrase, the contemporary American author, Kim Stanley Robinson and his Science in the Capitol Trilogy, Forty Signs of Rain (2004), Fifty Degrees Below (2005), and Sixty Days and Counting (2007). Just to be clear: science fiction is the only way in which we can imagine a transition to a sustainable economy.
Robinson’s trilogy offers us a way to think through the experiences of living through global warming and its consequences in the early twenty-first century. These novels are not so much traditional science fiction as they are thought experiments about human consciousness in an era of abrupt and unpredictable climate change. What happens to characters, and to readers, when our experience becomes, in an important sense, a function of ever-proliferating and always-updated data?: ratios of isotopes in gas bubbles trapped in bog sediments; compression layers in ice cores; new simulations of atmospheric dynamics; and trillions of bits of data daily transmitted from hundreds of satellites. What happens to Emerson’s “Nature” in the data stream of the twenty-first century?
Robinson’s trilogy centers on a group of scientists who work for the National Science Foundation. This collective of oceanographers, atmospheric scientists, specialists in bioinformatics, mathematicians, sociobiologists, and physicians are confronted by problems of a staggering complexity that produce in Washington DC a range of responses from politics-as-usual; to Brueghel-like, carnivalesque partying on the frozen Potomac; and to resanctifying humankind’s relationship to the environment by, among others, displaced Tibetan Buddhists, an environmentalist senator running for President, and the scientist-as-quasi-hero, Frank Vanderwal. Like Robinson’s award-winning Mars trilogy of the 1990s, Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting constitute a long, frankly utopian novel that explores the possibility that the ordinary workings of science and politics can transform themselves, along Emersonian lines, and guide us toward a sustainable future. While no fiction writer today has a better sense than Robinson of the rhythms and nuances of scientific practice, he is committed to the utopian possibilities of re-energizing humankind’s connections to a changing climatological environment. As his character, Charlie, an advisor to the environmentalist Senator, puts it, “people had lived cocooned in oil for a few generations, but beyond that the world remained the same, waiting for them to re-emerge into it” (209). At stake in the trilogy are the conditions of that re-emergence.
If few writers besides Robinson recognize the drama and poetry of debates about carbon sequestration to reduce greenhouse emissions, he is committed as a novelist to exploring the complex feedback loops between climate and character. Fascinated by the possibilities of nomadic existence, Robinson poses the question in several of his novels of whether a species whose brain evolved on the savannah running down game and crafting Acheulian hand axes can remain sane in the closed boxes of elevators, office cubicles, cars, houses, and apartments. He is one of the few novelists who takes seriously rather than satirically the bureaucratic processes in and through which we live. Anna Quibler, an NSF scientist, voices the ultimate dilemma of bureaucratic existence: “We know, but we can’t act” (253). This observation echoes throughout Fifty Degrees Below on both the political and personal levels.
In the trilogy, Frank emerges as an everyman figure caught between his brain and body, between thought and physical exertion. For much of the last two novels of the trilogy, Frank experiences climatological change as a nomad. His lifestyle—sleeping in a hi-tech treehouse, working out and then showering at his health club, putting in twelve hour days, then eating at restaurants, and spending his evenings with the new nomads of the park--provokes questions that even he, the editor of The Journal of Sociobiology, cannot answer. Are hunting and interpreting data from weather satellites different cognitive functions? Do mental and physical activities activate different neurological strategies of interpretation? Is humankind’s evolutionary fate written in our genes? For the feral scientist, these questions pose ethical as well as sociopolitical dilemmas. His lease having expired before the flood, Frank has no fixed address in the Katrina-like aftermath of the novel: rents in D. C. have skyrocketed, buildings stand abandoned to squatters in the worst-hit areas. So the scientist goes feral, building his treehouse in the park, equipped with the gadgets and hi-tech fabrics that define his updating of the strategies of acclimatization that allowed our ancestors to survive the last Ice Age.
He was the Paleolithic in the park. A recent article in The Journal of Sociobiology had reminded him of the man in the ice, a man who had died crossing a Tyrolean pass some five thousand years before. He had lain there frozen in a glacier until [he had been] discovered in 1991. All his personal belongings had been preserved along with his body. . . . Reading the inventory of his possessions, Frank had noticed how many correlations there were between his own gear and the man in the ice. Probably both kits were pretty much what people had carried in the cold for the last fifty thousand years. (231-32)
Robinson enumerates these correlations: sewn furs/ down jacket; Paleolithic small tool of bones/ Swiss Army knife; copper-headed axe/ mountaineering ice axe; “backpack made of wool and fur”/ Frank’s nylon backpack; a birch bark container to carry embers, and a stone bowl and flints/ Frank’s cigarette lighter; and birch fungus that might have been a medicine/ Frank’s aspirin. “All things down the list,” Frank realizes, “familiar stuff. . . . He was the Alpine man!” (232). Rather than choosing the industrialized solution of burning fossil fuels to heat large spaces, Frank returns to sustainable survival strategies that may or may not be hardwired in our brains. But at the same time, this identification with the Alpine man—with sociocultural revolution defined in terms of climate (“what people had carried in the cold for the last fifty thousands years”)—call into question works the belief in scientific progress that dominates the political questions in the novels.
