Sustainable Music


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Sustainability is Environmental, Economic, and Cultural

Three Spheres of Sustainability, from Joshua J. Yates, "Abundance on Trial," The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2012.

     Musical and cultural sustainability are inseparable from environmental ecosystem sustainability. That’s been one of this blog’s themes from the outset. I advanced an ecological approach to musical sustainability beginning about 2006 with the Nettl Lecture at the University of Illinois, followed by presentations and panels at the American Folklore Society and Society for Ethnomusicology conferences—the latter published in a 2009 issue of the journal, The World of Music. Now a dozen years later, in May 2018, there will be a conference at the University of California, Santa Barbara, based on this very same proposition, that environmental and cultural sustainability are inseparable. 
     The conference announcement reads, in part: “Cultural Sustainabilities is a two-day conference driven by the proposition that environmental and cultural sustainability are inextricably linked. This conference brings together leading social scientists, humanists, and activists to address the premise that reversing or ameliorating the negative impacts of human behavior on the globe’s environment is at its core a human cultural question.” The conference is sponsored by the University of California, Santa Barbara, departments of Music, Anthropology, Media Studies, and Environmental Studies, with support from UCSB’s Center for Interdisciplinary Study of Music and the Interdisciplinary Humanities Center. The list of sponsors indicates that sustainability today is considered an issue for the arts, humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. In 2006, of course, that was not the case; beginning in that year I spoke, and then wrote, that in the university world of theoretical and applied knowledge, sustainability discourses resided primarily in economics (particularly developmental economics) and ecology (particularly conservation biology), while in the public arena sustainability was associated with environmentalism, energy conservation, and living a “green” life. In addition, sustainability thinking led to ecological economics, an alternative to neoclassical economic theory. Today a robust discussion of sustainability is occurring in the arts and humanities. Indeed, sustainability is now mainstream enough for it to be critiqued in the environmental humanities, who (mistakenly in my view) believe that it promotes a version of deep ecology as the sustainability ideal. 
     I’ll have more to say about that sustainabilities conference at UCSB as this coming May approaches—it is free and open to the public, and parts or all of it may be streamed on the internet—but what prompts this post is the assault on environmental and cultural sustainabilities underway by the current US federal Administration, personified by the policies put in place by the heads of the US Department of the Interior (Ryan Zinke) and the Environmental Protection Administration (Scott Pruitt). Yesterday, it was announced that 9 of 12 members of the US National Parks Advisory Panel resigned en masse, in protest, because during the year 2017, the first year that Secretary Zinke was head of Interior, he never once convened or consulted his advisory panel. After they resigned, a spokesperson for the Department of Interior told the board chair, Tony Knowles (former governor of Alaska) that their resignation was “welcome” because the board had ignored sexual harassment in the Parks, and that they had also ignored an invitation to meet on January 8th. Knowles told a NPR interviewer that these charges were laughable; no invitation for a meeting had ever come to the board, while they had in fact offered advice to the previous Administration on sexual harassment policy, which was a serious problem in the Parks (and in the Interior Department as a whole). Knowles suggested that the Adminstration’s spokesperson, associate deputy secretary Todd Willens, was inventing facts to fit the false narrative he wanted to present. Willens' moral condemnation of sexual harassment, like that of his boss, rings false considering the history of sexual predation that accompanies the nation's chief executive. Having served on an advisory board myself, and having experienced something similar when the organization got a new leader, I know what it means when the new head is unwilling to follow the advisory board’s advice. But seldom does the new leader ignore the board entirely. 
     The Parks represent natural ecosystems set aside for conservation and preservation, in a nation where for centuries economic development has exploited natural resources without much regard for sustainability. But now, according to former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewel, even the Parks themselves are at great risk. They face a $12 billion backlog of deferred infrastructure maintenance already, and it is clear from the environmental policies being put in place by the current Administration, that the Parks will not receive much federal help. One “solution” to their financial problem, scheduled to be implemented this year, is a rise in the Parks’ admission fees, by roughly 350%. Where it used to cost $20 to visit Acadia National Park in Maine, for example, this year the admission fee will rise to $70. (The advisory board had opposed the rate raise.) For a working-class family of four, part of the voter base that elected this President, a cost of nearly $300 in admissions alone would put such a vacation out of reach. And yet, these were meant to be “national” parks, available to all, not private land. As Woody Guthrie wrote in the song, “This Land Is Your Land,”

There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me; 
Sign was painted, it said private property; 
But on the back side it didn't say nothing; 
That side was made for you and me. 

This verse is not listed in the Wikipedia entry for this song, by the way. Someone should update it. 
      I’ve posted blog entries here about partnering with Scott McFarland at the Great Smoky National Park in the spring of 2016, on a soundscape project, part of the Park’s “natural sounds and night skies” initiative to preserve the sonic ecosystems of the Parks for visitors and also for the benefit of all Park inhabitants (plants, animals) that cannot survive without sound communication. But the assault on the Parks is just part of a larger agenda, a policy encouraging coal mining, timber cutting, oil and gas drilling, and so on, in environmentally sensitive areas such as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, as well as federally owned lands; and in areas where an environmental disaster such as an oil spill would have adverse economic impacts on local and regional industries. Opening up the Gulf of Maine, for example, to oil drilling—which the current Administration may well accomplish, despite opposition from all the state's Congressional representatives, including the very conservative Republican, Bruce Poliquin—could destroy the fishing and tourist industries that the state of Maine’s population greatly depends on. The impact of the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico stood as a warning to the previous Administration; but under the current one it’s open season on the environment, for the benefit of the oil corporations and the wealthy who have effectively bought the government (see Citizens United) at the expense of the people. 
     No clearer examples of the interlinks between environmental and cultural sustainability can be found than in the damage done to people and their ways of life caused by environmental disasters. The fact that these environmental disasters result in large part from human economic activity fueled by belief in maximizing material wealth in the short run, does not prevent those presently controlling federal policy from exacerbating the problem and causing further environmental injustice while mounting a propaganda campaign of denial and reversal. Such policies may yet trickle down to reduce and then eliminate federal support for the arts and humanities, for public media (NPR and PBS). The propaganda campaign infects the public sphere and threatens academic freedom while it gaslights scientific truth, and puts colleges and universities’ disinterested pursuit of knowledge at risk, in the same way that the Parks, the environmentally sensitive areas, and American cultural values (such as democracy, equal opportunity, civil rights, and human rights) are also under assault. It’s taken a dozen years, but now sustainability is understood to be cultural and social, as well as economic and environmental, with important connections among them.