Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Cultural Sustainability, Economics and the Environment

   Efforts at musical and cultural sustainability must not fall victim to tunnel vision. Even in those areas where musical loss appears to have been reversed, entire social groups remain at risk. Economic and environmental threats to cultural sustainability may be even more significant than media pressures. Public folklorists and applied ethnomusicologists, concentrating on short-term victories in cultural sustainability, have short memories. Only twenty years ago, folklife specialists understood the interdependence of culture and the environment. Bent on community partnerships for the arts, culture workers today seem to overlook the fact that cultural sustainability faces potentially catastrophic economic and environmental forces. That is the essence of what follows here.

A sea of mown hay  Creative Commons License

Not long ago folklorists were theorizing cultural conservation; today the operative term is cultural sustainability. Both refer to partnerships between culture workers such as public folklorists, applied anthropologists, and applied ethnomusicologists, on the one hand, and communities of people who are rich in  expressive culture, with the goal of preserving, conserving, encouraging, and sustaining both the arts and the communities. These culture workers almost always work both with community artists and community leaders. These include community historians, scholars, arts promoters and political leaders. But whereas cultural conservation emphasizes preservation, cultural sustainability encourages development.
    In the cultural sustainability discourse, culture is used in three ways: one, as the whole way of life of a group of people; two, as a synonym for art; and three, in the phrase “expressive culture,” which refers to art as lived experience.
    Late last month, at the annual American Folklore Society conference, I heard dozens of public folklorists describe their cultural sustainability work. Most of these descriptions fell into a pattern. The folklorists described instances of successful partnerships that helped sustain the community’s traditional arts, usually through the tried and true methods of festivals, parades, artists coming into the public schools to demonstrate their arts, arts apprenticeships, museum exhibits, and media projects including recordings, videos, books, and Internet sites. These activities are intended to validate the artists and their traditional arts, to make them feel more secure in what they are doing, to help them support themselves by generating more of a market for their arts products, and to give a larger public stamp of approval (usually from a government agency such as an arts council) to community artists and their activities.
    The argument also is made—although it was not made so strongly at this past AFS conference—that these artistic activities constitute a “creative economy” which can help make up for financial losses in communities that have been hurt by the loss of manufacturing or other jobs, particularly if the traditional arts are branded as cultural heritage and attract tourist dollars. What I’ve just described is the general model, and although in some cases it’s worked better than others, at the AFS conference almost all the reports were positive. One success story followed another and another, at least in terms of encouraging the traditional artists and raising their profiles within the various communities (usually urban and ethnic), if not in terms of a creative economy whose impact was measured in dollars and cents.
    I, too, have written about cultural partnerships with the goals of conservation and development, describing my work in southeastern Kentucky in the 1990s with Old Regular Baptists to help the community maintain its music culture. This involved obtaining a self-documentation grant for them, teaching them how to use recording equipment, and their making recordings of endangered music among their own people and creating a library and a stock of teaching tapes to help maintain the tradition. In addition, we recorded two CDs for Smithsonian Folkways, some of them appeared at the Smithsonian Folk Festival, and then in the new century they participated in two conferences on lined-out hymnody at Yale University, organized by Professor Willie Ruff, where they demonstrated their singing—the oldest English-language religious folksong tradition in the United States (1).
    Cultural sustainability, in short, appears to be a growth industry. About four years ago Goucher College began offering the M.A. in Cultural Sustainability, to educate culture workers. Other graduate programs that emphasize, or at least include, public folklore or public humanities in their curricula, similarly are emphasizing community partnerships and cultural sustainability. Of course, many of the public folklorists who advocated for cultural conservation ten, twenty, and even thirty years ago were saying some of the same things about community partnerships and the traditional arts (2).
No train horn Creative Commons License
     Nevertheless, I worry that overlooked in the celebrations of community expressive culture are economic and environmental threats to those communities themselves. Why? For one thing, partnering with community leaders is far more difficult when the subject is economics or the environment than when the talk is about encouraging the arts. Everyone likes the arts and the only argument is over whether and how to pay for them. But bring up problems involving industry, transportation and fossil fuels, community relations, poverty, unemployment coupled with crime and drugs, or schools, land use, the location of medical services and the cost of their delivery, energy sources, noise pollution, natural disasters, relations between natives and newcomers, discrimination based on gender, age, and race, global warming and climate change, the effect of floods and rising sea levels, income inequality, gentrification, public transportation, water rights, and the like, and communities show themselves to be in serious disagreement. When community partnerships are viewed as feel-good, kumbaya opportunities, and the "culture" in "cultural sustainability" is centered on the arts, then a focus on community arts and cultural sustainability has worked effectively, though this is not to say it has been easy. But when intractable problems and deep community divisions surface, and the "culture" in "cultural sustainability" is taken instead to mean the whole way of life of a people, then united action is far more difficult, if not impossible; and success stories will be fewer and farther between. Yet cultural sustainability is ultimately dependent on solving those environmental and economic problems, for the arts depend on it even as community sustainability does. 
    Mary Hufford was one folklorist who probed the connection between cultural and environmental conservation. Unlike most of her colleagues who were concerned then (as now) with the conservation of the traditional arts in communities, Hufford in the 1980s explored community expressive culture which related to conservation in the world of Nature, whether in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey or in the forests of West Virginia. Working for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, she helped initiate the Pinelands Folklife Project in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, thus linking cultural with government natural conservation management efforts and moving the field of folklife in this direction. After completing this project she turned her attention to links between folklife and the forest ecology of the southern Appalachian mountains while editing a volume of essays, Conserving Culture (3).
