Sustainable Music


Monday, November 15, 2010

Nature's Economy at the Ethnomusicology Conference

At the annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Nov. 11-14, 2010, in Los Angeles, I read a paper similar to the one I presented at the folklore conference (see my blog entry for October 26, 2010), but I framed it differently, aiming it at an audience of ethnomusicologists. I wrote about the way my pursuit of music and sustainability is an effort to theorize one aspect of applied ethnomusicology. And because the panel was entitled “Revisioning Science,” I summarized a few things about the historical development of the idea of "Nature's economy," and its relation to natural philosophy (the analytical and experimental side of what we now call science) and to the beginnings of ethnomusicology in the science of comparative musicology. The historical development of economics and, to a lesser degree, ecology also occupied some of my attention.

Rather than reproduce the entire paper here, I will simply reproduce the additional paragraphs, which can be read along with the paper for the folklore conference:


"For the past five years I've been speaking and writing on the topic of music and sustainability. In so doing I am theorizing one aspect of applied ethnomusicology, that aspect which concerns applied ethnomusicologists’ desires to give back something to our friends and acquaintances in the musical communities we study, those who have given so much to us, in order to help them sustain their musical practices and move confidently into musical futures of their own choosing.

"Today the “sustainability” concept is omnipresent. If one aspect of sustainability is preservation, then it could be argued that ethnomusicologists got interested in sustainability more than 100 years ago, in their efforts to preserve and display musical documents in archives and museums. But today’s sustainability efforts are attempts to sustain music cultures in situ, rather than only in archives, museums, and on the internet. UNESCO’s international treaty for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage is perhaps the best known contemporary effort at sustaining music cultures, but only the latest in a series of efforts that gathered momentum in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

"Musical sustainability is vastly under-theorized. The most powerful contemporary sustainability discourses occur in the sciences; that is, in the science of ecology and in the science of economics. And so I have been visiting in these sciences to learn how conservation ecologists and developmental economists are thinking about sustainability, with a view both towards critiquing their discourses and gaining insights that might be helpful in theorizing musical-cultural sustainability. Interdisciplinarity, of course, is an old habit in ethnomusicology, for we are both by name and by nature interdisciplinary. We need not apologize for it; it is who we are and what we do….

"This concept (Nature’s economy) may be traced to the ancient Greeks. It became commonplace in eighteenth-century Europe to speak of “the oeconomie of Nature.” The natural and economic realms were governed in the same way, with wealth and commerce explained by natural law. But beginning in the late eighteenth century, in the field of natural philosophy, Nature and the economy parted ways, with the de-naturalization of economics and its emergence as an area subject not to natural law but to human institutions and agency. In the study of Nature, however, the idea of Nature’s economy persisted well into the nineteenth century, although the Deism which justified Linnaeus’s vision of the “oeconomie of Nature” had all but disappeared for Darwin, though “Nature’s economy” remained an important concept for him and he did write about it. After about 1860, however, with the rise of biology and various specialized biological pursuits, “Nature’s economy” lost its force in natural philosophy. Instead, the idea became a mainstay of the conservation movements, which were arising at that time in Europe and a bit later in the United States…..

"Natural history and the idea of “Nature’s economy” will appear quaint to many contemporary scientists. But in order for ethnomusicologists to think interdisciplinarily with science (rather than just do science) it’s important to pay attention to the history of scientific ideas and the history of science as social practice. Michel Foucault famously claimed that the study of Nature had undergone a profound shift around 1800, when the observational, formal, descriptive, classificatory and historical orientation of natural history gave way to an increasing analysis of the inner structures of things and their functions, gradually leading to biological science in the nineteenth century along with the development of various specialties such as experimental morphology, a subject I studied while in college. This is a narrative in which natural philosophy triumphs over natural history to become modern science.

"However, at the risk of disagreeing with Foucault, I believe that the descriptive, classificatory, and historical orientation of natural history was just as useful to those nineteenth century sciences that were most influential on comparative musicology, namely linguistics and Darwinian evolution, as was the analytical orientation of natural philosophy, which could be found in the young scientific specialties embryology and comparative anatomy. I regard natural philosophy and natural history as complementary orientations that have been simultaneously available in the Western world from the Renaissance onward. In the early eighteenth century the Royal Society was run by both the natural philosopher Isaac Newton (its president) and the natural historian Peter Collinson; and as far as I know, they got along. And natural history courses such as botany were normal offerings in American colleges and universities as late as the middle of the twentieth century, after which time they both changed character (to a concentration on the natural history object as an organism) and quickly declined in popularity.

"Not surprisingly, the comparative musicologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries drew on the orientations of both natural history and natural philosophy. In their fascination with scales and intervals, their transcriptions, analyses, and comparative work Stumpf and Hornbostel and the others were operating as natural philosophers, while in their descriptive, classificatory and historical work (for example, in the Sachs-Hornbostel classification of musical instruments) they were operating as natural historians. Natural history and natural philosophy are always available, just as scientific and humanistic standpoints are always available; and ethnomusicologists will embrace their interdisciplinary perspectives and methods insofar as they answer the questions that ethnomusicologists wish to ask…"


After presenting the paper there was an interesting discussion and some critique. One ethnomusicologist took issue with my portrait of economics, saying that I had unfairly “demonized” it. She pointed to environmental economics as a field where the practitioners were taking the natural world into account. I responded that it was the field of developmental economics that I was critiquing most severely. Environmental economics would include Herman E. Daly’s ecological economics, which I acknowledge as an important corrective to neoclassical economics. But I can't give full assent to “sustainable development,” and if environmental economists embrace that concept, then I part ways with them because I don't think they understand all its consequences.

I was asked, also, about transferring management techniques from conservation ecology to cultural sustainability, and given the example of what to do in the face of a forest fire. I replied that forest fires are managed, if possible, considering sometimes contradictory principles; on one hand, when they threaten human settlements, they are fought; on the other, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that small, controlled fires will burn up the understory and prevent larger, catastrophic ones. Biomimicry would advise the controlled burn, but  when human lives and property are threatened, compassion trumps strict biomimicry and decrees that the fire be fought. There had been interesting critique at the folklore conference, also; and I am emailing with a colleague about the issues he raised. I look forward to discussing them in a future entry.

At the folklore conference, about 50 people had come to hear my paper, so for the ethnomusicology conference I imagined the interest would be at the same level. I made 50 handouts for distribution. To my great surprise, about 300 people came to listen to my paper. I was embarrassed and apologetic over having too few handouts. In cases like this, a blog where people can go to read the paper is a great blessing, and so I pointed them here.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

DeKoven: Music Appreciation Subversive

Much about classical music appreciation is middle-class, and middlebrow. The appreciation industry popularizes by simplifying and making classical music accessible, chiefly to people with little or no training as musicians. (For those with more training, music history is taught at a deeper level of musical analysis.) In the nineteenth century, classical music concerts in Europe and America were potpourri of mixed genres, often with soloists whose performances and choice of repertoire appealed to popular rather than cerebral taste. Opera appealed across a wide range of social classes.

One of the more interesting phenomena of the mid-twentieth century was the increasing media representation of classical music, which made it more accessible than ever to the middle classes seeking to "acquire culture." The advent of the long-playing record in the 1950s made it possible to hear lengthy pieces of music with little or no interruption, and major record labels such as Columbia and RCA Victor devoted a substantial part of their budgets and catalogs to classical music in this new format. In the 1960s classical music on LP records expanded with the rise of new companies such as Nonesuch and Turnabout which specialized in recordings of lesser-known composers, and complete sets. Many of their LPs were "budget" priced, and as a result the major labels came out with budget lines, often showcasing great recordings from the past in their budget series. Whereas the 78 era had emphasized music from the nineteenth century, now all centuries and periods were represented. It became possible to accumulate a record library that represented a larger part of the classical music repertoire than ever before. The music of certain periods, particularly the medieval and baroque, became popular among a growing audience of classical music aficionados. On the backs of the record jackets, music critics and journalists offered brief discussions of the structures of the compositions on the recordings, in the language of appreciation-talk. This language, while it addressed elementary structural features, assumed a familiarity with the terminology of basic music theory and was attractively highbrow and slightly mysterious to classical music fans who came to record collecting without any education in music.

