Saturday, March 31, 2012

Sustainability Unbound (1)

   The Sustainability Unbound symposium at the University of New Hampshire last week brought five lecturers before an audience of faculty, students, and the general public. Although none of the four other presentations was on sound and music per se, my co-speakers all brought up issues that have been discussed over the years in this research blog, sometimes offering insights that were new to me, and helpful. For example, Enrique Leff discussed cultural sustainability in terms of ecological economics and economic anthropology, but he also brought into the discussion a broader indictment of "economic man" and market capitalism, by an examination of the so-called economic rationality behind the contemporary world economic system. And Lewis Hyde discussed intellectual property rights and the cultural commons, but he also brought into the discussion a consideration of the collective self, or what he called "collective being," as a way to think about the public's right to intellectual property. My own presentation on "Thoreau's Sounding Earth" intersected with Melissa Lane's paper in drawing on Emerson's thought, although we have different opinions of the usefulness of his self-reliance concept for sustainability. And so on--the speakers had no doubt been selected with the hope and expectation that our concerns and perspectives would overlap, and that this would in the end help the humanities become part of the sustainability discourses. It was obvious, I said, to everyone in the rather large room where the event was held over a two-day period, that a humanistic emphasis on values and lives deliberately lived has much to contribute, but I likened the current position of the humanities in the sustainability discourses to the music of the spheres--distant and unheard. I'll have more to say about this event and the individual presentations in a series of blog entries going forward, but for now I wish--again--to express my gratitude to the event's conveners for bringing us all together for an extremely thought-provoking two days of intellectual exchange.


  1. The first lecture I attended was “Cultural Commons and the Collective Being,” presented by Lewis Hyde, professor of Creative Writing at Kenyon College. His lecture drew on the idea of “the commons”, which refers to something that everyone can access and use. While Professor Hyde’s work originally focused on relating this concept to internet usage, in his lecture he expanded “the commons” to include common access to ideas, for example in music or science.

  2. Yes indeed. And in his lecture Hyde traced the idea of the commons to the common uses of natural resources. The commons refers to property held publicly, not privately. The usual example is common land set aside for peasants to graze their livestock, in medieval European villages. As many others have done, in his lecture Hyde refuted Garrett Hardin's influential article, "The Tragedy of the Commons," which posits that the natural outcome of property held in common is over-exploitation and destruction.Instead, it was the European enclosure movements of the 17th and 18th centuries, which I've written about in earlier entries in this blog, that destroyed these commons. (Some New England villages nevertheless have preserved their commons, though not for that usage: the "town common" is a small, park-like area near the center of the village now used for recreation.)

    As I write in a later blog entry, these ideas about the commons, particularly the application to the so-called digital commons, have been discussed for at least 20 years (mainly by librarians, scholars, and others involved in information services and information technology). In my field of ethnomusicology, Anthony McCann has for many years explored the analogy of the commons and enclosures to discuss music and copyright law. His stimulating insights may be found at