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The Hopes and Anxieties of Sustainability: A Q&A with Dr. Maria Antonaccio

April 12, 2016 • By Maria Antonaccio The Hopes and Anxieties of Sustainability: A Q&A with Dr. Maria Antonaccio

As the threat of climate change looms in the public and scientific discourse, the concept of sustainability has emerged in a wide range of contexts. What can sustainability tell us about our hopes for the future and our fears in the present? In her research for The Enhancing Life Project, Maria Antonaccio, Presidential Professor of Religion at Bucknell University, is exploring the diverse cultural meanings of sustainability. She contends that an interdisciplinary examination of sustainability can help us understand social visions for the future as we grapple with a changing relationship between humanity and nature. 

Read a blog post by Maria Antonaccio about the cultural phenomenon of "sustainability" here.

What was the spark for the research you’re pursuing for the Enhancing Life Project? Are these new questions, or an extension of past research, or both?

I’ve taught environmental ethics at Bucknell for over 20 years, and as sustainability has entered our public lexicon, I began to think about the relationship between environmentalism and sustainability and realized that very fundamental questions are raised when we talk about this issue. I’m a religious ethicist who doesn’t operate out of a particular religious tradition, which means that I look for ways in which religious questions emerge from cultural dynamics: What are the basic sources of meaning and value in human life, where do they come from, and how are they sustained? 

I read sustainability as a kind of diagnosis of what’s happening in the cultural moment, with climate change on the horizon. There are some anxieties implicit in the notion of sustainability. One is a worry about limits. With seven billion people on the planet, climate change, depletion of resources, we are worried that we don’t have what we need to sustain life. Another anxiety is that human beings are increasingly aware of our footprint. Through our collective actions we have essentially become a geological force, but we don’t know how to respond to the enormous powers that we have to shape life on the planet. We’re anxious about our responsibility and what policies we need to enact to ensure that life continues, and we see that through our preoccupation with sustainability. It’s not just about tinkering at the edges or making things “more green.” 

What does “enhancing life” mean for you? 

To me, enhancement and sustainability operate together. Etymologies are helpful here. “Enhance” can be traced back to the Latin and French verbs: “to make high, or to raise up.” “Sustain” is also from the Latin and French: “to hold up from below, or to bear the weigh of.”

So sustaining and enhancing are two sides of the same coin. Sustaining can seem like it has to do with basic survival and enhancement can seem like a luxury—what do we need beyond what we need to survive—but I think that’s a false dichotomy. Human beings by their nature are always seeking to enhance life and not just to survive.

What do you think Enhancing Life Studies can offer your discipline, and why?

From the perspective of environmental ethics, it offers a tremendous amount of food for thought. Take the idea of “life.” Environmental ethics compels us to ask: What life is being enhanced, for whom, and under what conditions? What happens when the enhancement of life for human beings means the non-enhancement or even destruction of other forms of life? Does enhancement involve the sacrifice of some life forms for the sake of others? Those difficult questions of competition among life forms for survival— which is already a central concern of environmental ethics—can be applied to questions about enhancement as well. Enhancing Life Studies can help expand environmental ethical thinking beyond a preoccupation with endangerments to life, to questions about what truly enhances life as well. 

How do public conversations shape your work? What are you hoping to offer those conversations?

People often dismiss sustainability as just another form of green environmentalism, whereas I think there’s a lot more at stake in the way we talk about sustainability. It’s far more than another plea for recycling. So I suppose I want to offer some analytic depth. What gets the most attention in public conversations, often, are sustainability efforts in the corporate world and in higher education. But there are also creative initiatives that entrepreneurs and community activists are putting together, where sustainability is envisioned not just as a green project, but as something that also improves humans’ quality of life. They’re going after issues of poverty and social justice, providing jobs and economic opportunities, and creating new forms of communal interaction. Quite apart from the practical value of such projects, they represent a vision of what the good society could or should be, a “counter-world,” in the face of unprecedented challenges. We have to think about sustainability as an integrative mode for problem solving.

You don’t spend all of your time doing research and teaching! What’s your favorite place to travel, or the next place you’d like to go?

Over the past few years I’ve enjoyed going to Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Finland. The landscape and the light and the extreme conditions of those places—the hours of daylight and how dramatically they change throughout the year—have given me a very different sense of what it means to inhabit the planet. They’re also places where environmental questions are being actively debated, so I find them to be inspirational at a lot of different levels.