More than a week later, I continue to really think about our recent “sustainability charrette” at Swarthmore College led by folks like David Orr, Hunter Lovins, John Fullerton and Nikki Silvestri.
At least one of the things I keep thinking about, however, is an issue that could not possibly be discussed in any short meeting intended to focus attention on the concrete, specific things that a single institution might choose to do in order to pursue sustainability.
Even the speakers agreed that it’s not entirely clear what “sustainability” is, and David Orr soberingly pointed out that you could potentially achieve sustainability and yet fail to build a humane, just society (what he called “solar fascism”). I would go a step further, however, and point out that most existing attempts to move towards sustainability radically underestimate just how unprecedented that move will be for human subjectivity and personhood if we manage to achieve it.
I think that’s important, because if you underestimate how different any sustainable future is (fascist or free), you likely will not really understand how to make meaningful steps in that direction right now.
There are almost no examples in human history of a generation of people voluntarily giving up what they already have or deferring what they could plausibly have in deference to what people yet to be born will need.
Yes, individuals sacrifice for their children or grandchildren. At least some of the time, they’re not giving up what they could have, however: they’re just in a situation where the only possibility of social mobility is multigenerational. At least some of what people give up in their lives for family is self-interested in some fashion if you look at it closely, given in expectation of reciprocal care later on, or as part of a kin-based social structure that delivers general benefits to all contributing members.
Yes, individuals sacrifice their lives or well-being for the greater good. But even democratic societies have often made such sacrifices at least partially or wholly compulsory at some level. If not, such sacrifices are also compensated for, if not commensurate in value with the health or life of the person sacrificing one or both. The referent of the sacrifice is often contemporary and concrete rather than abstractly futureward. Soldiers in WWII might have fought for democracy or country, but their sense of what those entailed was largely rooted in their own experience.
Yes, individuals sacrifice much of what they have, either power or resources, in favor of transforming their own societies into more humane, just or sustainable societies. Either out of altruism or self-interest, or perhaps both.
Sustainability requires equally concrete sacrifices for wealthy people and wealthy nations that can only barely be related to contemporary losses or circumstances–which is one reason that sustainability advocates have to rely as much as they do on endangered polar bears, hurricanes and visible droughts even though the emergent consequences of climate change at and beyond +2 C are likely to be systemically new forms of material and biological life, and the sufferings of that future humanity therefore almost as radically difficult for us to conceive as it would be for twelfth-century peasants growing flax to imagine doing something differently in their lives in order to ease the circumstances of suicidal Foxconn workers in 21st Century eastern China.
The problem is not just one of imagination, since in fact human beings are reasonably good at envisioning things which don’t yet exist and even at letting those visions motivate them to act in wholly new ways. It also requires a fundamental moral logic that sustainability advocates usually have to simply assume rather than argue.
If I’m in a room full of religious people who believe in life after death, and that the life to come will be dictated by decisions we made in this life, I don’t have to convince them that they ought to act righteously in order to secure the afterlife they desire. (Ought to isn’t the same as actually acting, but that’s a different problem.)
But in a room full of otherwise secular people? What’s my reward for foregoing something now in order to benefit people who are not even born yet, people I will never know? Why shouldn’t I live for my own satisfactions right now? I am going to be dead a long time. If my great-great-great grandchildren are gathering algae from the soupy, fungus-infested marsh that used to be the foothills of the Appalachians and telling tall tales about how there used to be animals besides rats and cockroaches hereabouts, what’s that to me?
Please don’t give me the “pay it forward, people in the past were looking out for you” line. That’s not going to persuade anyone at a deep level, it’s a sentimental logic fit largely for Hallmark cards. My parents were looking out for me. My grandparents were looking out for me. My teachers in my life were looking out for me. My great-great-great grandparents? They never imagined me, nor did they do anything in their lives that was done in anticipation of me. How could they have, even if they were fine people? (I frankly don’t know anything about them as individuals, so the veil of ignorance runs in both directions.) My circumstances today are as unimaginable to them as the future after climate change (or even after successfully averting the worst scenarios of climate change) is to me.
