Monday, December 17, 2007

sustainability = nice?

Lately I've been working on a couple projects with some folks at the Presidio School of Management Sustainable MBA program. When discussing the terms "sustainable" and "green," one of the women commented that we need a new word to explain the concepts, because these words have become the buzzwords of our time, and have thereby become devoid of their true meaning. I countered by stating that yes, I believe the word "green" is overused and misused, but the concept of sustainability is timeless and simply needs to be explained and defined in a way that people get it.

In his recent NYT article, Michael Pollan writes:

When pesticide makers and genetic engineers cloak themselves in the term, you have to wonder if we haven’t succeeded in defining sustainability down, to paraphrase the late Senator Moynihan, and if it will soon possess all the conceptual force of a word like “natural” or “green” or “nice.”

Confucius advised that if we hoped to repair what was wrong in the world, we had best start with the “rectification of the names.” The corruption of society begins with the failure to call things by their proper names, he maintained, and its renovation begins with the reattachment of words to real things and precise concepts.

On Friday evening at one of the many Christmas soirees I've attended, Jessica (not only a fantastic artist but also a very knowledgeable nutritionist) argued that our food source in this country is contaminated due to the use of GMO, antibiotics, pesticides and artificial fertilizers. When the very food we depend on is causing epidemics more rampant than the AIDS virus in our country, we have reached a point where our food production has become unsustainable. In this article, Pollan writes about the unsustainable mass production of pigs and use of bees in almond orchards and explains sustainability as such: "What it means is that the practice or process can’t go on indefinitely because it is destroying the very conditions on which it depends. It means that, as the Marxists used to say, there are internal contradictions that sooner or later will lead to a breakdown."


On another semi-related note, Saturday afternoon I attended the cookie exchange at the Farmer's Market, to which I contributed my mom's famous lemon bars. I met Jacob, a 10-year old food impresario who offered adorable little meringues in the shape of button mushrooms. In addition to cookies, I was gifted with the leftover root vegetables from the cooking demo that day. So last night I feasted on locally grown, organic parsnips, beets, sunchokes and rutabaga, dusted with some chopped tarragon. Yum yum.


Jay said...

You know, the substance of that article is part of the reason why Rosana and I have agreed to switch over to a raw food diet. Although this is small potatoes compared to what *must* be done...but almost none of us are ready to take the necessary actions. We would have to give up almost everything that makes us who we are -- including our material identities.

My only addition to this would be that we need to also think of capitalism as a monoculture -- pushing people as well as the entire biosphere into parameters of existence that have their own consequences. The consequences for us so far are certainly not as dire as Colony Collapse Disorder is for the bees, but we are moving in that direction. It is only a matter of time. Unless we develop radically different technologies in the next ten or twenty years, the cosmic record will enter a big "pffffft!" in the space beside "Accomplishments for the human race:".

And the problem of the dissolution of meaning and context in language is not specific to this discussion. It is a problem in politics and ethics that was identified a long time ago, but is only now becoming serious to a few. Moynihan, prescient as he was, certainly wasn't the first person to try to bring it into mainstream conversation.

As an aside, I got very interested in critical theory at the end of my college career -- and became deeply troubled with the degradation of not just the English language, but of all languages struggling under the weight of totalitarian industrial societies -- even the democratic ones. I've since moderated my views of the "totalitarian". It is more of an existential issue in the US, but the consequences of our consumption are visceral in places like Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia. Anyone who doesn't see this is just...well...I don't want to say.

Language in this country is being manipulated on an unprecedented scale by a dominant confluence of political and corporate interests. Closer to home, agribusiness in California is a particularly sinister example of the power of these interests over language and the lengths to which they will go to obfuscate the truth about their practices.

In the end, we must all live with the consequences as we are increasingly enclosed within a super-system that demands more and more inputs for the same unit of output. And the monoculture in which we live will slowly destroy anything that challenges its logic -- and that includes authentic language and social cultures as much as it includes entire eco-systems.

I wish I could put all of this in more elegant terms...I don’t have that gift. We truly need an environmental profit to help us out of our obsession with this perverse sense of modernity.

As I said in an earlier post, I'm not optimistic. It all started with Ivan Illich. We know more than we did before, and there are some bright spots (and people) out there, but virtually nothing has changed in the last forty years.

God, what a depressing bloke I am. Sorry! Think of me as Hobbes mugged by Malthuse.

So how are ya doing? (sniff)

lonelytrader said...

Haha! Freudian slip...I wrote that we need an "environmental profit" when I should have written "prophet". Ain't that a hoot?

Beer me.

KT said...

Thanks once again for your insightful views. BTW, Moynihan wasn't the first to ponder as you put it the dissolution of meaning in language, and the article does mention that Confucious asked the same questions.

I'm doing fine, BTW. Looking forward to 2008 and the last year of George W. Bush.

KT said...

Plus, I bet you Confucious wasn't the first either.

And if you switch to raw, make it local, organic and raw! ;-)

BTW, you should be a professor.

lonelytrader said...

I wonder whether Confucius could have put the rhetorical smackdown on Karl Rove...

KT said...

Where's Confucious when you need him?