Sustainable Music


Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cultural Sustainability

Inspired partly by the meeting last December at Goucher College where a group of us consulted on a proposed new M.A. degree in cultural sustainability, three of my colleages and I are proposing a panel on the subject for a conference next fall. I had thought, at first, to examine heritage from a sustainability standpoint, but I changed my mind to a more theory-oriented topic, in an attempt to think further through some of the issues involved in bringing conservation biology to the musical (and cultural) sustainability discourse. This is timely because I've also been asked to write an essay for Ethnomusicology in which I respond to an article which advocates for scientific approaches within ethnomusicology and gives an example of an experiment done on groups of music listeners. More on that soon. For now, here is the abstract that I proposed for the conference paper:

An Ecological Approach to Cultural Sustainability

Attention to four principles from conservation biology, namely diversity, limits to growth, interconnectivity, and stewardship, will lead cultural policymakers and participatory action researchers to better best practices in cultural sustainability. I will illustrate this thesis with observations drawn from my experiences with musical communities built around spirit and place (such as the old time string band revival and the Old Regular Baptists of southeastern Kentucky); and with ecological case studies (such as land use and misuse in the upland South, fishing and overfishing in eastern Penobscot Bay, Maine, and conventional versus organic farming and orcharding). I wish to move beyond the nature/culture dichotomy and towards a biocultural synthesis that would help culture workers understand the dynamics of expressive culture in human communities within the natural world.

Conservation biology provides scientific reasons for opposition to strip-mining and mountaintop removal in the upland South, in terms of the ecological disturbances and natural disasters that follow on; here principles of diversity and limits to growth obtain. The severe cutbacks in fish and of the fishery off the coast of New England are well known; not so well known are the stewardship efforts of local fishermen in eastern Penobscot Bay to utilize oral histories and determine spawning grounds, thereby to make a case for selectively opening certain fishing areas instead of closing them all off and the fishing industry with it. The organic farming motto—feed the soil, not the plant—metaphorically suggests ways in which cultural sustainability may come about through efforts to sustain the interconnected conditions under which expressive cultures flourish.

Located within the coal-mining regions of central Appalachia, Old Regular Baptists are relatively non-diverse in terms of place and the possible economies there, and also class, occupation, and age, making them more vulnerable to disturbances than a more diverse population would be; old-time string band revivalists are diverse geographically and occupationally, but not especially diverse in terms of age and class. The face-to-face communication necessary to the culture of both groups is not endangered by population growth but will be affected by the growth and change in media such as the internet. Interconnectivity is strong in both groups and is strengthened by institutions such as festivals and the ways of visiting. Stewardship coming from leaders within the groups has been important in conserving both the old-time music revival and Old Regular Baptist music and culture, but it is more centralized and thus vulnerable among Old Regular Baptists. Understanding how these four principles—diversity, limits to growth, interconnectedness, and stewardship—operate biologically and culturally offers hope for a biocultural synthesis that will enable culture workers to plan in partnership with indigenous groups to promote cultural sustainability.