Sustainable Music


Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The limits of green

What is the relation of music and sustainability to the humanities? I’ve been thinking about this subject for a few months now in preparation for a lecture in the University of New Hampshire’s Saul O. Sidore Lecture Series (March 21-22, 2012). The theme of this year’s series is “Sustainability Unbound” — unbound, that is, from “the limits of green,” as their poster puts it. (Go to for information on this event.)

The context is this: the University of New Hampshire has a Sustainability Academy with faculty and outside fellows; it funds programs and curricular initiatives, monitors sustainability research, and tracks various UNH programs, centers, and institutes related to sustainability. Along with the UNH Center for the Humanities, they are sponsoring this lecture series. Five of us are to lecture at this two-day event which is open to the university community and the general public, and we are to explore the relation between sustainability and the humanities. We are, besides myself: Melissa Lane, a professor in the department of politics at Princeton, who is concerned with sustainability in ancient Greece and has focused attention on Plato's Republic; Lewis Hyde, whose work I’ve mentioned before in this blog, a professor at Kenyon and Harvard and a Macarthur Fellow. His book The Gift (1983) takes up many of the themes I’ve been concerned with over the decades in my own research; his most recent book, Common As Air, is a defense of our cultural commons. The other lecturers are Enrique Leff, a Mexican philosopher, economist and environmentalist; and Carol Mansour, a Lebanese/Palestinian filmmaker. I will be very interested in sharing ideas with them and with the UNH faculty, students, and general public.

What then, I wonder, do they mean by the limits of green? What first comes to mind is this: that there is more to living “green” than doing one’s part in conserving energy and recycling, which I suppose is how most people think of being "green." My university has a “Brown is Green” program which concentrates those two activities. Many colleges and universities have sustainability initiatives ranging from this sort of thing to attempts at making the entire campus sustainable in terms of energy use, with solar and wind power supplying all the electricity for example. Berea College, where I taught as Goode Visiting Professor of Appalachian Studies back in 1990, moved early in this direction, not only "greening" their campus but establishing an eco-village within the College featuring a permaculture forest, edible landscapes, ecologically designed buildings, and so forth. I find this interesting in that when I was a professor there, the College owned the oil-fired power plant which generated electricity for the entire city of Berea, Kentucky. If you lived in Berea, you paid your electric bill to the College. Your sewer and water bill, too. A quick check on the Internet reveals that Berea College Utilities is still in business, having merged with the city government only a few years ago. I could not find how much renewable energy the utility used to generate its power. Perhaps someone connected to the College will read this and let me know.

Another way to think about the “limits of green” is by considering what the humanities can add to a discourse that has been informed chiefly by the natural sciences (ecology) and the social sciences (economics). But one needs to recognize immediately that humanities thinking is already on board. Conserving endangered species, for example, is often justified both on instrumental and ethical grounds--and ethics is a traditional concern of the humanities. Here, it may be helpful to separate out two strands of “green” science. One is the ecological study of the natural world using objective and value-free empirical methods. (I will leave aside for the moment the powerful critique of scientific objectivity that arose in the second half of the twentieth century.) The other is the ecological study of the natural world guided explicitly by principles of justice, applying them to all species (including humans). This latter is a kind of applied ecology, putting ecology to practical use, and is usually termed conservation biology or conservation ecology. It provides a scientific basis for the ideology of environmentalism and “living green.” But it is also deeply grounded in the values of the humanities.