Sustainability, however, isn’t easy. At the end of the second novel of the trilogy, after he eludes a sinister avatar of Homeland Security--Frank is left in a state of personal and professional crises: “Frank sat there. He didn’t know what to think. He could think this, he could think that. Could, could, could, could, could” (404). Frank is left suspended between the dilemmas of thought and action. More than any other science fiction novelist now writing, Robinson is attuned how difficult change actually is; for all his idealism, Frank suffers from the painful and always incomplete transition to a new system of scientific, personal, and ecological values.
Reading the Science in the Capitol trilogy five years after its final installment appeared—after the inglorious end of the Bush era, the financial collapse of 2008, the rise of the Tea Party, and the era of Washington gridlock—I feel as though I’m living through an eco-cultural dream vision. Robinson's trilogy is at once comic and utopian—and, in this sense, a meditation on how we might imagine a sustainable future. It is less an alternative history (that staple of science fiction) than a kind of shadow history that depicts the waking dream that many of us on the Left occupy—a dream that persists at Occupy rallies, at meetings of ecological activists, at organic farmers' markets on Saturday mornings. In an important sense, the trilogy marks Robinson as a legitimate heir to the tradition of Emerson and Thoreau.
Recovering from surgery to repair a subdural hematoma that Frank fears has affected his decision-making, he reads Thoreau’s Walden with a passion that extends beyond a purely literary interest. “Walden was a kind of glorious distillate of [Thoreau’s] journal, and this book grew and grew in the American consciousness, became a living monument and a challenge to each generation in turn. Could America live up to Walden? Could America live up to Emerson? It was still an open question” (310). The comic, utopian, and heroic goal of Robinson’s trilogy is less to sound an alarm about the effects of global warming, than to imagine a sustainable future that would allow us to re-enchant a Thoreauvian nature. The trilogy re-appropriates the shining city on the hill but re-power sit by renewable energy, turning capitalism into the engine of a kind of post-consumerist sustainability.
Robinson tries to make us feel abrupt climate change, then, to encourage us to re-open ourselves to the embodied and expansive times of Emerson's Nature. He recognizes that even for scientists, policy-makers, environmental activists, and informed citizens who work actively to promote wholescale changes in modes of production and habits of consumption, the time-scales of climatic change cannot be experienced viscerally but only imagined. As the three novels suggest, the ideal of sustainability that underlies its utopian efforts can never free itself from a vision of a preternaturally resilient ecology that exists outside of climatological time. In all fiction and all philosophy, the measure of several generations–of one or two extended human lifetimes–remains the timescale of sustainability.
Human beings infrequently witness abrupt climate change in the course of their lifetime. Those who do historically face long odds on adapting to a natural world radically transformed. Even if we try to free sustainability from modernist ideas of time and history, its assumptions and values ultimately evoke an idealized balance between humankind and environment that never existed--except in the sense that robust ecological systems could remain unaffected by low-density populations of humans for brief periods of time, on the scale of centuries rather than millennia. Robust, however, does not imply a moral value judgment. Between 11,000 and 12,000 years ago, during the Younger Dryas, Emerson’s New England was frozen tundra without much in the way of recognizable vegetation, colder and more forbidding than Siberia is today. Human populations huddled in scattered caves or, in Europe, clung to the Mediterranean littoral. Physiologically indistinguishable from any of us, Ice Age peoples produced intricate art and effective weapons. They did not flourish. There is overwhelming evidence that the most common biological response to radical climate change—sudden changes in temperature, and precipitation patterns--is not to adapt but to die: populations crash, and, within the short, short reign of homo sapiens, bands of hunters and gatherers vanish, subsistence farmers fall prey to malnutrition, starvation, and disease, and empires fall. When climate changes, people kill each other with greater frequency, population centers are abandoned, and centers of calculation do not hold. Systemic climatic change is no more or less characteristic of Gaia than the long summer of climatic calm that has existed for the last ten thousand years; unpredictable oscillations and their consequences have proved more "natural" than our fictional visions of sustainability.