    Indeed, the Folklife Center had considered the links between cultural conservation, land-use planning, and the natural environment in the early 1980s in conjunction with the Tennessee-Tombigbee River Waterway project, already under construction, when they were asked by the National Parks Service to take part in so-called “mitigation efforts” to counteract adverse effects of the Waterway on the affected areas’ populations and surrounding resources. After initial enthusiasm for the project, the Center withdrew, citing ethical issues (4). Further attempts to partner with the Parks Service during the next fifteen years also produced uneven results, due to differences over politics, bureaucratic problems, and arguments among stakeholders over goals and methods. In 1999 a new Folklife Center director was hired, in 2002 Hufford left the Center to direct a newly formed folklife and ethnography center at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center moved away from team projects involving ethnography, culture and nature (5). Meanwhile, intangible cultural heritage gained currency as both a term and strategy among public folklorists, particularly when UNESCO intensified its international efforts in this area in the new century.
    Hufford had approached me in the 1980s to discuss mutual interests because I too had been exploring the relations between culture and nature in my research for the Powerhouse for God projects (6). In the Powerhouse book I proposed an ecological model for farming, family, and belief using the metaphor of husbandry to unite the realms. Back in the 1970s when I started this research I was not thinking in terms of cultural conservation; rather, I was interested in how traditional ways of thought nurtured in that ecosystem had persisted into the twentieth century, particularly in a religious worldview, despite the loss of the farm economy and the transition to an industrial and service economy (7).
    And so despite the early efforts of folklorists like Hufford, the environment is not playing an important role in contemporary cultural sustainability discourse. I plead guilty myself. Although I’ve been talking and writing about conservation biology and environmentalism and their contributions to the sustainability discourse, until fairly recently I’ve been concerned chiefly with music, sustainability, and cultural policy. But as I continued to explore Nature’s economy and acoustic ecology, conservation biology became not only a resource for my cultural policy work but also a bridge to environmental sound-worlds themselves. My recent work in Thoreau and sound in the natural world instantiates this shift.
Yellow warbler Creative Commons License
    Burt Feintuch, another folklorist who was an early leader in theorizing cultural conservation, asked me some years ago what role economics played in the Old Regular Baptist community that I had been working with in the 1990s (8). He had, himself, been researching music and cultural tourism and the creative economy in Cape Breton, where much of the industrial and fishing industry has departed, while the major economic activity of the island has become a tourist trade which depends, in significant part, on the traditional music and dance of the region. I did not have a good answer for him at the time, but I’ve thought about the question ever since. Economics also has been largely absent from the cultural sustainability discourse, except insofar as people were talking and writing about cultural heritage, tourist dollars and the creative economy. (Of course, the Old Regular Baptists would not care to become actors demonstrating their cultural heritage for tourists, except very occasionally, at festivals, conferences, and so forth.)
    Here, then, are some excerpts from what I said on the cultural sustainability panel, when I spoke about the perils of overlooking economic and environmental threats when considering work in cultural sustainability.
    “When thinking about culture, it would not be wise to overlook nature and the traditional economy as it relates to the community that culture workers partner with.. . . 
    “In other words, if the natural ecosystem that sustains traditional expressive cultures is damaged, drastically altered, or collapses, the effects on cultural sustainability are catastrophic. This is not an entirely new idea for folklorists, of course, but it is a principle that is liable to be forgotten when discussing cultural sustainability, for those discussions most naturally turn to cultural threats.
    “In those areas where traditional expressive culture is dependent on ecosystem maintenance or, in some cases, ecosystem restoration, the idea that culture is dependent on the natural environment is unavoidable. Examples include Native American basketmaking in northern New England, where a beetle, the emerald ash borer, threatens to destroy the ash trees from which baskets are made. Examples abound among traditional indigenous cultures in Africa, Asia, the circumpolar regions, and Latin America whose lifeways are threatened or have been unalterably changed by destruction of the environment, usually done under the banner of modernization and economic growth. But in other areas the link between culture and nature is not always perceived as directly. I would like to suggest that this is a failure of imagination which folklorists and other humanists are in a position to understand and act upon, because we can understand these interconnections in terms of what humanistic geographer Yi-fu Tuan four decades ago called topophilia, or love of place (8).
    “. . . as folklorists are well aware, wholesale changes in local and regional economies, such as the drying up of fisheries or, in the case of central Appalachia, automation in the coal mines, threatens local cultures and causes out-migration. But threats to the natural environment rise to yet another level, because economies are themselves dependent on the natural ecosystem. The economic human does not exist apart from the natural world. An entire field, ecological economics, is devoted to that principle.
    “Thus in Appalachia an even greater threat to cultural sustainability, greater than cultural threats from newfangled music or trendy religion, and greater than from economic displacement, is the threat to the nature of Appalachia caused by the impact of modern mining methods on the mountain ecosystem: first strip mining, and now the horror of mountaintop removal. Topophilia is strong in Appalachia, as elsewhere; and it results in and from the intimate connection between culture and nature. But with wholesale alterations to the mountain ecosystem, and the resulting natural disasters—some obvious, like flooding, and others less obvious, such as microclimate change, unchecked predation in agriculture and elsewhere in the natural world because the ecosystem has been disturbed, and so forth—cultural sustainability is threatened as never before. Folklorists, in short, would do well to understand where and how cultural sustainability interacts with environmental sustainability, and build that into their cultural policies.”