Even when I wish all of those who came before me had done something radically better than what they did–never have allowed the Atlantic slave trade to flourish, for example–I can scarcely imagine as a historian what the circumstances of that collective counterfactual plausibly could have been. Any change like that would not just have required foregoing self-interest, but also a radically different understanding on a much bigger scale of time and space about what the iterative consequences of small, simultaneous actions could be. My paternal great-great-grandfather, for example, would have had to think differently before leaving Ireland about a concept of whiteness that he had yet to experience, and would have had to do something on arrival other than just head to Iowa and try to farm, but all the “somethings” are things that he likely couldn’t have even imagined until well after the point at which they could have been done.
Almost every analogy we make to argue for the urgency of the cause of sustainability is to campaigns for moral and social transformation that arrived in the disastrous aftermath of oppressive, destructive systems, not in anticipation of them.
The people who made enduring things which I rely upon in my daily existence today did not have me in mind, did not make those things for me or give up something so that I could have them. They made those things for their own benefit and purposes. Or they were forced to make those things for the benefit of others. That those enduring things are still here for me to use is almost an epiphenomenal side effect of the benefits they bestowed upon their makers, or the suffering they caused. Build a building for your own purposes? It’ll be around for someone else to buy and use. Create a Constitution to govern your society? It has an enduring impact to do that, but you’re not giving up something that deeply benefits you so that everyone will be far better off in a distant future. You’re solving problems you have right now, reducing risks and liabilities in your own situation.
You could argue that the Quakers who founded Swarthmore College were looking out for me. Only they weren’t: the college they founded absolutely did not have me or its current students or its current society meaningfully in mind. The only thing they gave us was an institutional framework that could be redesigned and repurposed going forward. There is no reason in that sense when you build something for yourself, with your own resources, to be deliberately spiteful and make it fall apart or break the moment you’re done with it, to “take it with you”. But that’s a far cry from consciously giving up something you have or could have in favor of people who don’t even exist.
That might be where an argument in favor of doing just that could begin, however. Somewhere along the way to sustainability, 21st Century human beings are going to have to accept a radical new kind of material culture, with new prospects and processes. That doesn’t have to mean impoverishment (or authoritarianism), but we will need to accept a moral view of the future that simply hasn’t existed in the past, doesn’t have meaningful analogues or precedents. However, if we demand that everyone has to feel that way now, all at once, that the necessary prerequisite of sustainability is to have all at once a boundless kind of altruism combined with a very different temporal imagination, it’s not going to happen.
A good analogy might be rights-based individualism. It didn’t exist at some point in the past, but at some point became a very deep and fundamental part of how most of us experience being human, it became integral to our subjectivity and consciousness. It wasn’t a straightforwardly instrumental change, and many of the moments and movements and arguments that moved human beings towards feeling as if they were individuals with their own bodies and distinctive minds, individuals with rights, were contradictory, fragmentary, and incomplete.
At a time when even the few human institutions that did have longer time horizons are crumbling under the pressure of short-term calculation, expecting a fundamental epistemic transformation of selfhood, agency and perspective to happen like an epiphany on the road to Damascus may feel as if it is a requirement. But that is in some sense as materially impossible as demanding that we invent a technology to sequester all industrial emissions from the atmosphere in five years, or refreeze the Arctic tomorrow.
Even if you steer clear of the new paradigms of cognitive science, you have to recognize that consciousness has its own long horizons. Embracing, or at least accepting, a different material existence now on behalf of a humanity we will never meet or know, is something that we can only learn to do in small and halting ways, at least to start.
Swarthmore has a very large endowment and is constrained in how it can use it. Isn’t that materially providing for future generations?
