Maria Antonaccio

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

Capstone Conference Talk

Sunday (8/6) 2:10-2:30PM

Making Time Visible: Sustainability in the Anthropocene.

In response to climate change and other threats to planetary life, the concept of sustainability has spread through virtually every sector of society. Although often defined as a commitment to limit consumption of resources to a level that can be maintained indefinitely, I argue that theories of sustainability address broader moral-existential questions than resource use alone and involve a more complex relation to time than this standard definition suggests. I present several models for thinking about the relation between sustainability and time, demonstrating how each model projects a vision of the good society and of what it means to enhance life. 


Capstone Conference Research Laboratory

Saturday (8/5) 4:00-5:10PM

Sharing to Enhance Life

The aim of this laboratory is to explore what scholars can offer – from philosophical, theological, historical, and social science perspectives – that might provide ideas about a) what sharing means, b) what is shared, c) how sharing occurs, d) what inspires and promotes sharing (e.g. religion, culture, institutions, economic forces), and e) barriers and limits to sharing (e.g. cultural, infrastructure, habits, systems, individual concerns about trust and equity). We construe sharing in the broadest possible sense, to include the material (e.g.w commodities/products, water, land) and immaterial (e.g. energy, time, culture, community). In this way, we hope to isolate the ways in which acts of sharing enhance personal and social life. 

Research Laboratories allow audience members to interact with a panel of ELP Scholars and Interlocutors in addressing a problem of public relevance. We invite active participation from audience members in the creation of new knowledge.

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.

Project 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.