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The Sustainable Humanities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 October 2020


Any discussion of how the humanities can contribute to sustainability or how the humanities are sustainable must begin with what critics of the sustainability concept have called its cultural deficit: academic humanists and artists have not been central to discussions of what sustainability is and might be. Sustainability is most commonly understood in economic terms, as production that respects ecological carrying capacities. Because the sustainability concept is “squishy,” in Bill McKibben's words, it invariably drifts toward the more pragmatic project of sustainable development, the goal of which is keeping modernization viable—a goal dubious to many environmentalists as well as to cultural critics (102). In an era when the rhetoric of crisis dominates public conversation about political, social, educational, and environmental affairs, the term sustainability can seem anemic. Its emphasis on long-term planning and stewarding of resources has none of the dramatic appeal of apocalyptic visions of a world in which all human and natural ecologies are in collapse. For many environmental critics, it is a term that in some sense fails to account for the necessity of drastic changes in how resources are protected, much less distributed, and it relies too heavily on protecting the very state of affairs that got us into trouble in the first place. For its critics, and even for its reluctant supporters, it is a term about managing anxieties that shuttle between local and global concerns, individual and corporate responsibilities.

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

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