Radio was another medium where classical music became more accessible after the middle of the 20th century. Radio stations such as WQXR in New York programmed classical music only, in the 1950s and beyond; in the 1960s FM radio stations down towards the bottom of the dial began to devote their programming largely, if not exclusively, to classical music and later many of these became public radio stations, again with many hours of classical music programming.The phenomenon continued strongly to the end of the century, diminishing somewhat as a greater number of musical choices became available on recordings, radio and, finally, the internet.

Usually the classical music announcers practiced a kind of radio minimalism, seldom doing more than introducing the piece, performer(s) and composer by name, being careful to pronounce the foreign words properly. Occasionally the announcer would venture an anecdote concerning the piece or composer, but almost never would the announcer engage in appreciation-talk of the educational variety. The exception to this rule was a classical music disc jockey named Seymour DeKoven (1903-1984).

DeKoven, who always went by his last name (few listeners knew his first name), produced  a syndicated classical music radio program from the 1950s through the 1970s, entitled DeKoven Presents. It featured baroque and rococo music exclusively, or barococo as he often called it. DeKoven would wax as excitedly about a particular composer or composition as a rock deejay would exclaim over the Beatles. With his New York (or was it New Jersey?) accent, along with his brash enthusiasm for pieces he called "out of this world" or "super out of this world" (there were even more superlatives), he presented a marked contrast to the cerebral, minimalist world of the public radio classical music announcers and their finishing-school accents. DeKoven was different in another way, too: he engaged in appreciation talk, instructing the listeners as to the piece (or movement's) basic structure and points of interest much as a college professor would do, except that his overbearing manner could be regarded almost as an unintentional caricature of a music appreciation professor.

DeKoven represented a paradoxical voice, a democratization of classical music; in this he was a throwback to an earlier century. Like the musicians who performed in nineteenth century concerts, he often played single movements rather than the whole piece of music. (The slow movements did not, as a rule, excite him.) He was not only a deejay, but a pitchman; like a televangelist he solicited contributions at the end of his show, threatening the audience that he could not continue to produce and offer it without their sending him money. Finally, he did not hide his prejudices and opinions, but proclaimed them with absolute certainty; and in advancing rococo and baroque music he disparaged the music of other periods. Needless to say, the rather staid classical music establishment was amused--a little--and also contemptuous.

DeKoven was in some ways a precursor of a later democratizing (but far more intelligent) classical music announcer who plied the appreciation trade, Peter Schickele, whose show Shickele Mix has been popular on public radio for a couple of decades. But Schickele is mild and earnest whereas DeKoven was always over the top and seemingly on the verge of exploding. Are there DeKoven shows archived somewhere on the Internet, or in a sound archive somewhere? Once heard, he could not be forgotten, even though some listeners wished to do so. For as much as DeKoven was amusing, he also subverted the refined image of culture that the classical music establishment wished to project.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Music Appreciation, Cultural Tourism, and Cultural Capital--What Is It Worth Today?

    In this blog's entry dated January 21, 2009, “Is music useless,” I wrote about the classical music appreciation industry, with its paraphernalia of college courses, professors, composers, musicians, concerts, concert-goers and critics, and its media presence, all supported by private, corporate, and government patronage. I’ve also written here, frequently, about heritage and cultural tourism. Now I want to bring the two together, and think about music appreciation as cultural tourism. For if we want to think critically about the contemporary practice of sustaining the traditional arts by constructing them as heritage and then marketing them for tourists, we can look to an earlier model of this very same process in the rise and fall of the classical music appreciation industry, one which is losing relevance daily as the contemporary media engender enormous changes in the way people receive information and in the kind of information we do receive. What might we learn from this example?

    Several years ago I revised my syllabus for an introductory course in ethnomusicology, one meant for music majors at my university. For the most part these are practitioners of music, ones who will take many courses in music-making, and whose courses in music theory, history and appreciation will be taught at a deeper analytical level. The introduction to ethnomusicology course is required of our majors, many of whom would prefer to be off making music themselves, composing, or practicing their vocal or instrumental techniques, than to ponder the ideas and musical curiosities that we ethnomusicologists like to vex ourselves with. I decided to try to reach the students a little closer to where I thought they were, and to turn an ethnomusicological lens on the classical music industry. Never mind that I overestimated their interest in classical music; based on their previous training in Western art music they felt, at least, on more common ground. I decided it would be enlightening to have a look at the prefaces and introductions to the twentieth-century music appreciation textbooks to see what they said about what they were doing and why. We noticed in these textbooks, first of all, a defensive tone—why study music, why is art important in a world where most people are concerned with getting and spending, with family and neighbors and politics and power and war and peace and anything and everything but music?

    These appreciation textbook authors were not hedonists; they did not justify the pursuit of music on the grounds of pleasure, or as aesthetic object, “music for music’s sake.” Such a justification, though it  gains assent from music-makers and music-lovers alike, was not suited for the music education business. There must be Purpose, and the purpose was Culture. The authors of the textbooks usually justified appreciation in terms of “acquiring culture,” in the sense that one’s mind and soul would be improved, ennobled, and liberated by encountering the great cultural monuments of the past—Our Musical Heritage, as one textbook was titled. (Interestingly, this particular textbook took a very broad view of that heritage, but that is another story.) Engaging with Great Ideas, Great Art, Heritage, “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold put it in Culture and Anarchy, was, of course, the purpose of a liberal arts education—uh, wasn’t it? This engagement developed taste and refinement in one's personality, a more "civilized" human being, a better person. It is no accident that this is the same justificatory rhetoric that was used to promote the actual Grand Tour, cultural tourism, the European monuments, the museums, the cathedrals, for a century and a half.

    What the authors of these textbooks did not say was that taste, or aesthetic discrimination, leads to collecting and connoisseurship (getting and spending); and that appreciation creates a class of patrons who support the arts. Late twentieth-century cultural theory informs us that music (and art) appreciation builds a kind of cultural capital (that is, knowledge and taste as a stock of cultural goods and strategies) as well as a refined personality that once served the middle classes well in their striving for power.

     But I write "once served," in the past tense, because it is becoming clear that taste matters less and less in the world of common culture (the information commons) and (un)civil discourse, a world dominated by celebrities whose confrontational behavior (whether among politicians or on talk radio or FOX news) is not considered rude and boorish, except by a generation of old-fashioned elders and a small group of young idealists. Ironically, the cultivation of cultural capital is now proving an obstacle, as the refined public personality is no match today for the angry naysayer in the public sphere, or “shock and awe” on the battlefield.

