By now, faithful readers of this blog won’t need to be reminded of the “four principles” (diversity, interdependence, limits to growth, stewardship) that I’ve been advocating for cultural policy. At the ABET workshop on music and sustainability, I proposed those four for discussion. Indeed, some of the speakers at the ABET conference were acquainted with them from my essays in The World of Music. As these principles were developed by conservation ecologists, not cultural policymakers, one might ask what are the grounds for guiding cultural policy by principles derived from attempts to manage the natural world. What does it mean, in other words, to apply an ecological or environmental (they are not the same) way of thinking to cultural policy? And what would such a way of reasoning be? If conservation ecology applies ecological thinking to managing the environment, how would this translate into the world of cultural policy? What is an ecological cultural policy that would enable musical sustainability? It’s important to try to frame these questions carefully, because the nuances in the way they are framed will suggest alternative routes for answering them.
And so it’s important to ask, first, whether cultural engineering is likely to do more good than harm. Why not let culture take its course, as one would manage nature by letting it alone, to be as wild and “natural” as possible? After all, if plants and animals have natural cycles of birth, growth, decline, death and decay; if species rise and fall, adapt and sometimes become extinct; if ecological communities themselves change beyond recognition, why not simply let nature (and culture) be? Why manage nature, or culture, at all? Isn’t it, perhaps, un-natural to try to intervene? And why presume to manage for sustainability using ecological thinking, when the components of ecosystems die natural deaths? Why shouldn’t musics, languages, and other aspects of culture also die natural deaths? Isn’t that ecological?
To which we may ask, what is a natural death, if it is caused by human interventions that wreak havoc on individuals, populations, communities, and ecosystems? How many species have gone extinct within the past two hundred years—roughly, since the start of the Industrial Revolution—as a result of human impact on ecosystems, compared to the number that would have gone extinct anyway? The answer to why conservation ecologists should attempt to manage nature at all, of course, is that nature is already being managed, badly. Letting nature alone would mean abandoning nature to the land developers, the oil companies, the timber cutters, the mining companies, agribusiness, and so forth. Does the same analogy work for culture? Those who say no to applied ethnomusicology tend to do so on the grounds that music is best left alone to take its natural course. But what is its natural (cultural) course?
When I was participating in a meeting of the folk arts panel for the National Endowment for the Arts about 30 years ago, one of the panelists urged this hands-off approach. We were trying to decide whether to recommend for approval a grant proposal that would give money to an organization that was attempting to manage the flow of music in its city by encouraging musicians in underserved communities to set up a music school. One of the panelists objected, saying that it seemed to him like the organization was interfering in the natural (cultural) flow of music in that city. “We shouldn’t be meddling in their affairs,” the panelist concluded, with a flourish. Bess Hawes, director of the Folk Arts Program, seldom spoke at these meetings; she felt she should not try to influence the panelists. But here was a fundamental challenge, and if the answer was no meddling, no attempts to manage, then her organization might as well cease to exist. And so when the panelist said we shouldn’t be meddling, she responded by saying something like this: “Of course we should meddle! Everyone else is meddling with culture and the arts. Some institutions think only fine art is worthy of support, and that’s where they put their money because fine arts aren't self-supporting. Other people think that the only worthwhile art is art that makes money, so they want to get rid of all support. Some people think that the arts are the finest expressions of human life. Others think the arts are useless. Everyone is meddling; why shouldn’t we? We want to encourage the folk and traditional arts. Not many others do. Why shouldn’t we act on our beliefs, if we truly believe in them? Why shouldn’t we meddle? Supporting folk arts is meddling. Not supporting folk arts is another way of meddling. We are all meddlers no matter what. Why shouldn’t we try to meddle for good?”
Needless to say, her argument carried the day. But the position that one should stay out of the way and let nature or culture take its course might be supported on other grounds. Neoliberal economists rely on their interpretation of Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand: that each party acting out of economic self-interest results in a market that is guided (by an invisible hand) for the common good, and so that economy is best which is managed (regulated) least. The same would be true, by analogy, in the realm of culture and the arts: an invisible hand would ensure the best outcome.
Now, Adam Smith did write that an invisible hand guided self-interested actors to work for the public good. Here is the relevant excerpt from The Wealth of Nations: ““Every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it ... He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good."
