Maria Antonaccio

Research Project Title: Imagined Futures: Climate Change, Counterworlds, and the Cultural Meanings of Sustainability

Presidential Professor of Religion

Bucknell University, Department of Religious Studies

Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, United States of America

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Academic Biography

Maria Antonaccio is Professor of Religious Studies at Bucknell University, where she teaches a wide range of interdisciplinary courses in ethics. She currently holds a Presidential Professorship and is a past recipient of the National Endownment for the Humanities Chair in the Humanities. Antonaccio majored in religious studies at Williams College, focusing on the social scientific study of religion and postmodern theory. She received her Masters in Divinity and her Ph.D in Theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School, concentrating on theological ethics and the history of western Christian thought. Committed to interdiscipinary forms of inquiry, Antonaccio’s work is located at the intersection of religious ethics, moral philosophy, and cultural analysis rather than defined by the normative agenda of a particular religious tradition. Her work as an ethicist focuses on fundamental human questions as they emerge in contemporary culture, using the interpretive and analytical tools of religious studies and other disciplines to assess their human and ethical import. Antonaccio has published three books on the 20th century moral philosopher Iris Murdoch, the most recent of which is A Philosophy to Live By: Engaging Iris Murdoch (Oxford University Press, 2012). She has also published articles and book chapters on topics related to moral psychology, contemporary appropriations of ascetic discourse and practice, the use of literature in ethical inquiry, the ethics of consumption, the relation between science and ethics, and “postnatural” environmental ethics.

Executive Summary

This research project will focus on how ideas of sustainability function as counter-worlds in an era of climate change. The project will analyze diverse cultural meanings of sustainability, uncover their spiritual laws, and evaluate how these laws operate in a variety of technocultural processes associated with sustainability. The critical task of the project is to demonstrate that different models of sustainability represent ideals of an enhanced future that inspire the transformation of present conditions. I propose a typology of five models of sustainability as a diagnostic tool for identifying the underlying spiritual laws operative in these counter-worlds. My constructive claim is that the emergence of sustainability discourse marks a new era, the Anthropocene, characterized by heightened human responsibility and the interpenetration of nature and human society. I argue that these changed circumstances require new modes of normative reflection that rely less exclusively on the idea of limits and take seriously the mutual constitution of natural and social processes. My working hypothesis is that attempts to achieve sustainability by defining limit concepts that presuppose the separateness of human beings from nature or from the technocultural processes through which human beings interact with nature lack credibility; nevertheless, some notion of self-limitation may be integral to the very idea of enhancing life. The challenge of imagining sustainability is to reimagine the nature and value of limit concepts in an age in which the nature-society boundary has already been breached and in which climate change has upended the idea of fixed or stable thresholds.