    I am reminded of an observation told to me some years ago by a professor of music, whose  discriminatory powers were highly developed. It concerned the makeup of the student body in the appreciation course being taught that semester. “A majority of them are Asian!” the professor exclaimed. “Not that I have anything against people of Asian extraction," he added, "but where are those whose Heritage this really is? They’re the ones who should be taking this course.” But they weren’t, perhaps because they were unconvinced that the course would provide much useful cultural capital for the twenty-first century. And so we may ask what kind of cultural capital, if any, will be useful in our still-new century?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Reconciling Ecology and Economy by means of "Nature's Economy"

From Oct. 13-16 I was in Nashville, TN for the American Folklore Society conference. For my paper presentation at the conference this year, I returned to an idea that I’ve mentioned on this blog a couple of times before: Nature’s economy. This was the title of Donald Worster’s fine book on the history of ecological thought. Re-reading it, I found the section where Worster tried to explain the phrase, tracing it to the Enlightenment naturalist Gilbert White. The explanation was intriguing in the context of my attempts to find common ground between ecology and economics, and so I decided to read White’s book, The Natural History of Selborne, compiled from letters that he wrote in the mid-1700s. Doing so, I observed White’s use of the phrase “Nature’s economy” (Nature as the greatest economist) and began to think that the concept might point the way towards a reconciliation of the two conflicting discourses over sustainability—those from conservation ecology and from developmental economics. After I delivered the paper—which is printed below—there was a lively discussion with some critique, which I will summarize in a later blog entry. I will also present a version of this paper at the conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, where it will be framed on a panel asking the question whether ethnomusicology should consider taking a “scientific turn” at this time. Of course, it will depend on what is meant by “science.” But for now, here is my AFS paper: 

“Ecology vs. Economics: Reconciling Two Sustainability Discourses for Folklife through the Concept of ‘Nature’s Economy’”

     By Jeff Todd Titon, Department of Music, Brown University, Providence, RI 02912, USA
[Paper delivered Oct. 14, 2010, at the annual conference of the American Folklore Society, Nashville, TN]           

Just about every other day around noon I take a walk through the woods back of my house, and I see in the forest there the operation of Nature’s economy. In this paper I want to suggest that understanding Nature’s economy is the key that unlocks the door to natural and cultural sustainability by showing a complementary relationship between ecology and economics. For, as I pointed out in my talk at this conference last year, ecology and economy come from the same Greek root, eikos, meaning household. In this paper I claim that managing our cultural household for sustainability rests on our ability to model our cultural interventions upon the way Nature’s economy manages the earth’s household.

Sustainability entered the folklife discourse with Alan Lomax’s “Appeal for Cultural Equity” (1972) and the 1983 report on The Conservation of Culture, coordinated by Ormond Loomis for the American Folklife Center. It entered developmental economics and policy planning with the 1987 Brundtland Commission Report on sustainable development. Since then, cultural sustainability has been invoked to support UNESCO’s conventions on safeguarding folklife, or intangible cultural heritage, where it enjoys great currency and has been the subject of considerable attention from folklorists and ethnomusicologists. However, the roots of sustainability may be found in the lay knowledge of natural historians; and in particular in the idea of “Nature’s economy.”

However appealing sustainability is conceptually, it remains open to a variety of interpretations, ideologies, and practices. In this paper I first review how sustainability operates in two principal scientific areas, ecology and economics. For although the words come from the same root, their meanings have diverged to the point where contemporary mainstream economists do not think of the natural world at all except in terms of resource exploitation. Second, I review two discourses of alternative economics, namely economic anthropology and ecological economics, and conclude that although each remains promising, neither one at present is able to reconcile the contemporary differences over sustainability among developmental economists and conservation ecologists. Third, I attempt to integrate ecology and economics under the concept of “Nature’s economy.” This concept does not originate with me; it may be traced through a line of naturalists from Gilbert White in the mid-18th century through Henry David Thoreau in the mid-19th, then to Sir Albert Howard, the founder of the organic gardening movement in the early 20th century, and then to a variety of cultural and agricultural visionaries in the late 20th century that include Aldo Leopold, Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson. As a concept, Nature’s economy begins with the idea that Nature is the greatest economist; as developed by organic farmers, it means that agriculture should wherever possible imitate Nature; and insofar as the concept may prove useful in the cultural realm, it means that culture workers have their best chance of success when imitating the patterns found in Nature. Finally, I outline a number of design and management principles that follow from the concept of Nature’s economy, principles that culture workers may find useful in their interventions on behalf of cultural sustainability.

Last year at AFS I prepared the following diagram, which may be helpful still in reviewing the contemporary sustainability discourse in ecology and economics:

 CONSERVATION ECOLOGY                        ECONOMY
Sustainable populations                                     Sustainable economic growth
Conservation                                                      Development
Endangered Species                                           Resources
Targeted -> Systems Approach                          Targeted approach
Stewardship                                                        Property and Ownership
Equilibrium (Disequilibrium)                             Prosperity
Gifts of nature, wonder                                       Commodity exchange & fetishism
Co-existence                                                       Human dominance
Conservation policy                                            Economic and cultural policy
Diversity  (Concentration)                                  Efficiency

Summarizing what I spoke about last year, conservation ecologists target endangered species; they intervene to protect and sustain populations. Developmental economists target resources; they intervene to manage sustainable economic growth. Conservation ecologists value diversity; economists value efficiency. Both are engaged in policy-making, but conservation ecologists, like organic farmers, proceed from the principle of human co-existence with the natural world, whereas developmental 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 look to the cycle of growth, death, decay, and reproduction in natural world as their model. One 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.

Confronted, late in the twentieth century, with a world of diminishing natural resources, economists embraced the concept of sustainability, as it pertained to both growth and development. Not only do institutions like the World Bank promote sustainable development along with modernization in the Third World, but economists prescribe growth for whatever ails Western economies. Meanwhile corporate conglomerates jump on the sustainability bandwagon, promoting themselves as “green” enterprises good for the planet. When Monsanto proclaims that it is “green” and that its combination of pesticides and genetic seed modifications produce a healthier world ecosystem, it is time to seek out alternatives.

Alternative economics are available, both “in the past” and “over there.” Can we learn anything about sustainability from production, consumption, and exchange among indigenous peoples? The literature of economic anthropology contains at least one provocative line of thought: the contrast between gift economies and commodity economies; yet while the interpretations support the idea that these two kinds of exchange encourage different kinds of human relations, personal and impersonal, with obvious social implications, they do not directly support a hypothesis that gift economies value resource sustainability any more than commodity economies do. Do people in indigenous societies have more awareness of the natural world than people in modern, Western ones; and if so, has this led them to practice sustainability? The answer to the first question is yes, but the answer to the second is contested, with some scholars (and natives) arguing on behalf of indigenous peoples as conservationists and others taking the opposite view. Early economic anthropologists assumed that neoclassical economics did not apply to indigenous economies and sought similarities between them and pre-capitalist Western economies, rejecting the ideal of the “economic man” who always tries to act in such a way as to maximize material wealth with the least effort. Instead, the early economic anthropologists embedded indigenous economic behavior in culture, explaining apparently irrational economic behavior terms of what Melville Herskovits termed “mythological thinking” (Herskovits 1952: 492).

But how could economics be a science if it could not explain economic behavior in all societies? By the 1970s a reaction occurred; economic anthropologists, whether formalist or neo-Marxist, blew away the fog of mythological thinking and attempted to demonstrate how economic behavior in indigenous societies was both rational and materialistic. By 1990 the powerful post-structuralist critique of science that overtook cultural anthropology was returning economic anthropology to a kind of relativism emphasizing, once more, the primacy of local knowledge. This would have amused Malinowski, who is credited with introducing the idea, 100 years ago, that cultural anthropology must first of all grasp the native’s point of view in its own terms. In this way economic anthropology has followed the intellectual trends of its parent discipline, while the evidence it offers concerning sustainability is both equivocal and contested.

            Besides economic anthropology, a second alternative to mainstream economics is provided by ecological economics, a discipline founded, named, and developed by economist Herman E. Daly beginning in the 1970s. Daly’s bona fides include working for six years in the 1990s as a senior economist with the World Bank as well as holding various professorships in the United States. I’ve written extensively about Daly and ecological economics on my research blog; time permits only a brief summary here. Daly indicts mainstream economists for failing to understand limits to growth because they do not realize that economies are not worlds unto themselves, but that like all human institutions they are constrained by Nature. If we bear in mind the classic economic concept of marginal utility, then when the costs of growth outweigh its benefits we have what Daly terms “uneconomic growth,” or growth that is harmful rather than beneficial. Today the most obvious consequence of uneconomic growth is global warming.