(1) Jeff Todd Titon, “The Real Thing: Tourism, Authenticity, and Pilgrimage among Old Regular Baptists at the 1997 Smithsonian Folklife Festival,” The World of Music 41 (3), 1999, pp. 115-139. Also, Jeff Todd Titon, “Tuned Up with the Grace of God: Music and Experience among Old Regular Baptists,” in Music in American Religious Experience, ed. Philip Bohlman and Elizabeth Blumhofer, New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.

(2) Ormond Loomis, ed., Cultural Conservation: The Protection of Cultural Heritage in the United States. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, 1983.

(3) Mary Hufford, One Space, Many Places: Folklife and Land Use in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, 1986. Also, Mary Hufford, ed., Conserving Culture: A New Discourse on Heritage. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

(4). See Alan Jabbour, The American Folklife Center: A Twenty-Year Retrospective. Washington, DC: American Folklife Center, 1996.

(5) The University of Pennsylvania’s Administration decided about 2000 to put an end to its Folklore Department and distinguished Ph.D. program, and to put in its place a new Center for Folklife and Ethnography, hiring Hufford as its director. Tenured folklore professors were permitted to stay in the university.

(6) Jeff Todd Titon, Powerhouse for God (2 LP recordings, booklet), Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1983. Also, Jeff Todd Titon, Powerhouse for God: Speech, Chant and Song in an Appalachian Baptist Church, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1988. Also, Barry Dornfeld, Tom Rankin, and Jeff Todd Titon, Powerhouse for God (16mm film), 1989. Distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, MA; also may be streamed and viewed in its entirety at

(7) My thoughts had turned in this direction partly because of my participation in the environmental movement of the 1970s, and partly because of my participation as a faculty member in a team-taught course in the American Studies program at Tufts University. The course was entitled “History and Ecology in America,” and it was in that context that I began linking my interests in ecology with my academic work.

(8) Burt Feintuch, ed., The Conservation of Culture. Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 1988. See, e.g., Jeff Todd Titon, Elwood, Cornett, and John Wallhausser, eds., Songs of the Old Regular Baptists of Southeastern Kentucky, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways CD, 1997. See also, Jeff Todd Titon, “Old Regular Baptists of Southeastern Kentucky: A Community of Sacred Song,” Smithsonian Institution, 1997, at

(9) Yi-fu Tuan, Topophilia. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Photographs above: 1: "A sea of mown hay," East Penobscot Bay, Maine, summer 2012. Photo 2: "No Train Horn," Pittsfield, Maine, summer, 2009. 3: "Yellow warbler," East Penobscot Bay, Maine, summer 2010.All photos by Jeff Todd Titon, © under a Creative Commons license. You may freely share them, but you must not alter them and they must not be used for commercial purposes.


  1. Hi, Jeff Todd Titon,

    I am a Wampanoag women in Rhode Island. I am finishing up a Masters Degree from Goucher College In Cultural Sustainability. I am also a cultural bearer of my Seaconke Pokanoket Wampanoag Tribal Nation. I sing with a group called Nettukkusqk We are traditional Native American singers and performers. I also paint pictures of the Eastern Woodland Native Americans to assert the existence and identity of my people. I have read some of your papers. I was particularly impressed with the discourse of one of your papers re; biased and stereotypical ethnography's having the potential to harm certain groups.
    I appreciate your views on Ethnography and Cultural Sustainability . and consider your work to be brilliant.


  2. First, thank you to the Wampanoag for keeping the so-called Pilgrims from starving at the first Thanksgiving and the following winters. We white folks have conveniently forgotten about this, and about our genocidal wars against your people, including the Pequot massacres. At least the Rhode Islander Roger Williams had the good sense to compile a partial dictionary of your language back in the 1600s. He understood how a people living close to the land the natural world would keep wisdom in their language and songs and stories and dances. As a culture bearer you are continuing those traditions. We owe you an unrepayable debt of gratitude. May my people some day realize our debt to you. Secondly, congratulations on your graduate work in cultural sustainability. As you know, I teach at Brown University, in Rhode Island, and would be glad to meet you some day and talk about our common interests.