But although Smith thought that an invisible hand guided self-interest toward public good, he did not go on to derive the neoliberal principle that market regulation was largely unnecessary. In fact, he believed that markets should be managed and regulated. Therefore, the neoliberal argument for laissez-faire rests on a misunderstanding of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” and so it would be wrong to rely on Smith’s authority here. Of course, that does not prevent neoliberals from deriving laissez-faire and less government regulation from the so-called invisible hand. But this is wishful thinking. If the hand is invisible there is no way of knowing whether, or how, it works—or if it works at all. Experience suggests the contrary: that self-interested actors guide their own hands toward wealth, and without regulation the result is income inequality and cycles of boom and bust, not to mention social injustice and ecosystem exploitation.
Given that conservation ecologists do attempt to intervene to prevent the extinction of species by managing ecosystems in the environment, and allowing that their “meddling” is meant for the benefit of all, we return to the question of how conservation ecology transfers over into the realm of cultural sustainability, particularly for music but also for other aspects of expressive culture. And that is where the “four principles” come in. Why these four principles and not others? Why not, for example, manage for a “balance of culture” or cultural equilibrium? Isn’t that ecological?
Here it’s helpful to understand that ecological thinking has undergone a sea change regarding how nature “naturally” behaves. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, most scientific ecologists agreed that, left to its own devices, an ecosystem moved towards a balanced equilibrium, a dynamic, but stable, state. Of course, ecosystems were subject to disturbance (fire, drought, etc.) but they tended to restore themselves to a stable “climax” condition, or at least move in that direction until the next disturbance.
But a paradigm shift occurred during the last 40 years or so, and now most ecologists no longer believe that nature “naturally” moves toward a dynamic, balanced equilibrium. The “balance of nature” paradigm was replaced by a new one that emphasizes change and disturbance. The new paradigm admits that nature may achieve equilibria, but these are temporary and, for a given ecosystem, they occur at different points of balance, with the result that there is no longer any “climax” state towards which nature moves, but rather a series or scale of different possible equilibrium points, some advantaging certain species, some others. Ecosystems are not self-restorative. Instead of sustainability, with a view toward achieving it through encouraging the balance of nature, the new paradigm centers on the concept of resilience, or the degree to which an ecosystem resists disturbance. Ecosystems are managed, now, to increase resilience to damaging changes. Of course, a resilient ecosystem does manage to achieve a degree of sustainability, if only temporarily; but not in the same way as a stable, balanced one.
Will managing for cultural (and musical) sustainability be replaced, then, by resilience? So far, it does not appear that “cultural resilience” has caught hold. Possibly it will, and perhaps it should; so let’s anticipate a little bit what it would mean. Cultural policymakers managing for sustainability, such as those involved with UNESCO, or the “big three in DC” (the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Folklife and Cultural Studies, and the Folk and Traditional Arts division of the National Endowment for the Arts), have also been managing for resilience as a means toward sustainability, chiefly by encouraging activities involving the traditional arts and their continuation, strengthening institutions and attempting to add value to those arts, particularly among the younger generations who must be the ones to continue them. “Resiliance management” might not come as news to these culture workers, or to those who have been partnering with musical and other traditional arts communities through participatory action research. Alan Lomax’s 1972 call for action against what he termed “cultural grey-out” was a resiliency response to a perceived disturbance.
But there would, I think, be some subtle differences in managing for resilience rather than for sustainability. For one thing, resilience would suggest that managers (whether for culture or nature) adopt a defensive posture and be vigilant against disturbance, which means anticipating possible changes to the natural (or cultural) ecosystem and planning for them. Again, the obvious example is global warming, and the need to plan for this major change and the disturbances that it is bringing, such as an increase in violent weather that damages the natural and built environment, or the need to transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy. In a way, of course, this is common sense. In the cultural arena, resilience planning would involve such things as responses to new communications models, such as the Internet: how can expressive culture be encouraged in an environment where so many musical exchanges, so to speak, take place virtually, over the Internet. Not that virtual music is new; it’s been around ever since recordings, and arguably is embedded in musical notation. But the Internet fosters new models for virtual communication, new opportunities for co-presence (whereas recordings were not traditionally interactive in this way).
The downside of resilience is that the defensive posture puts managers in a response mode in which cultures are regarded as reactive rather than dynamic or innovative. That is one problem. Another is this: if change is the rule in nature, why not also in science? If nature does not progress to a climax, why should science? What grounds have we for believing in resilience? Is it just that it seems to fit today’s world better than balance? And if so, is that good enough—for now, until another paradigm comes along? In future blog entries I will have more to say about my reservations about managing for resilience.
 "Economy, Ecology and Music: An Introduction," and "Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Viewpoint," The World of Music, Vol. 59, no. 1, 2009, pp. 5-16 and 119-138.