Instead of embedding economics in culture, as economic anthropologists do, Daly embeds economics within the earth’s ecosystem, endorsing policies that promote “sustainable yield.” He critiques economic development policies based on the concept of sustainable growth, which he claims is an oxymoron because unlimited growth is unsustainable. On the other hand, he endorses the principle of sustainable development. Quoting Daly, “when something grows it gets bigger. When something develops it gets different.” For Daly, development does not necessarily imply growth; but this distinction between growth and development is lost on most people, including developmental economists, and may have been one of the reasons Daly resigned from the World Bank. Ecological economics does provide a real model for cultural sustainability contextualized within the natural world, but at present it remains wedded to Daly’s interpretation of sustainable development, which unfortunately attracts developers who pretend that there are such things as smart growth and clean coal. Is there no way to reconceive the two discourses, ecology and economics, to bring them together in a complementary relationship?

            I think there is. The clue is in a line of lay knowledge and practice spread among naturalists from the Enlightenment to the present, and its contemporary extensions into a variety of related social, political, and food/shelter/transportation/place expressions, involving lay empowerment and an emphasis on recovering the commons with an emphasis on the local, organic, and participatory. I trace this line of knowledge and practice to natural history and the concept of Nature’s economy, and to its corollary, biomimicry, or the principle of following Nature in cultural design and management.

            The influential thinkers in the twentieth century’s first wave of agricultural environmentalism understood the connections between nature and culture in just this way. Wendell Berry, for example, approached both culture and agriculture in his 1977 book, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture, pointing out that both words come from an Indo-European root meaning “to dwell.” Let us recall that “household” is root meaning of the words economy and ecology. In this way, we are able to view the culture of agriculture as dwelling within the earth household. In his 1981 essay “Solving for Pattern,” Berry remarked that “a bad solution solves for a single purpose such as increased production in ignorance or deliberate disregard of the larger patterns in which it is contained.” The obvious examples of bad agricultural solutions are chemical pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and genetically modified crops. These mistakes follow the law of unintended consequences and ignore the principle of interconnectedness, one of the four principles culture workers can learn from the science of conservation ecology: interconnectedness, diversity, limits to growth, and stewardship. But these principles did not originate with latter-day environmentalists, alternative agriculturists, or conservation ecologists; they are implicit in the concept of “Nature’s economy.” Again, the idea is that Nature is the “great economist,” in the sense that everything is interconnected and nothing is wasted. Here I quote from Gilbert White’s observations in The Natural History of Selborne, Letter VII, written about 1765:

“A circumstance respecting these ponds [in Selborne], though by no means peculiar to them, I cannot pass over in silence; and that is, that instinct by which in summer all the kine, whether oxen, cows, calves, or heifers, retire constantly to the water during the hotter hours; where, being more exempt from flies, and inhaling the coolness of that element, some belly deep, and some only to mid-leg, they ruminate and solace themselves from about ten in the morning till four in the afternoon, and then return to their feeding. During this great proportion of the day they drop much dung, in which insects nestle; and so supply food for the fish, which would be poorly subsisted but from this contingency. Thus nature, who is a great economist, converts the re-creation of one animal to the support of another!” (White 1908 [1788]: 30).

White’s vision of Nature’s economy integrates ecology with economy; things are recycled and nothing is wasted.

            Sir Albert Howard, the founder of the organic gardening movement, also understood these interconnections, and extended them to humankind. In his 1940 book, An Agricultural Testament, he wrote: “The whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man [is] one great subject.” Howard advanced the other key idea, biomimicry, or following nature’s economy, when he wrote that the way “Nature manages her land [must] form the basis of all our studies of soil fertility. What are the main principles underlying Nature’s agriculture? These can most easily be seen in operation of our woods and forests.” As I wrote earlier, I see these principles in operation every time I walk in the woods behind my house. They include biodiversity rather than monoculture; and the cycling of plant and animal waste into the forest soil that produces the food for the next generation of plants and animals. For Howard and a few thousand pioneers in 1940, and today for the tens of millions of people who produce and consume organic agriculture, managing agriculture means managing in imitation of Nature. The definition of organic gardening contained in Rodale’s Organic Gardening Encyclopedia reads: “The balance of Nature must be respected. Each part has its own sphere of activity as well as fusing with and complementing other related parts. A substance that alters one part, for instance, may affect half a dozen others—most often to our own disadvantage. . . . The soil is a storehouse of living organisms which must be fed and cared for as any others. . . Organic gardening or farming is a system whereby a fertile soil is maintained by applying Nature’s own law of replenishing it. . . .” (Rodale 1973: 794-795).

            Imitating Nature inspires Wes Jackson’s contemporary work at the Land Institute, in Kansas. In response to the problem of agribusiness and its depletion of natural resources, Jackson undertook a plant breeding program based on what he saw in the perennial state of the original Kansas prairie. One example involves cross breeding annual wheat with perennial grass to make a perennial wheat. It would be planted once; it would replenish the soil; and some could be harvested each year. Interviewed by National Public Radio in 2009, he said that “The solution is to build an agriculture based on the way nature’s ecosystems work” [NPR story,]

            Biomimicry follows from the idea that Nature is the great economist in earth’s household. Thus ecology and economy, Nature, culture, and agriculture are brought together in a single discourse. Another contemporary manifestation of sustainability through biomimicry is found in the Permaculture movement. Permaculture, a portmanteau word made from “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture,” is, in the words of its most influential thinker, Australian Bill Mollison, “an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that mimic the relationships found in natural ecologies.”

            In conclusion, the various design and management principles that follow from Nature’s economy and biomimicry integrate nature with culture and offer strategies to culture workers acting in stewardship to the public interest. Folklorists are well aware of some but perhaps not others; it is their integration that I have been seeking here. I end this presentation with a few of those design and management principles:
            (1) Observe patterns in Nature that connect all living beings and design with these in culture. Do not impose form; in Nature form follows function. Manage for whole systems; do not offer single solutions.
            (2) Encourage cultural and biodiversity as a strategy for sustainability through adaptation and dynamic change. Encourage revitalization movements that recycle tradition and know that in order to survive, tradition must be dynamic.
            (3) From organic agriculture to culture, apply the principle “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Do not intervene to bolster specific expressive cultural genres—these will come and go naturally, and today in the internet age all are capable of staying in one form or another. Direct support to the social, political, and economic conditions or the cultural soil under which expressive cultures flourish and upon which they depend.
            (4) Nature rewards cooperation and demands local expertise; culture workers should partner with local scholars and practitioners, ascertain their desires and goals, and work towards mutual ends and rewards.            


Lomax, Alan. 1972. “An Appeal for Cultural Equity.” The World of Music, 14:3-4, 9.

Brundtland Commission Report. 1987. Our Common Future. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Howard, Sir Albert. 1940. An Agricultural Testament. Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press.

Loomis, Ormond, coordinator. 1983. The Conservation of Culture. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center.

White, Gilbert. 1908 [1788]. The Natural History of Selborne. London: Cassell.

Herskovits, Melville. 1952 [1940]. Economic Anthropology: The Economic Life of Primitive Peoples. New York: Norton.

Rodale, J. I., and staff. 1973. Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Books.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Anthropological Economics, Heritage, and Musical Sustainability

     The most influential thinker upon economic anthropology during early period (approximately 1940-1970) was Karl Polanyi, whose book The Great Transformation (1944) contrasted medieval European peasant economies with later capitalistic ones. For Polanyi, the “transformation” was not only a transformation of economic institutions but a transformation in the way of thinking about property, commerce, money, capital, and above all, social relations. Although for personal, political reasons he denied any connection between his thought and that of Karl Marx, the connections are obvious.

