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After Sustainability

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


It seemed like a good idea while it lasted, but we should have known it could not last. the era of sustainability is over. behind our shared cultural narratives of sustainability sits a fantasy about stasis, an imaginary world in which we can trust that whatever happened yesterday will keep happening tomorrow. It's been pretty to think so, but it's never been so. In literary studies, we name this kind of fantasy pastoral. Such a narrative imagines a happy, stable relation between human beings and the nonhuman environment. It seldom rains, mud doesn't clog our panpipes, and our sheep never run away while swains sing beautiful songs to coy shepherdesses. In this sustainable green world, complicated things fit into simple packages, as literary criticism has recognized, from William Empson's “pastoral trick” (115) to Greg Gerrard's “pastoral ecology” (56–58). This green vision provides, in Gerrard's phrase, a “stable, enduring counterpoint to the disruptive energy and change of human societies” (56). That's the dream toward which sustainability entices us. To be sustainable is to persist in time, unchanged in essence if not details. That's not the human experience of the nonhuman world. Remember the feeling of being wet, like King Lear, “to the skin” (Mentz, “Strange Weather”). Changing scale matters, and local variation does not preclude global consistency, but the feeling of the world on our skin is disruptive. Our environment changes constantly, unexpectedly, often painfully.

Theories and Methodologies
Copyright © 2012 by The Modern Language Association of America

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After Sustainability
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