Sustainable Music


Thursday, July 21, 2011


    When I was in Portland, Oregon last February at the round table with various musicians, musicologists, acoustic planners and city arts managers I was struck by something one of them, Tim DuRoche, said when he introduced the term “resiliency” and suggested it might be a better way of thinking than “sustainability.” Tim spoke about resiliency in ecological terms, saying that while sustainability implied preservation, he wanted to manage the arts for growth and change. He spoke about improvisation in music (he is a jazz musician as well as an arts administrator) as adaptation, with resiliency a key component. I embraced that idea, commenting that “resiliency” is a term that has emerged in contemporary ecological thought, to describe management strategies for complex systems where mathematical modeling and predictability is difficult if not impossible. I added, though, that in ecological thinking today, sustainability is allied more with adaptation and resiliency than with preservation.

    Resiliency planning is a strategy for protection against unpredictable disturbances in (and to) nature and against the law of unintended consequences. It arose from a critique of the ecosystem paradigm, a way of thinking about natural worlds that stood at the center of ecological thought from 1935 when Arthur Tansley coined the term "ecosystem" until about 1970 when the critique gained traction. In my 2009 essay “Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Approach” I had noted the part of this critique that is directed at equilibrium theory in ecosystems, but I maintained that four principles from conservation biology/ecology, the principles of limits to growth, diversity, interconnectedness, and stewardship, should guide cultural policy planning for music cultures. After all, conservation biology/ecology developed beginning in the 1970s, just as the critique was making its force felt. What I had not done was explore the extent to which that critique affects those principles, nor why that critique made me think of a kind of sustainability that tilts away from preservation of cultural heritage and towards adaptation and change, the same conception that Tim DuRoche alluded to when he spoke about resiliency. And since that conversation with Tim and the others in Oregon it nagged at me that I had not done so, and that perhaps I had not yet gotten it quite right, either. I resolved to take up this line of research again this summer after the teaching semester was over. As I did so, a number of questions resurfaced, ones that I want to explore further in blog entries during the next several months.

    First, the critique. Two of the linchpins of twentieth-century ecological theory were challenged beginning in the 1970s and are largely discredited by ecologists today. One is the idea, associated with Frederick Clements in the first decades of the 20th century, that forests and other natural units, when left alone as “wild nature,” pass through successive stages toward a diverse, stable, mature, and final or “climax” stage. The second is the idea, implied by Clements’s notion of succession and climax, and associated with the influential mid-twentieth century work of ecological scientists Howard and Eugene Odum, that mature ecosystems are those in which organisms, populations, and communities exist in a dynamic equilibrium characterized by energy flows and cycles (modeled mathematically) governing birth, growth, decay, and regeneration. These two ideas not only constituted the scientific discipline of ecology but also guided conservation efforts and environmental management in the last half of the twentieth century, and provided scientific grounding for what those who write for the general public sometimes term “nature’s way” or, more often, “the balance of (wild) nature.” But today's ecological scientists no longer believe in climax theory, nor in ecosystems whose normal state is dynamic equilibrium, nor in a balance of nature.

   I make a distinction between ecological science and environmentalism. The latter is an outgrowth of the conservation movement, and it involves many stakeholders besides ecological scientists: naturalists, conservationists, eco-tourists, policy makers, organic farmers, ecocritics, landowners, and those within the extractive industries such as mining, forestry, and agriculture that wish to use and renew natural resources, not use them up. Indeed, ecological scientists are not necessarily part of the environmental movement and many have strong reservations about it. Conservation biology is a branch of ecology that is very much a part of the environmental movement, but most ecological scientists are not conservation biologists. Most lay environmentalists today still believe that nature “naturally” moves towards balance; but ecologists no longer share that belief, while their research also questions the basis for correspondence between diversity and stability in ecosystems. Indeed, the ecosystem concept itself, which once ruled ecology, is no longer at the center of the discipline. How did this happen, why did it happen, and what does it mean, for ecology, environmentalism, and sustainability? Where do conservation biologists stand on the matter? Where has ecological science moved in response to this critique, what is the center of the discipline today, and what are the implications of this change for musical and cultural sustainability? Have the four sustainability principles from conservation biology/ecology been undermined or strengthened by this paradigm shift, and how might they be modified to suit the brave new ecological world?

    A number of other questions relate to the changing nature of ecological science. How, for example, has the post-structuralist, postmodern critique of science impacted contemporary ecological thought? Is a post-normal science of ecology possible? Is it desirable? What might it be like, and is it worth doing and worth wanting? And how, for example, has the new type of literary criticism, called ecocriticism, impacted literary theory? What is the relation between ecocriticism and deconstruction, and what are their implications for ecological science, environmentalism, and musical and cultural sustainability? What is the relation between the “balance of nature” and “nature’s economy?” What is the history of these ideas and how old are they—how did they develop and when did they take their present form? Does the pastoral tradition (in literature, art, and the humanities), a genre of nature writing and representation, involve a “balance of (i.e., in) wild nature” or is it, rather, directed more toward a harmonious relationship between nature and humankind? What are the implications of chaos theory and complex systems analysis for ecology, ecosystem management and, by extension, for cultural management and sustainability? How has the “evolutionary turn,” the return to Darwin and his principle of natural selection, impacted contemporary ecological thought; is there a place for evolution in ecosystem thinking today? And what is the place of ecosystem ecology in contemporary ecology? Finally, what can we learn from developments in soundscape theory about acoustic ecology? What does contemporary research in the sounds made by insects, birds, and whales, for example, tell us about all of these things, about sustainability and nature’s economy, balance, evolution, music, language, ecocriticism, antirealism, the natural world, and the human? These are some of the questions I’m anxious to explore in the near future.

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