    Although Polanyi was not an anthropologist, his influence on economic anthropology was enormous and he remains a seminal thinker in the field. Like Herskovits, he promoted a cultural approach to economics, rejecting the classical and neoclassical construction of “economic man” and replacing it with an actor embedded in the social and cultural thought (Herskovits would have called it mythology) of his or her society. This approach to economics he called “substantivism,” and he contrasted it with the neoclassical approach, which he called “formalism,” maintaining all the while that formalism was not suitable for understanding economics in pre-literate societies. The implication was, of course, that it was unsuitable for understanding economics in developed Western societies as well; for economic decision-making and institutions are easily viewed as culturally embedded in the West as elsewhere.

    Polanyi's work was critiqued—by formalists—and gradually, beginning in the 1960s, economic anthropologists began relying on materialist rather than "mythological" explanations for economic transactions and institutions in pre-literate societies, to the point where in the 1970s and 1980s formal, quantitative, mathematical models prevailed. It appeared that principles of neoclassical economics could be applied universally with satisfactory results. “Formalism” in economic anthropology had re-established an “economic man” guided by principles of maximizing material well being at the center of many, if not all, non-literate societies as well as in developed economies.

    As the twentieth century came to a close, the powerful critique of cultural anthropology from within, based on post-structuralist, post-colonial Theory, attacked formalist approaches to economic anthropology, substituting instead the competing approach that has been dubbed “culturalism”: understanding a people’s economic thinking in their own terms or trying, as one would say now, to understand it in terms of local knowledge. In so doing, economic anthropology has, ironically, moved full circle back to Malinowski, who advanced the thesis, in his book Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), that anthropology must be directed at grasping the native’s point of view in the native’s own terms. (Of course, for Malinowski, grasping the native’s way of thinking was only a starting point; ethnographic analysis and ethnological comparison followed on). 

    This post-structuralist strain within contemporary economic anthropology directs us at looking at local knowledge in order to better strategize sustainability for cultural as well as natural resources. In this reading a partnership, however uneasy, between local and comparative-based knowledge, so-called lay and expert knowledge, brings diversity to the enterprise and has the best opportunity for success.

    In our new century, a (predictable) reaction against post-structuralism has advanced formalism once more, to the point that formalist models now compete with culturalist ones, while a revival of interest is promoting Polanyi’s substantivist perspective. Formalists would direct culture workers towards “economic man” models stressing that sustainability of musical cultures depends on the degree to which they reward desires for material well-being. To that we may add desires for the social and cultural capital which participation in art worlds such as music provides.

    From a practical standpoint, commodification of music and heritage tourism do provide a certain degree of social and cultural capital, and of course there is a good deal of material culture surrounding the production and consumption of music, whether “gear” for producing music, or iPods and the like for consuming it. (Only a couple of decades ago one could speak of “cassette culture” and boom boxes.) More and more sophisticated, computer-based tools of music production are becoming available to lay individuals, while internet access offers unprecedented opportunities for individuals to market their own music. Whereas twenty years ago musicians had to depend on the recording industry to get their music out beyond what they could do with personal appearances, today virtually all commercially-oriented musicians in developed economies make their own music available directly via the internet. Economic anthropologists of a formalist bent would urge culture workers toward a “realistic” view of music’s place in the economy, in effect advising those musical cultures interested in sustainability to join the marketing bandwagon. Giving music the cachet of heritage, in this way of thinking, adds value in marketing, and provides cultural capital for those who are willing to place a value on traditional music, thereby sustaining it.

    As I’ve written earlier in this research blog, marketing heritage is the prevailing strategy among contemporary culture workers who would effect policy in the direction of sustaining music. Make certain that traditional music takes up its rightful place in the global jukebox that the internet has become. Make it prominent among available choices for musicians and fans; encourage it however one can by adding value through heritage designations and attracting tourists. Those who remain uneasy with the commodification of traditional music are dismissed as idealists, romancers of the folk, and so forth. Are they? Further exploration of economic thinking in terms of musical commodities and their alternatives (usually conceived of as gifts) may offer some answers, putting us back again in Polanyi’s “great transformation” way of framing the questions concerning sustainability of music cultures.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Early Anthropological Economics

     Neoclassical economists take Euro-American economies as their principal subject of study, just as musicologists take Euro-American music as theirs. And just as it is short-sighted for musicologists to take Western music to stand for all music (see this blog, Feb. 6, 2009 entry), so in the context of my continuing exploration of ecology/economy, it would short-sighted to think Euro-American economies are fully representative of all economies. Looking at economic thought and behavior in non-Western (and early Western) societies should offer alternative possibilities and strategies for sustainability, both natural and cultural. This includes music, and it brings me to economic anthropology. 

     Economic anthropology as a sub-specialty within cultural anthropology developed in the US beginning around the time of World War II. Economic transactions in so-called primitive societies were an important topic for early twentieth-century anthropologists, especially because economic behavior of then-called primitive societies sometimes puzzled them. Malinowski's Trobriand Islanders and the Native Americans of the US Northwest Coast appeared to waste resources uneconomically. Western economists had assumed (and still do) that human beings always try to act in their economic best interests, to grow rich with the least amount of effort. “Economic man” came to be associated with rationality, self-interest, and the accumulation of material wealth; in John Stuart Mill’s words, “as a being who inevitably does that by which he may obtain the greatest amount of necessaries, conveniences, and luxuries, with the smallest quantity of labour and physical self-denial with which they can be obtained.” (See J.S. Mill, “On the Definition of Political Economy, and on the Method of Investigation Proper to It," 1836.)

     As anthropologists studied their ways of life, information on indigenous economic thought and behavior accumulated. Some behaved as “economic man” did in the West; some did not. One of the first attempts at a comparative economics was Melville Herskovits’ Economic Anthropology: the Economic Life of Primitive Peoples (1940, 1952). He came to comparative economics with Cold War era questions concerning collectivity and economic determinism: whether “primitive” (by 1952 he was calling the societies “non-literate”) economies were based chiefly on individual or collective efforts; and the degree to which economic choices determined the rest of a people’s way of life. But he also considered sustainability in terms of tribal practices that seemed uneconomic or wasteful, such as the deliberate destruction of property, and not in the best interests of economic efficiency. As an anthropological relativist, he concluded that cultural reasons trumped economic ones: “economic considerations will not prevail over mythological ones if the latter are strong enough” (Herskovits, Economic Anthropology (New York: Norton, 1952), p. 492.)

     Neoclassical economists, not surprisingly, faulted Herskovits' understanding of economics. For them, the science of economics must apply to all cases; otherwise it could not be a science. There could not be one science of economics for developed economies and another for non-literate societies. Economist Frank Knight argued that Herskovits failed to comprehend that economics is a theoretical science based on principles which describe ideal, not actual, economic behavior. “Economic man,” according to Knight, is not meant to describe how people do behave; it aims at describing how, in the abstract, absent other considerations, they would behave. The behavior of economic man in an ideal world is analogous to the way an object would remain in motion in the physical world were it not for friction. Herskovits replied that, to an anthropologist, the facts on the ground, actual economic behavior, must be the starting point—that anthropological economics must be an inductive and practical science, deriving principles from actual behavior, and not the deductive science that Knight postulated. Actual economic behavior among non-literate peoples was not always rational in the Western sense; if one wanted to understand the economies of non-literate peoples, one needed to understand how “mythology” directed economic behavior. This was a different goal than Knight's.

