Saturday, February 26, 2011

Systems and sustainability at the EPA

The federal Environmental Protection Agency “is undertaking what some call a ‘seismic shift in the way it works: making ‘sustainability’ its central goal,” said Bruce Gellerman on this morning’s public radio broadcast of Living on Earth. Jeff Young interviewed the new head of the EPA, Paul Anastas, who explained that instead of targeting for specific interventions, he “wants his scientists to think more broadly about systems and sustainability.” Anastas explained using climate change as an example: “Climate is inextricably linked to energy, energy inextricably linked to water, water to agriculture, agriculture to health, and we could go on and on. If we start saying that the entirety of our approach to sustainability is simply to reduce our carbon footprint or to look at any one aspect, then we will not be getting the power and potential of the synergies of looking from a systems approach.”

Anastas’ adoption of the systems approach indeed represents that shift from conservation thinking, in which particular problems such as endangered species are addressed by specific interventions, to ecological thinking, in which the principle of interconnectedness guides policy makers to look at the consequences of specific interventions in the context of the interdependence of the whole system or ecosystem. This is precisely the shift in thinking that I have been proposing for cultural interventions, based on the principle of interconnectedness, one of the four principles I’ve been speaking and writing about. I explain it most thoroughly in my essay, "Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Viewpoint," in The World of Music, Vol. 51, No. 1 (2009), pp. 119-138.

 This kind of thinking underlies my proposals to feed the cultural soil, so to speak, rather than the particular arts or genres; in other words, to concentrate efforts in musical and cultural sustainability on improving the conditions that give a life to traditional music and expressive culture, rather than simply targeting endangered musical cultures for support, as UNESCO (the major institution involved in cultural sustainability throughout the world) has been doing in its efforts to safeguard intangible cultural heritage. I would hope that the same kind of shift in strategy that the new EPA head is espousing would translate to the institutions that are making cultural policy—not only UNESCO, but national agencies as well, such as arts councils, museums, historical societies, and traffickers in cultural and musical heritage.

But I’d add a word of caution. This kind of holistic thinking, which Anastas is adopting at the EPA, envisions a paradigmatic environmental system, one that claims that large ecosystems move through a succession of stages towards a balanced state in dynamic equilibrium. The climax forest concept is the usual example. But some contemporary ecologists have discarded this model of a balance of Nature in favor of one based in evolutionary biology, with blind chance and mutation as the driving factors over the (very) long term. This newer paradigm challenges Nature's economy (a concept that, incidentally, Darwin himself believed) and posits disturbance and disequilibrium as the new normal. Climate change on Earth, as it has occurred over hundreds of millions of years, is taken as the usual example. Because my thinking here is informed by ecology, it would be irresponsible not to consider this newer paradigm—welcomed in some quarters, damned in others—and its consequences, for music, cultural policy, and sustainability. I intend to do so in a number of future posts, particularly as I examine the role of music and sound in evolution. Evolution, as I wrote here many months ago, was once a forbidden topic among ethnomusicologists, but climate change effects ideas as well as temperature.


  1. Wonderful! and glad to know about the article in The World of Music. Hitting the database right now.

  2. That's actually from RRL. Cheers.