Yes. At least that’s the current argument about it: that you save it for the future. I think that’s the last vestige of 19th Century institutional design–building in long-term structures like trustees and endowments in order to secure the future against the present. I’m going to try and take that up in a second entry on this subject tomorrow.
There is a bit of an irony that some of the strongest proponents of divestment on campus right now argue that favoring the future in the endowment is an impoverishment of the needs of the present…I think that shows in part how hard it is to argue for having a mentality that gives preference to what very far future people will feel and want.
I guess I don’t understand what you’re saying in this paragraph:
“You could argue that the Quakers who founded Swarthmore College were looking out for me. Only they weren’t: the college they founded absolutely did not have me or its current students or its current society meaningfully in mind. The only thing they gave us was an institutional framework that could be redesigned and repurposed going forward. There is no reason in that sense when you build something for yourself, with your own resources, to be deliberately spiteful and make it fall apart or break the moment you’re done with it, to “take it with you”. But that’s a far cry from consciously giving up something you have or could have in favor of people who don’t even exist.”
Doesn’t an endowment involve consciously giving up something you have in favor of people who don’t even exist?
So in two ways, not really.
First, that the endowment we have today was not part of the institution at the beginning, e.g., a large investment fund that provides operating revenue for the institution. Until quite recently, endowments were mostly funds kept as a barrier against emergency or adversity, more like insurance. (Insurance is itself arguably a form of thinking about the long term, but wait for the next installment and I’ll try to get to that.)
Second, what I mean in this paragraph is simply that the Hicksite Quakers who founded Swarthmore did not have in mind the type of people who presently staff and attend the college as the beneficiaries of the institution they were creating, let alone the present circumstances of higher education. They were making an institution whose first purpose was the continuation and enrichment of their own ethical and religious practices within their own communities of immediate residence. They certainly hoped it would continue to do so for a long time to come, and were willing to give up something of what they had in their own lives for that to happen, but they were not giving to an unimaginable future of strangers–the abstraction required to imagine “future Quakers in 19th Century America” is not terribly dramatic and still retains some sense of “this is for us, the living (and our immediate descendants)”. Nothing wrong with that, it’s just that it’s only the barest beginnings of what we will need to imagine now to sacrifice for a very abstractly different set of future people.
There’s a complicated third thing in here perhaps about the nature of philanthropy itself–that it mostly involves giving what you can spare without missing it rather than giving what you need or wish for yourself. I need to think that through a bit more.
Thanks for this invitation to think more deeply about sustainability. As someone who is currently planning future events on this theme, I find your line of thinking sobering and provocative, though it’s not obvious what the implications of the argument are supposed to be.
You write: “most existing attempts to move towards sustainability radically underestimate just how unprecedented that move will be for human subjectivity and personhood if we manage to achieve it.” Doesn’t this assume a) that you already know what real “sustainability” involves (and it’s not what others think); and b) that “we” will know when we have “achieved” it? Neither of these assumptions seems at all warranted to me.
When I try to make sense of your claim, it comes down to the statement that “individuals [=human personhood] have a hard time imagining [=radically underestimate] sustainability over the long term [=unprecedented move]. This is no doubt true; but then, “sustainability” is a social or systemic property, not an individual one. Societies accomplish things that are unimaginable for individuals.
You invoke the analogy of “life after death,” which strikes me as right. It’s an aspiration, a guiding moral idea that we use to imagine limits to our behavior, without knowing (or being able to verify) whether or not we’ve succeeded. You can think of “sustainability” as a rhetorical trope that asks “would we (I, you) be able to live with ourselves if we could foresee these consequences….”
Play out the scenario of finding yourself in a room full of secular people. Granted, you might think to yourself: “What’s my reward for foregoing something now in order to benefit people who are not even born yet, people I will never know? Why shouldn’t I live for my own satisfactions right now?” But unless all the secular people you know are hard-core libertarian nihilists, I’ll bet it’s unlikely that you’d actually say this aloud. And if other people believed you actually would act that way, they’d start to distance themselves pretty quickly. If you value their company at all, you’ll either become a hypocrite (pretending to believe as they do) or feel guilty (for being unable to live up to ideals). From this perspective, the bottom line of sustainability is the possibility–always uncertain–of cooperation rather than the war of all against all.
