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Monday, October 31, 2016

Environmental Humanities, Music and Sustainability

Photo by Jeff Todd Titon, E. Penobscot Bay, ME
    Environmental humanities is only six years old, one of a proliferating number of fields prompted by the current environmental crisis. My interests in sustainability and music have taken me, over the years, into a number of environmental areas: conservation biology, human ecology, ecological economics, and ecomusicology, to name a few; and now environmental humanities. Environmental humanities, according to one definition, is meant to integrate humanistic research on the environment from cultural geography, ecocriticism, cultural anthropology, environmental philosophy, and political ecology. The ideology behind it seeks to move beyond a “holistic vision of nature as a privileged place in the history of ecology,” to an understanding of humans and our concerns “within the everyday places in which we live.” It is said to turn away from a conception of an ideal nature constructed as unspoiled (by human culture and corruption) wildness, to an idea of an environment that humans have impacted for millennia, with problems such as climate change and environmental injustice. This conceptual shift turns away from the radical environmentalism of deep ecology, and toward an integration of the human, and humanities, into environmental thinking, at least inside the academic world. Instead of envisioning the restoration or preservation of wilderness ecosystems, “environmentalists are re-envisioning nature as pervasively and enduringly shaped by humans. These concepts are beginning to put pressure on the key concept of ‘sustainability,’ which has organized a good deal of environmentalist thought for the last two decades.”
    One way of looking at the way these developments are “pressuring” sustainability is to consider the critique of the sustainability from within resilience thinking. Advocates of resilience (and I am one) maintain that, first, sustainability is a goal, not a strategy; and second, that insofar as sustainability implies maintaining a climax equilibrium state of natural balance, it is out of step with current thinking in ecological science, which has abandoned the idea of the balance of nature. In chapter 5 of the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, I develop this critique of sustainability and discuss resilience as a better way of thinking about musical and cultural continuity and integrity. My thinking about resilience has, itself, changed over the years, from skepticism to a guarded optimism.
    Fall is conference season for me, and only last week I was asked to present about environmental humanities at the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting, in Miami. I spoke about how folklife studies, with its long history of ethnographic documentation of traditional beliefs, customs, and practices, including folk medicine, agricultural adaptations, and beliefs about the place of humans in the natural world, could contribute to the discussion of traditional ecological knowledges in the environmental humanities. I was asked, also, to speak about my own background in the disciplines related to the environmental humanities. I might have said something about studying with Leo Marx, my honors thesis adviser at Amherst College. Marx is surely one of the earliest environmental humanists, an ecocritic whose book, The Machine in the Garden, measures the impact of technology on the American pastoral ideal, as revealed in the literature of writers such as Melville, Hawthorne, and especially Thoreau.
    But I chose instead to speak about my background in ecology, mentioning my introduction to the subject when I spent the summer after my sophomore year working in a human ecology project, for Dr. Lawrence Hinkle, at the Cornell Medical School, in Manhattan. In the following academic year, I studied with Oscar Schotté, a biologist whose academic pedigree extended back to Ernst Haeckel, the German embryologist who in 1866 coined the term ecology and defined it as “the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment including, in the broad sense, all the ‘conditions of existence.’”
    I went on to talk about my sound ecology project, and concluded (again, in response to my assignment) by repeating some of the conclusions I’d come to after decades of research in fields related to environmental humanities. These included the four principles of interdependence, diversity, limits to growth, and stewardship. They also included some of the conclusions I’m coming to from my sound ecology project, concerning the implications for communities, economies, and ecologies of a sound ontology and epistemology. I also spoke about these a few weeks ago in a keynote address to the southwest chapter of the American Musicological Society, while an earlier formulation of these ideas on a sound ecology are scheduled for publication in Ethnologies later this year, or early next.
    It was fascinating to see the explosion of the environmental humanities at the AFS conference. There were two days of panels on the subject last week, whereas in previous conferences not much if anything. On the panel with me were several friends and colleagues whose thinking has inspired me for many years, including Rory Turner, founder of the cultural sustainability MA program at Goucher College; and Mary Hufford, whose pioneering work in public ecology and folklife is finally getting the recognition that it has long deserved.
    The conference season is always stimulating, as I feel pulled in two directions: one, I want to be with my colleagues, learning from them and sharing ideas; two, I want to be back at home, developing those ideas, thinking, reading, and writing. I have one more conference this fall, the ethnomusicology meeting in Washington, DC in a week. For that, I was asked to speak about public ethnomusicology 25 years after the publication of the first (and only) issue of the Society for Ethnomusicology’s Journal that was devoted to the topic of ethnomusicology in the public interest. This topic falls within another relatively new field, public humanities. And all of this—environmental humanities, public humanities, and so forth—arises in a crisis period when “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” as the saying has it.