Sustainable Music


Thursday, October 29, 2009

An Ecological Approach to Cultural Sustainability, pt. 1

I've neglected this blog for a couple of months on account of preparing for the new semester and then teaching. But music, culture, and sustainability have not been idle. I reproduce below a paper that I read in front of the annual conference of the American Folklore Society, on Oct. 24, only a few days ago. In a couple of days I fly to Beijing to deliver some invited lectures on music and sustainability to the musicology department of the Central Conservatory of Music. I'll have more to say about this trip as it goes. But now, here is a copy of my AFS paper:

[Paper delivered at the 2009 conference of the American Folklore Society, Boise, ID]

For several years I’ve been trying to think through ways that the discourse on sustainability might be brought helpfully to bear for folklorists and ethnomusicologists working in cultural conservation. Sustainability, if we think about it for a moment, operates chiefly in two realms: the environment and the economy. Of course, the two are closely linked, but there is a good deal of tension between those who are working to sustain the biosphere and those whose goal is sustainable economic development. Today, when even Monsanto claims to be all about sustainable agriculture, and when we have Wall Street bailouts while the U.S. unemployment rate is ten percent and rising, we can ask the question who and what is to be sustained.

Some of us interested in cultural conservation, or in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage as UNESCO has phrased it, have struggled with this tension between conservation and commerce. We promote cultural tourism at heritage sites, while our non-profit cultural conservation organizations engage in strategic planning and adopt a business mentality in order to thrive in the world of commerce. Some of us are uneasy with this business model in which folk cultures are displayed at festivals, in museums, interpretive centers, heritage sites, and so forth, and tourists are both educated and treated as consumers who walk away with product from the gift shops: CDs, folk art objects, that sort of thing. Advanced consumerism leads to connoisseurship and collections; some of the finest collections are bought by museums, which can be seen as model cultural consumers. We have faith that cultural tourism raises consciousness and promotes cultural conservation and renewal. As the Old Regular Baptists say of their faith, we have a “lively hope.” But some of us who decry global corporate capitalism remain uneasy with this tension between cultural conservation and commerce. Let’s explore some sources of that tension briefly now by contrasting the way sustainability works in the two worlds of ecology and economy.

Conservation ecologists target endangered species; they intervene through conservation to protect and sustain populations. Economists target resources; they intervene through development to manage sustainable economic growth. Conservation ecologists value diversity; economists value efficiency. Both are engaged in policy-making, but conservation ecologists proceed from the principle of human co-existence with the natural world, whereas economists consider the natural world in terms of resources for human welfare. Economists are driven to think of their world in terms of property, commodities and exchange, whereas conservation ecologists are filled with wonder and consider the natural world a gift. We could say that economists look forward to a world of prosperity while ecologists hope for a world of equilibrium with its connotations of justice and equity.

At the moment, the cultural conservation model that public folklorists employ tilts in the direction of the economists. The latest issue of NEA Arts arrived on my doorstep a few days ago, with its lead article entitled “The Business of Culture.” But what would it mean to tilt in the direction of conservation ecology instead? What would it mean for us in our cultural conservation efforts to follow nature’s economy? Nature’s economy values diversity for adaptation, and puts natural limits on growth as ecosystems move toward equilibrium; nature’s economy is built on the principle of interconnectedness, that everything in the ecosystem is connected to everything else, and that, to take a most famous example, the so-called butterfly effect, the flap of a butterfly’s wings in a park in China can transform the storm systems the following month over a city in North America. In addition to the principles of diversity, limits to growth, and interconnectedness, we add to nature’s economy the human equation of stewardship, or good caretaking, as a trustee acts in the interest of the trust, not him or herself. These four principles form the core of what we might learn by following nature’s economy.

I am returning in my recent work to an older way of thinking; twenty-five years ago in the first edition of Worlds of Music I asked readers to consider musical cultures as analogous to ecosystems, interconnected, with diversity advantageous for sustainable adaptation. Just as conservation ecologists look beyond targeted species to whole ecosystems, so those of us interested in cultural sustainability must look beyond expressive culture to the social, political, and most important, the economic aspects of the folk cultures we hope to help sustain. As the organic gardeners say, for the health of the plant look to the health of the soil. And beyond those aspects we must look at the ways in which these folk cultures interact with and are impacted by changes in the natural environment, as many of those we prize have been and are being marginalized by changes in the natural environment driven by economic desires, sometimes purely exploitative, sometimes exploitation cloaked in greenwash, and sometimes offered for sustainable development. When we put these expressive cultures on display we are offering little more than life support if we do not also work with the people in their communities, not only to conserve the expressive aspects of folk cultures, but also to confront the social, political, and economic props that keep these folk cultures going well or going badly. I turn now to two case studies illustrating these principles of nature’s economy in the world of cultural conservation. [continued in next entry]


  1. Jeff,

    I have just discovered your blog as I'm about to attend the first planning meeting for our Sustainability work group in my Department of Music. Your post brings together a number of threads that I have been pondering regarding music, arts and sustainability, especially the concepts of limits to growth and sustainable adaptation. I look forward to reading the rest of your posts.
    Darrell Grant
    Professor of Music
    Portland State University

  2. Jeff,
    I'm in Beijing and work at China Daily newspaper. I'd be interested in catching up with you and your talk if I haven't seen this too late.

    Mike Peters
    152-10337-152 in Beijing