    Separating the mythological (or ideological) considerations from the economic ones is no longer so simple, if it ever was. Veblen’s famous early twentieth-century work on “leisure class” economics showed that waste, or conspicuous consumption, did have economic advantage, in that a conspicuous consumer would be regarded as a wealthy, powerful person and be treated with due respect. In understanding the apparently inefficient behavior involved in the economics of art, it’s important to take into account social capital (roughly, a storehouse of trust and reliability among people who interact with one another) and cultural capital (roughly, a storehouse of taste, which includes appreciation of the fine arts, and which enables one to travel among the refined and wealthy.)  All of this “mythological” activity, this accumulation of social and cultural capital (knowledge, reputation, authority), is critical to any understanding of the ways in which musical cultures may be sustained, for behavior in relation to music cannot always be explained by recourse to the “economic human.”

Friday, September 10, 2010

Ecological Awareness

From ecological economics we move (temporarily) to ecological awareness. Many Americans and some Europeans reading this blog will remember playing “cowboys and Indians” when growing up. Some merely imagined themselves one or the other; others donned a bit of costume such as a buckskin shirt and moccasins, or they wore a cap pistol in a holster. (Interestingly, my Native American friends have told me that they, too, played cowboys and Indians when growing up.) The Indian stepped silently through the woods in his or her moccasins, with senses keenly attuned to nature. Young Boy and Girl Scouts learn woodsmanship: how to get along in the wilderness. Hunting, fishing, building a fire, making shelter, survival skills: all these require a kind of ecological awareness of the natural world unavailable in the course of ordinary life to youngsters living protected lives in cities and suburbs; and so for some it becomes a kind of serious recreation. Euro-American culture values ecological awareness, as it values nature.

Do (or did) native or indigenous peoples acquire ecological awareness that leads to sustainability practices? If so, there is something to be learned from them. Anthropologists who study the pre-European contact lifeways of tribal societies agree that their peoples are ecologically aware; indeed, this feature is oft remarked on in popular anthropology, whether it is the Eskimos’ forty or so different words for different snow conditions, or the Australian natives’ intricate mental mapping of the landscape. But whether their ecological awareness led to practices that we would call sustainable turns out to be a more difficult question to answer.

It is more difficult because it is unclear whether their traditional economies were maintained over thousands of years prior to European contact because ecological awareness led to sustainable practices, or because the available technology was unable to exploit the resources to the point of exhaustion. Indeed, if resources such as game grew scarce, a smaller human population was supported until the resources were renewed. Anthropologists have looked hard to find instances of ecological awareness among tribal peoples leading to conservation and sustainability practices, but a recent review of the scholarly literature concludes that except in a few cases, indigenous groups exploited resources to exhaustion when new technology (e.g., guns, horses) made this possible. Of course, one could argue that new technology and contact with European cultures may have caused the disequilibrium, but whatever the cause, it would appear that the indigenous peoples’ ecological awareness did not lead to sustainable practices. Seymour Krech’s The Ecological Indian (1999) concluded, for example, that “little or no evidence could be found for conservation among Native Americans prior to contact and plenty of evidence demonstrated a lack of conservation during the contact period. . . . This view is consistent with major reviews of the conservation literature in the ethnographic world” (Raymond Hames, “The Ecologically Noble Savage Debate,” Annual Review of Anthropology, 2007, p. 178).   

Does this mean that there is nothing to be learned about sustainability from indigenous ecology? I would not rush to such a conclusion. For one thing, in the midst of the current sustainability debates, indigenous cultures have mounted legal actions based on the relation between ecology and cultural property rights, viewing nature in terms of what my friend Nathan calls a “sacred ecology” and claiming property rights to various natural resources on the land, basing those claims on traditional beliefs and practices which may be and often are in a revival phase within the native groups. In the midst of these debates, indigenous peoples, even if they did not practice sustainability in the past (when perhaps they felt no need to do so), are acutely aware of sustainability issues today. Further, it’s inconceivable to me that the more tradition-minded among them did not ponder and enact strategies for sustaining their traditional cultures in the face of Western colonial and cultural onslaught. To deny them deliberation in this way—that is, to deny that they thought about sustainability—is to perpetuate the myth of the unself-conscious, unreflective, savage. The strategies they adopted, and are adopting, in the face of such difficult odds, would indeed repay study.  

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why Sustainable Development Must Be Abandoned

The ecological economist Herman E. Daly insists on a basic distinction between “sustainable growth” and “sustainable development.” Sustainable growth is impossible because continual growth is impossible; as an economic goal it is bad policy. Sustainable development, on the contrary, is for Daly both possible and desirable. Let’s look at Daly’s argument in his own words:

“Because qualitative and quantitative change are very different it is best to keep them separate and call them by the different names already provided in the dictionary. To grow means ‘to increase naturally in size by the addition of material through assimilation or accretion.’ To develop means ‘to expand or realize the potentialities of; to bring gradually to a fuller, greater, or better state.’ When something grows it gets bigger. When something develops it gets different. The Earth ecosystem develops but does not grow. Its subsystem, the economy, must eventually stop growing but can continue to develop. The term ‘sustainable development’ therefore makes sense for the economy but only if it is understood as ‘development without growth’ — i.e., that qualitative improvement of a physical economic base that is maintained in a steady-state by a throughput of matter-energy that is within the regenerative and assimilative capacities of the ecosystem. Currently the term ‘sustainable development’ is used as a synonym for the oxymoronic ‘sustainable growth.’ It must be saved from this perdition” (“Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem,” in Valuing the Earth, edited by Herman E. Daly and Kenneth N. Townsend, MIT Press, 1993, pp. 267-8).

Can the term "sustainable development" be saved? (And is it worth saving?) My own view is that it is more difficult now than ever to do so. As a scientist, Daly understands that scientific terms have correct and incorrect definitions, and that their meanings may be controlled by a community of scientists granted such authority. In science this is indeed the case; terms like “force” and “energy” do have precise scientific meanings, and one of the goals of science education is to make certain that students understand exactly what these terms mean in the world of physics. But in the world of public debate, as Daly also understands, it is very difficult to patrol the borderlands of word meanings, particularly when words become laden with values. (He writes elsewhere about this ability of certain words to contain both themselves and their opposites.) Sustainability itself is one such word. Development is another.

Daly made a mistake, I think, in turning to “the dictionary” as he did. Perhaps he went to a dictionary and found the definition of development that suited his meaning. However, there is more than one current definition; Daly’s is not the only one. Indeed, the definition of “develop” has, itself, developed. The Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles (OED) tells us that the English word “develop” comes from the Old French, desveloper, literally to un-enclose, to unwrap, to expose. In England "develop" was first used in the 18th century and it had this same meaning: to unfold and bring out a potential that was already latent. It still has this meaning, and this is the meaning that Daly takes from the word. Daly writes that “Sustainable development [is] development without growth—that is, qualitative improvement without quantitative increase” (Daly, Beyond Growth: The Economics of Sustainable Development, p. 3).

But the OED recognizes another meaning for development, involving evolution and growth. Identification of the word development with growth came by the mid-19th century through botany (a plant develops and grows through its life cycle) and evolution (a progressive movement from simpler to more complex life forms). And in the late 19th century the word began to take on a growth orientation for property as well as for organisms. Development came to mean to realize the potentialities and value of a site, estate, property, and so forth by converting it to a new purpose or making it suitable for residence, industry, or business. By 1966, my first year of graduate school, Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defined “develop” both in the sense of “unfolding” and in the sense of growing. To develop was “to evolve, differentiate; broadly, to grow.” Today’s most frequently used on line dictionary,, also invokes the earlier definition, “to bring out the capabilities or possibilities”; but its usage example suggests growth: “to develop natural resources.” also identifies development directly with growth: “to cause to grow or expand.”

In short, as much as Daly would have us understand the term “sustainable development” as sustainable change without growth, it is impossible for him or anyone else to fix its meaning. Those who wish to think of sustainable development as synonymous with sustainable growth have dictionary authority to do so, just as Daly has for its opposite. No one has the authority to impose a single meaning on this word today. Just as human beings run into trouble when we try to dominate or “master” the natural world, so we cannot “master” the meanings of words. We are, at best, their stewards.

