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Sustainable Words for a Sustainable World

By Adam L. Palay

The word of our generation is ‘sustainable.’ Like ‘Choice’ and ‘Life,’ the word both describes an ideology and stands as a symbol for that ideology. ‘Sustainable’ is the rallying word for modern environmental protection: it’s stamped on menus at seafood restaurants and appears in the names of environmental committees.

Climate change is the greatest challenge facing our generation, and it is perhaps the greatest challenge that humanity has ever had to face. In this week’s column I want to take a closer look at ‘sustainable,’ the word that is currently at the center of our efforts to save Earth. Words, even didactic political ones, profoundly shape our thinking and our argumentation, and so in order to understand contemporary environmentalism we need to understand why ‘sustainable’ has become its rallying call.

Why ‘sustainable?’ A moment’s thought illuminates a compelling and clear intuition: there are not enough resources. The pollution is overwhelming ecosystems. Our current mode of consumption and production is, as it were, unsustainable. To solve the problem, we ostensibly need only to move in the opposite direction, making unsustainable practices sustainable. But common to both states is a particular attitude toward nature: that nature is a machine, a set of mechanical processes that we can exploit to our own ends. The problem that modern environmentalism addresses is the impending breakdown of that machine. And environmentalists are doing everything they can to scare us about that breakdown, so that we change our ways.

But we didn’t always see nature as so lifeless. In the Romantic era many artists saw nature as the one equal of the human mind. This was not out of ignorance of nature’s workings—it was a time of extraordinary scientific progress—but rather out of the attitude they bore toward nature. William Wordsworth, in a moving moment in “Tintern Abbey,” is able to hear in nature “The still, sad music of humanity.”

The effect of this switch in our conception of nature as soul-like to nature as mechanical is that our relationship to nature ceases to be a moral one. Seeing ‘humanity’ in the heart of nature means that we have to treat it differently. In a basic Kantian sense, seeing this ‘humanity’ compels us always to treat nature as an end, and never merely as a means.

In many ways, we are in need of a second Romantic era. We need to regain that moral relationship to nature that the Romantics fostered and operated under. If we want to salvage what is left of our world—and if we believe that the world is worth saving—then we need to change the way we see ourselves with respect to it. The adjective “sustainable” hopefully will move us in the right direction, but ultimately it won’t be enough. It’s the worldview of the earth as machine, mere means to our ends, the worldview that “sustainable” exists in and propagates, that is the real threat. The adjective “sustainable” hopefully will have immediate positive effects on the environment. Yet people don’t act based on numbers or senses of efficiency. They act because they are morally compelled to act. Climate change will not be solved by a mere movement towards sustainability. It can only be solved when we each feel the responsibility to act in a certain way toward the environment. It’s not enough merely to know how to act: we have to feel that necessity.

I look to you, then, poets and artists. “Poets,” Percy Bysshe Shelley concludes in his thrilling “Defense of Poetry,” “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Wallace Stevens writes to poets in “Prelude to Objects”: “We are conceived in your conceits.” Creators of art dictate the laws of our existence, because art, profoundly, sets the conditions through which we engage with the world. We are now stuck in an amoral stance towards our planet, one that the goal of being “sustainable” is only, slowly, aggravating. It is your task, artists, to quicken our ears again to that “still sad music of humanity.”

—Columnist Adam L. Palay can be reached at apalay@fas.harvard.edu.

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