Saturday, June 23, 2012

Sustainability Unbound (5): Political Ecology

Before trying of summarize Enrique Leff's brilliant presentation to the Sustainability Unbound gathering at the University of New Hampshire last March, a word or two about the person himself. We happened to arrive at the conference inn at the same time. This inn, which housed the speakers, advertised itself as an 18th-century antique; but most of it had been tastelessly rebuilt and furnished by someone who spent lavishly but knew little of what period New England antiques were supposed to look like. After introducing ourselves to each other while checking in, we spent the next few minutes talking, then went to our rooms to unpack our bags, and emerged commenting that as the inn's ersatzian decor made a mockery of sustainability, we were glad the symposium was to be held elsewhere--at the university. Leff is a gracious, soft-spoken man of middle height and build, with a dry sense of humor. He is a native of Mexico, perhaps five or ten years younger than I, and a public intellectual who is an author and also a research professor in Mexico City. He has the Ph.D. in developmental economics and considers himself an environmental sociologist. He has held numerous posts with UNESCO on environmental education, and he is the author of several books and essays on the environment and economics. 

In our conversations over the next two days I learned that he is also seriously interested in music, and that he performs as a bolero and opera singer. I told him of my current project involving Hawaiian slack-key guitar performance, and he was interested to learn of Mexico's involvement in bringing the guitar itself to the Hawaiian islands in the early 19th century, for the instrument was unknown in Hawaii earlier. I spoke to him about how the slack-key style of guitar playing was a Hawaiian invention and how it developed into a family and rural community tradition of informal, group music-making, with many different tunings, techniques and repertoire carefully guarded as intellectual property by different families up to about World War II. At that point, with the rural areas emptying, it became clear to many that unless something were done to preserve it, the tradition would die. And so the prominent musical families decided to save the music not by giving it to an archive for preservation, but by giving it away, putting it in the public domain and spreading it around--a better means of sustaining music than archiving alone.

Leff's presentation, "Unbinding Sustainability: A Latin-American Political Ecology Perspective," drew powerfully on the sustainability indictment of economic greed within the framework of ecological economics, pointing out the irony that so-called economic rationality (the idea that when economic man acts to maximize wealth, the invisible hand of market capitalism benefits all) has led not to universal prosperity but to irrational damage to the planet and its ecosystems. Like me, he is skeptical of so-called sustainable development, because despite good intentions development trumps sustainability. Leff pointed out that in order to reverse this irrational damage, humanity must not merely throw over sustainable development but more fundamentally the values on which it is based: wealth measured in terms of how many things a person accumulates or a nation produces (GDP). It is why I am skeptical of economic growth as a panacea, for while it may temporarily relieve economic recession, it will not cure human depression. Wealth measured in terms of beauty, harmony, spiritual values, and so forth offers a different path to happiness, a much more sustainable one. 

In working up this indictment, Leff made a number of provocative points. One, that economic so-called rationality is based on objectification--the measurement of a person or thing or process in terms of cash value only. Two, ecological economics in itself cannot create the revolution in consciousness necessary to overturn those values. Three, "the environment," nebulous as that term is, is nonetheless an external reality which resists being absorbed into rationality, economic or otherwise. This struck me as a viable alternative to the deconstructive attack on philosophical realism. Four, in reaching for a model of ecotechnological productivity based on what Leff called "life" (or what I've thought of as Nature's economy), he turned to the model of photosynthesis, a negentropic process. (The negentropy is temporary and local, of course--Frost's momentary stay against confusion--but if it effected a revolution in consciousness and productivity it would be global, not local, and would effect a technological revolution as well.) 

In searching for cultures whose ecotechnological productivity is based on "life principles" rather than the entropic acceleration caused by economic rationality, Leff turned to Native peoples of South America, particularly Inca civilization and its descendants. These cultures, with their traditional life ways, could offer models, just as certain Native North American cultures have offered models. And Leff also mentioned Karl Polanyi's The Great Transformation, showing that he had gone down a similar route concerning pre-capitalist Europe and the rise of the market economy. This was a route I explored a couple of years ago and wrote about on this blog (Oct. 4, 2010 and again on Aug. 14, 2011), in terms of alternative economic systems, asking whether economic anthropology has concluded that Native economic systems are or were more environmentally friendly and ecologically integrated. The evidence, I gather, is not generalizable; moreover, it and its interpretations are disputed by different factions. But that does not mean that one throws out the baby with the bathwater--some Native economic principles and systems clearly suggest a more harmonious relationship with the natural world. And Leff has been thinking about this for several years, with native Latin American cultures as his reference point.

One of my conclusions from Leff's presentation was that if, in the West, Nature has been humanly constructed time and again in our changing image of the economy, then we may try to find constructive ways to resist ecological chaos theory just as Leff proposes models based on photosynthesis as negentropy in opposition to the "normal" degradation that is entropy. After the symposium concluded, his parting words to me were that "music will keep us together." Indeed, we've been in contact by email and I'm looking for more of his work in English--most of it is in Spanish, of course, and unfortunately I never learned that language.


  1. Interesting. Last semester I read Karl Polanyi in a book club of musicology majors. We wanted to have perspective based on economy. Our question was how the liberal economic policy in modern Asia has been changed environment in which music was created and performed. I didn't expect to see Karl Polanyi and his book "The Great Transformation" on here. Glad to find this blog. :)

  2. I'd be very interested to know whether Polanyi's thesis about economic transformation in Euro-America would work outside that region, particularly as modernity arrives in parts of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. I wonder if some of the scholars I met at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing would have an opinion on that, and I wonder what Korean scholars think? What did your book club decide?

  3. Even though I've wrote a paper about the issue, I don't think that my opinion is the consensus of Korean scholars. Because even I didn't publish it yet. I'm just on the process constructing my thesis about it.
    However, I'm sure that if Asia follows the same method as Euro-America, it's possible that it would beget an abject ramification in Asian music culture. As Polanyi said, it's true that the system is also destroying the traditional concept; natural and eco-friendly, of Asian community, and the concept is the key to be created and performed Asian music culture. That's the reason why I believe that an alternative economy system could be worth in the different culture.
    We decided to read through books covering all sorts of the issue, so now we are reading "Bad Samaritans:The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism".
    Hope I can find a fundamental way to analyze this crisis that Asian folk music culture faces now. :)
    Anyway, do you have a plan to come to China for the Beijing conference? I visited the conservatory twice about eight years ago for the cultural interchange between Korea and China. I also wonder about whether some scholars in the conference have same interest about it.
    Could I get some information from you about the conference?