Lewis Carroll, author of Through The Looking-Glass (1872), understood this more than one hundred years ago. In a famous passage from that book, Humpty Dumpty has this conversation with Alice:

    “I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ Alice said.
    Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
    “But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice observed.
    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
    “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

But much as Humpty Dumpty would have it otherwise, it is the words that are masters. It is a mistake to think that one can control the meaning of words in public discourse. One can, of course, try to shape public understanding, but doing so with words that signify in unfortunate ways strikes me as being what Daly would term “uneconomic”; that is, cost outweighs benefit. And so it is time to abandon the term “sustainable development” and look for others, such as continuity, whose meanings are more congruent with the dynamics of tradition. Otherwise sustainability, in music as elsewhere, will become captive to the destructive idea that music cultures must grow in order to sustain themselves.

Sustainable Growth as an Oxymoron

Many of the big players on the international stage think that "smart" or "sustainable" growth is the best solution to the big problems today. Not only a bigger pie, but a smarter recipe. Is sustainable growth indeed possible? Or are the terms self-contradictory, an oxymoron? Several years ago Tom and Ray Magliocci, the “Click and Clack” of the NPR radio program Car Talk, talked about morons and oxymorons. One of them had said that such and such a thing, such as an inexpensive Mercedes-Benz, was an oxymoron. “Who are you calling a moron?” replied the other. Yet there is something moronic about an oxymoron, particularly one like sustainable growth.

Herman E. Daly’s ecological economics places the world of economic production and consumption squarely within the constraints of the natural world ecosystem, and in so doing he critiques today’s economists’ emphasis on growth. If anyone doubts where contemporary economists stand on growth, they have only to review current government policy regarding the so-called great recession. Economic policy makers such as Federal Reserve head Ben Bernanke view growth as the remedy for the problems supposedly caused by a contracting economy. (The causes, of course, are far more fundamental, and they are bound up in the way people think about human beings, the natural world, property, rights, production, consumption, wealth, money, work, life, ethics, pleasure, and leisure, among other things.) Indeed, economists frame recessions in terms of growth versus contraction in the gross national (domestic) product. We must produce and consume our way out of this predicament, according to the economists. Produce more! Buy more! Spend more! Save less! Put people back to work making more product so that the cycle of growth and progress can continue. This is  neo-classical economics in action, dominating contemporary policy.

In his early writings, Daly argued that the economic world ought to be viewed as tending toward a steady-state (equilibrium) rather than continually progressing and growing. In so doing, he was following the consensus among ecologists that ecosystems tend toward states of equilibrium. (As I wrote earlier in this research blog, this consensus among ecologists eroded in the last decades of the twentieth century; but more on that later.) After the Brundtland Report, Daly began using the increasingly common term “sustainable development.” He did so in an interesting and characteristic way.

To back-track a bit, one of the reasons the term sustainable development has gained popularity is that its meaning can be understood broadly; that is, because it is capable of many interpretations, policy makers can find ways in which it suits their inclinations. The Brundtland Report did not define sustainability in detail, saying only that sustainable development is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (This, of course, makes the strange assumption that the needs of future generations can somehow be known in the present.) In the nearly 25 years since the Brundtland Report, economists, environmentalists, ecologists, and to the dismay of many, corporate conglomerates have jumped on the sustainable development bandwagon.

Everyone wants to be green, today. My state public radio network, a non-profit corporation with employees and a Board, instituted an “evergreen friend” category of support. If instead of sending in a check after a telephoned pledge you agree to have a certain amount of money deducted monthly from your charge cards, you will "save a tree." It turns out that the trees saved would otherwise have gone to paper for fundraising letters, checks, and the like. How many trees can be saved by a few thousand evergreen friends? Ten? Two? I guess the idea is to have everyone do their part, however small. But the problem is much bigger than this.

Daly, predictably, has little use for such imprecision. In his textbook Ecological Economics, he explains what he means by “sustainable” in the context of “yield”; i.e., sustainable yield, as in a forest in which the re-growth exceeds the amount harvested or lost for other reasons such as disease and fire. In his more popular writings he takes great pains to define sustainable development in contradistinction to sustainable growth. He writes: “The term ‘sustainable growth’ when applied to the economy is a bad oxymoron” (“Sustainable Growth: An Impossibility Theorem,” in Valuing the Earth, edited by Herman E. Daly and Kenneth N. Townsend, MIT Press, 1993, p. 267). Obviously, if the economy is enveloped by a finite ecosystem there are limits to economic growth; when these limits are reached and costs of growth are greater than benefits, growth becomes “uneconomic.” But what about sustainable development? Daly thinks sustainable development is both possible and desirable. His argument is both subtle and clear, and it is worth taking some time to explore. I will do so in the next entry.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Herman E. Daly and Ecological Economics

For the past year or so I’ve been thinking more and more about "ecology" and "economy," as two different and opposing pathways of thought regarding sustainability--and music. In an effort to bridge the gap between the two, a gap I’ve written about here previously, I’ve been reading some of the writings by economist Herman E. Daly, whose bona fides include six years working as an economist for the World Bank, as well as various professorships in the United States. Daly, who coined the term “uneconomic growth,” developed a kind of economics that he calls “ecological economics.” I’ve been interested to see if Daly’s view of economics can somehow reconcile ecology with economy and thereby provide a kind of sustainability thinking for cultural policy involved with music. But first, what is Daly about?

Throughout his writing, Daly issues a powerful indictment of contemporary mainstream economics, which he terms neo-classical economics (NCE), for the short-sighted and harmful assumption that technology will assure continued, indeed for practical purposes unlimited, economic growth and human prosperity. According to Daly, the growth and prosperity of capitalist democracies in twentieth-century Europe and North America, particularly in the US, enabled the triumph of NCE, which is based on the assumptions that continual economic growth, fueled by technological progress, will increase the prosperity of all nations. Third-world and fourth-world nations, by developing and modernizing along capitalist economic and democratic political lines, aided by Western experts and advances in agricultural technology, will become more productive and prosperous, lifting their populations out of poverty. Technological progress will insure that every succeeding generation, in every nation, has a higher standard of living and a better quality of life. As he puts it in his book Ecological Economics (2004), “Our strategy was to grow first, in the hope that a bigger pie would be easier to divide than a smaller one” (xxiii). Daly does not go deeply into the political aspects (he is not a politician) but it's now clear that in the last century — the “American century”— making the world safe for democracy also meant making it safe for capitalism and technological progress and, furthermore, making the world over partly in our own image.

In opposing unlimited growth, Daly joins the critique ushered in during the 1970s with the Club of Rome and, later, the Brundtland Report, much discussed earlier in this research blog. But his critique is more powerful in the sense that it is offered by a respected World Bank economist, and in that it is offered in economic terms. Specifically, he critiques with the economic concept of marginal utility, and claims that when the costs of growth outweigh the benefits, we have what he terms “uneconomic growth.” Global warming, aka climate change, is the prime example of costs outweighing benefits, but it is not the only example. As most of the examples, such as atmospheric pollution and an increase in human disease, involve the earth’s environment and its ecosystem, Daly’s ecological frame of reference, ecological economics, becomes particularly apt.

According to Daly, neo-classical economists assume(d) that growth could be unlimited and not adversely affect the earth’s ecosystem, or at least that the adverse effects would be inconsequential considering the size of the earth’s resources. Daly calls this “empty world” thinking; i.e., that economic transactions among humans have relatively little effect upon the world's ecosystem as a whole. On the contrary, environmental degradation caused by economic growth, with the predicted consequences of climate change, show that “full world” thinking is more appropriate, and that economic transactions, particularly those involving energy use, have a major impact upon the  ecosystem.

