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March 29, 2017 • By Maria Antonaccio Imagining Sustainability: A Q&A with Maria Antonaccio

Sustainability is almost always associated with environmentalism. There’s pressure on consumers to live “green.” The Chicago bag tax, the rise of “green” consumer products, and the upsurge of “reduce, reuse, recycle” rhetoric all indicate an increased consciousness of human impacts on the environment. Yet sustainability is a multidimensional concept that tries to integrate environmental, social, and economic concerns. It asks, “What kind of society and what kind of future do we want to inhabit?” Maria Antonaccio, a professor of Religious Studies at Bucknell University, uses the tools of humanistic inquiry to uncover the larger existential questions implicit in sustainability discourse. 

What is your research for The Enhancing Life Project about, and what are some of the things that you've been working on, or that have captured your attention, recently? 

My project is on the cultural meanings of sustainability. “Sustainability" has become a buzzword in contemporary culture. Whether one hears about sustainable businesses, sustainable consumer products, a sustainable environment, etc., it’s a word that is often on people’s lips in a variety of contexts. Unfortunately, with repeated use, the word tends to lose any meaning. And yet it's a crucial term to think about, especially in an era of climate change.  

My research project is trying to sort out the cultural meanings of sustainability in the context of an intensified consciousness of climate change. Sustainability asks the question of whether the way that our societies are currently structured is really sustainable, and what changes would be needed in order to make them sustainable in the long term. That is a question that has not only environmental dimensions, but also social, cultural, political, and economic dimensions as well. In that sense, sustainability asks what kind of society and what kind of future we want to inhabit. For that reason, “sustainability” has long been a concept that has circulated in the social sciences and in global policy discourse. But I'm trying to bring additional humanistic resources to thinking about it, to make it an interesting and relevant concept to ordinary people who might be temped to dismiss it as a passing trend. Since I'm a scholar of Religious Studies and Ethics, I’m trying to bring the resources of critical and cultural analysis to the different meanings that the term “sustainability” has acquired in different sectors of society, and to evaluate their implications for contemporary life.

What have you been writing? 

I have recently completed two chapters about sustainability that will appear in different edited volumes. In the first one, I try to make the case that the concept of sustainability is playing a role in academic discourse similar to the one played by the concept of "risk" in the period of the 1980s through the early 2000s. The idea of risk became a major cultural marker—a term that was being talked about across the disciplines and also in ordinary life. Sociologists argued that late modern societies should be understood as “risk societies,” not only because of the threats posed by problems like pollution, chemical toxins, and nuclear accidents, but also because of the massive social and economic disruptions associated with globalization. I think that sustainability discourse has in some respects taken over the role of risk in characterizing the social condition of late modern societies. It is a new way of talking about existential threats to civilization and planetary life, and about transformations going on in human societies. At least, that is what I tried to argue. 

The other chapter that I recently completed explores the potential religious or theological dimensions of sustainability discourse. By that, I don't simply mean, "what do the various religious traditions think about the idea of sustainability?” That may be an important question, but my aim was somewhat different. I proposed that, as a form of cultural discourse concerned with existential threats to planetary life and the viability of the future, sustainability forces us to confront our own values and patterns of self-endangerment. In doing so, it operates on the edges of religious and theological inquiry. It’s possible, in other words, that sustainability discourse echoes with deeper resonances than its own conceptual resources have fully accounted for. That is an idea I hope to explore in future work.

The public relevance of your research strikes me as fairly self-evident, but how specifically would you describe the way in which your project is publicly relevant?

I agree that I really don't need to make the case for the public relevance of sustainability as it pertains to climate change, since a habitable climate is the pre-condition for the continuation of life on the planet.  I think (or at least I hope) many people understand that on some level. But in another way, I do have to make the case for the public relevance of my research in the sense that sustainability and climate change are so big and overwhelming that it is easy to keep them at a distance and to think that they won’t really affect one as an individual. The struggle of my research project is to try to make people understand sustainability as something they can connect with at a more personal or visceral level. That’s what I think humanistic discourse can do, by talking about risk, or existential threat, and clarifying what is really at stake when we ask the question of what a sustainable life or a sustainable society looks like. Then people might begin to recognize that this isn't just an abstract policy question. This is a human question that's addressed to each of us. 

Do you think the question of whether humans have "sealed their fate" already with regard to climate change is one to be looked at in terms of optimism vs. pessimism? 