Historically, the idea of sustainability is an effort to develop an alternative to catastrophist thinking, the visions of eco-apocalypse. With climate change upon us, we’re likely to be facing an escalating number of disasters: hurricanes, droughts, snow storms. Maybe they’ll add up to a global catastrophe, maybe not. But deciding that we humans are too short-sighted to be worth sustaining is a self-fulfilling prophecy of despair.
Well, I’ve been reading now about the founding of Swarthmore. It looks like, although a “guarded” education for Quakers (one that did not include theology class, and was overseen by Quakers) was the selling point that brought in the funding for the school, the founders always made provision for non-Quakers to attend, and always envisioned the endowment as including a permanent fund whose interest would go to allow indigent students to attend.
I don’t think present-day Swarthmore would be unrecognizable.
Here’s a quote I liked:
“If each subscriber for the past year would duplicate his or her subscription for the present year, payable between now and the first of the year 1865, or failing in this, would procure another subscriber for a like amount, we might look with confidence toward the erection of Swarthmore College during the year following; and with the Divine blessing upon our efforts, might anticipate for thousands of children yet unborn the advantages of a sound and liberal education within its walls, under circumstances favorable to their imbibing the principles and testimonies of Friends. ”
As for the larger idea that expanding our sense of moral obligation toward future humans would be a giant leap — I think the idea of a peoples looking towards the future of its own children is fairly common (“for ourselves and our posterity,” etc), but I agree that giving moral weight to the unborn of other countries is a big change. A lot of people don’t give moral weight to the living of other countries. Peter Singer’s written a lot about the idea of “expanding circles of concern” , moving from a tribal understanding towards one encompassing more and more of humanity and then beyond, into moral concern for the animal kingdom leading to vegetarianism and animal rights.
But must we imagine people as they are in order to set something aside? This is the problem that I am having. It seems that you are saying that we must have some conception of a particular people – their lives, their habitus, their interests – in order to put things aside for them. Can’t we just put something aside out of some form of what Jonathan Lear might call “Radical Hope” – just jump off the deep end hoping we can help. This would entail not having overly narrow policies and plans I guess, just resources and some sort of hope that we are helping.
Unless I am misreading you (always a possibility) this seems in conflict with some of your recent writings on education – about having to be open to multiple possibilities some of which we cannot even imagine in the present.
That said, I think the argument that sustainability will take very different perceptions of personhood is a good one. Just that imagining the future as it will be (or even a specific version of the future) is unnecessary.
Mark, that’s a very good point–that I think liberal arts ought to evolve into a doctrine of producing capacities for as-yet unanticipated transformations. In fact, there’s a tie to this piece that’s fairly deliberate, inasmuch as I think that’s the kind of thing that sustainability advocates should be considering.
Ultimately that’s my point here overall: not that this change is not possible, but that much of sustainability advocacy is too on the nose, too focused a specific range of policies and practices that seem to connote sustainability, and too focused on the achievement of a political subjectivity that is also overly specified. The job ahead is both bigger and vaguer.
There is certainly one thing that is NOT sustainable and never will be (at affordable cost): solar electricity from solar (i.e. photovoltaic) panels. It is one of the most useless ways to generate electricity, is unreliable as a source of electricity which mandates shadow power stations to run in parallel below their peak efficiency while using the same roof etc. area for thermal capture of solar energy would a) bring about three times as much energy “harvest”, b) would be storable, c) would be less dependent on clear skies as infrared is captured as well and would not upset the electricity grid. Since thermal energy is by and large the lion’s share of any nation’s energy needs the photovoltaic craze is an inexplicable cul-de-sac that future centuries will shake their heads about in utter disbelief!