Daly’s ecological economics, then, takes into account the environmental and ecological contexts of economic life. Whereas neoclassical economists either ignore the natural world or view it as economic resource, ecological economists understand the interconnectivity between the natural world and the economic world. In this way they approach not merely economics, but economics within nature’s economy. They understand human dependence upon the natural world in a way that neoclassical economists do not. "Economic man" exists within the natural world, not apart from it.

But is ecological economics a reconciliation of economic and ecological approaches to sustainability? Or is it meant to be a triumph of the ecological over the economic? We know how ecological economists stand in terms of natural capital; how do they stand on cultural capital? If some growth is uneconomic, other growth must be economic—that is, growth whose marginal utility is positive. Are they, then, in favor of “sustainable growth” or “smart growth?” Or do they view these terms as oxymorons? Where does Daly stand on this issue, and what are the implications for sustainability and music? In future blog entries I will explore these questions. For now, however, I acknowledge his major contribution to a re-thinking of economics, incorporating an ecological perspective. (In his notions of the “full world” there are, of course, parallels with earlier economists such as Malthus; and it would be worth exploring the climate of opinion that produced both Malthus and the field of folklore.) I also applaud his attempts to go beyond merely critiquing neoclassical economics from an ecological base, and instead to try to work out the science of ecological economics, which he has done in his writings and teaching.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Heritage and Colonialism Revisited

In response to an earlier blog post, from January 18 of this year, "JS" asked "Whose version of 'genuine,' 'relevant,' and 'authentic' do you use? Whose taste, judgment and critical thinking is supported? How is the folklorist reconciled with the ethnomusicologist?"

The short answer is that heritage sites support heritage managers' tastes, judgments, and critical thinking. Such thinking is informed by a critical discourse surrounding the "genuine," the "relevant," and the "authentic," concepts that have been attacked (some would say destroyed) by critical theorists yet that continue to be defended by culture workers. Critical theorists today by and large take the position that such concepts are irrelevant and not helpful in understanding how cultures produce their subjects and objects. Heritage managers continue to use a version of these concepts based in traditional folklore and (to a lesser degree) ethnomusicology. Regina Bendix's book, In Search of Authenticity, is a history of folklore that is useful in this context.

The point I was making in the blog post is that ethnographic research and heritage management both appear as artifacts of the bureaucratic state, which is a handmaiden of colonialism. That is disturbing when the ideology of sustainability is meant to be enabling rather than stifling.

In recent months I've been turning to the writings of Herman Daly, an ecological economist; and to the concept of co-evolution, to see if they present a pathway out of this paradox.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Managing Catastrophe

Now that the semester is over I'm returning to this research blog. The British Petroleum oil rig explosion, with millions of gallons of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, has been much on my mind this past month. It's a catastrophe for the Gulf ecosystem. A human-made catastrophe. Play with fire and eventually you'll get burnt. Pride goes before a fall. The proverbial expressions are already in place for this spectacular instance of mismanagement, but damage will be so extensive that similar incidents of engineering gone amok such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl don't compare in extent. But a more serious nuclear accident, not to mention a nuclear bomb, would. How far does this sort of thing have to go before people come to their senses and insist that government put an end to it?

Deep ecologists will take this as further evidence that human beings have no business engineering the natural world. Or trying to manage it. Yet attention to values will show there is a difference between engineering and managing for resource extraction and exploitation, such as oil drilling or mountaintop removal, which supports an unsustainable way of life; and the kinds of social engineering and management that aim at conservation.

Friday, March 12, 2010

In print

The special issue of the journal The World of Music has just been published--the one on music and sustainability, with outstanding essays from scholars Tom Turino, Mark DeWitt, Lois Wilcken, Janet Topp-Fargion, and Tom Faux, along with my essay on an ecological approach to musical sustainability, and my editor's introduction to the entire volume. The wheels of publication turn slowly, but they do turn; now we shall wait to see what response is forthcoming.

In the meantime, a seminar during the current semester on music and cultural policy has helped inform me on what some others have been saying about these issues. I've refrained from commenting on the seminar here because, of course, the students know about this research blog, and I would prefer that they formulate their own ideas in response to the topic and weekly assignments. Still, it's plain that much of the discourse revolving around heritage and cultural tourism and engines of sustainability is based in economics; some is based in cultural studies. To date ecology has contributed only a little, by way of the concepts of biodiversity and conservation; my hope is that others will begin to think about how conservation works (and does not work) in ecology, and not simply borrow the concepts. For example, there is an interesting values-based critique of biodiversity that I hope will be the subject of a future post here.

Obviously, one of the things that fascinates me is the way these two discourses, economics and ecology, employ the concept of sustainability. I began to write about this in the paper for the American Folklore Society last fall--printed in its entirety in this blog a few months ago--and now I wish to explore it further. And so I've been reading not just in economics but in the field of ecological economics, to see what is out there. 

Saturday, February 13, 2010

America's Best Idea?

News that an old colleague, Chuck Perdue, is near death prompted me to think about sustainability, conservation, and the US National Parks, the subject of a recent film series by the enormously popular documentarian Ken Burns, who calls the Parks "America's Best Idea." Not yet having seen this film series, I won't comment on it except to say that for the folks living back in the 1920s on the land that became the Shenandoah National Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, the Park wasn't America's best idea; it wasn't even a good one. The federal government forcibly removed and resettled the inhabitants to make way for the Park. Chuck and Nan Perdue's research into the Park removals overlapped with my research in the early 1980s on the families that lived in that region and who were the ancestors of the church congregation that became the core of my book, Powerhouse for God. I wanted to explore the relation between land and life, husbandry and religion, the ecology and human ecology of the region, and how lived traditions enter community life.

The mountain farmers did not leave their land willingly. Park supporters argued that their lifestyle, scratching out a subsistence living from scraggly mountain crops and from pigs running wild in the forest, was outdated and used the land badly. It was a poor adaptation, and the mountain poverty of the people was the result. They could be resettled in modern towns in clean, small houses with garden plots and indoor plumbing. Yet somehow those who were resettled in those modern circumstances felt claustrophobic and did not thrive. They longed for their unbound life in the mountains.

In the name of conservation, then, a Park was created chiefly for recreational purposes, to serve (as it was then argued) the population of Washington, DC who might travel to the Park for a weekend and come back to government work refreshed by experiencing the natural world. Of course, the Park had to be transformed back to Nature; it had been badly used, it was said, by the farmers. Today scarcely a trace beyond an old cellar hole remains. At Big Meadows, a natural clearing in the center of the Park, and a feature that was noted by travelers as early as the 1700s, stands an Interpretive Center, where the history of the land is told. When I last visited it fifteen years ago, there was no mention of the removals.

Today it is the mountaintops themselves that are being removed, for coal. Such removal is consistent with the ideology that Nature is a resource to be used. Wisely used, but used. This was the ideology that drove the Conservation Movement in the US during most of the 20th century; its champions were Theodore Roosevelt, and the Yale man Gifford Pinchot. Of course, along the way, compromises need to be made for the greater good. If a local population must be removed, or if its way of life must become as polluted as the mountain streams after the giant machines slice off the mountain tops, the damage is slight compared to the greater good that comes from the cheap energy of coal that heats the power plants that give us all so much electricity--and if they contribute to global warming, why, technology will give us "clean coal," whatever that may be, at some point before the planet warms beyond saving. So goes the rationalization and justification, but it rings hollow.

In my thinking about music and sustainability, I have wondered to what extent music should be regarded as a resource--a renewable human resource, of course, not a finite natural resource like coal. Does resource thinking about music inevitably put us on the same path as resource thinking regarding natural resources? When heritage and cultural tourism are the outcomes of musical and cultural conservation movements, must heritage organizations inevitably exploit resources? To what extent are people and cultures objectified in these constructions? How are those resources constructed and given value, and in what would their exploitation consist?