There is an ongoing debate about that. For a while, there was a lot of quasi-apocalyptic rhetoric among environmentalists about climate change, expressed in sentiments such as we're ruining the planet, we've already put too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there's no going back. Recently, however, there has been a backlash against that type of so-called “gloom and doom environmentalism” from those who embrace a more optimist outlook, especially about the ability of technology to enhance the future of human life. A group that might be called “techno-optimists” believes that human beings have the capacity to use their tremendous technological power to adapt to a changing climate, to build a better future, and maybe even to protect nature going forward. 

Although the debate between optimism vs. pessimism continues, I'm not sure it's a particularly helpful way of looking at the problem, because it forces one to adopt an overly facile and polarized attitude. I think the situation is a lot more ambiguous and fluid than that. Everything depends on what we do going forward, and on how we think about the relationship between human societies and the conditions and goods that sustain those societies. That's a very dynamic and entangled set of issues, and it’s one that we have the capacity to affect by our actions and values. So thinking "all is lost" doesn't really help us move forward, but thinking "everything's fine" doesn't help us take the issues seriously enough. So, I don't really come down on either side of optimism or pessimism: I think what happens going forward is an open question. 

Have you recently taught an Enhancing Life Studies course? 

I'm on sabbatical this year, but last year one of my Enhancing Life courses was a sophomore course called "Imagining Sustainability,” which I co-taught with a colleague in environmental studies. The course fulfills the "Integrated Perspectives” requirement at Bucknell. Those courses have to be taught by two faculty members from different fields, with the aim of getting students to think in an integrated, interdisciplinary way about a particular topic—not just within the humanities, but between the humanities and social or natural sciences, for example. The course had two aims: first, to bring clarity to the concept of sustainability, to explore why has it become such an important idea throughout so many sectors of society, including politics, economics, the environment, public health, food issues, et cetera. Our basic strategy was to say, look, this is a big concept that is shaping our lives today: what does it mean, what does it require of us, and what are some interdisciplinary tools we can bring to the task of thinking about it? 

The second goal of the course was really the “imagining” part. We were trying to get students to think about questions like: What would a sustainable life or a sustainable society look like? What would be some of its components? And, by the same token, what does an unsustainable life or an unsustainable society look like? Once we started asking these broad questions, we could expand the kinds of issues that students could consider when “imagining sustainability.” We wanted to empower them to ask those questions for themselves, and we tried to come up with interesting assignments that would help them with that task of imagination.  

What were some of those assignments? 

On the one hand, we did some conventional assignments that helped to hone students' critical thinking skills, like giving them news articles about sustainability and asking them to comment or evaluate them using the interdisciplinary perspectives of the course; or asking them to write analytical papers on various authors’ positions. But we also did more creative things. For example, Bucknell has a community garden that provides produce for a local soup kitchen. So we did a hands-on project at the garden to help students understand what makes a food system sustainable or unsustainable, and how food is not only an environmental issue, but also a social, political, and ethical issue as well.  

The culminating assignment of the course was a final research project where each student had to research a particular application of sustainability thinking and then devise a creative or imaginative way to represent it, using any medium they wanted. They could write a standard research paper if they wanted to, but we encouraged them to branch out into other forms. Many did poster presentations or artwork; a couple of students wrote short stories about sustainable societies, and one student performed a rap about what sustainability is. It was fascinating to see what the students came up with.

I imagine that students came in with various preconceived notions about sustainability, so which aspects of the course were particularly surprising to them?  

The biggest surprise for them was learning that sustainability is not simply another word for environmentalism. Many students assumed that sustainability is about "green living," so if we recycle, we're being sustainable, or if we buy sustainable products like "green detergent," then we're being sustainable. They didn't really understand that sustainability is about the structures of human societies--about economies and social relations, for example. What kinds of social relations, or economies, are sustainable? Why is poverty, for example, a sustainability issue? Sustainability has everything to do with the ways in which societies organize themselves, the values and ideals they live by, and how they think about the future. I think that was the most difficult part of the course for them: trying to break out of the environmental mindset to encompass these other dimensions as well, and to see how those work together. 

Will you teach this course again?  

Yes, in fact, I'm scheduled to teach it again in Spring of 2018 with the same colleague from environmental studies. I think we'll probably keep some of the same readings and assignments, but I now feel like I have a more fully developed humanistic perspective to bring to the course. I'm hoping to find more effective ways to make the idea of sustainability something that students can connect with and own for themselves. This is a time in their lives when they're thinking about their own futures, but they may not necessarily be thinking about, well, what kind of future is a sustainable one? What kind of career is a sustainable one? What kind of world do I hope to live in going forward? So I'm hoping to find ways to connect the critical and academic study of sustainability with those larger human questions.