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From Sustainability to a New Materialism

SUSTAINABILITY FORUM on the Limitations and Benefits of the Sustainability Approach

By David Schlosberg, September 8, 2011

CREDIT: Garrett Ziegler (CC).

There is a long, complex, and power-infused history of the meaning of sustainability and sustainable development, from discourses of radical environmentalism and resistance to neoliberal development models, to the more greenwashed and substantively vacuous versions we often hear from the corporate and political realms. But no matter the intentions of various purveyors of the idea, sustainability as a discourse has permeated civil society, influencing a generation raised with environmental ideas and postmaterial values.

One problem with this ongoing discourse, however, has been a serious implementation deficit. Yes, there has been growth in the availability of individualized and consumptive options—trips to Whole Foods or the Patagonia store. But there has also been ongoing frustration with the limits of traditional political action to deliver on the promise of more broad sustainable ends.

In response, many individuals and movements have started to address the unsustainable institutions and practices in which their lives are immersed. No longer willing to either take part in unsustainable practices and institutions, and not satisfied with a purely individualistic and consumer response, these activist groups focus increasingly on building institutions around everyday practices—for example, on sustainable food, renewable energy, and crafting and making. These are not simply movements for sustainability, or for post-material values, but instead represent the development of a new materialism.

There is a growing focus on redesigning the institutions that connect us to our basic material needs.

On university campuses and in many local communities, a growing focus is on resisting, rethinking, and redesigning basic institutions that embody problematic practices connected to our basic material needs. Rather than just buying organic veggies at a natural-foods megamart, people are getting more involved in growing and sharing food in community-supported agriculture, collective gardening, urban farms, farmers markets, and sustainable cafes—transforming our relationship with food, its production, transportation, and consumption.

Rather than simply cutting their own energy use to respond to the unsustainable nature of fossil fuels, more communities are organizing around the development of community-wide local generation and networking of solar and wind, and the institutionalization of commuting plans that include more mass transit, biking, and walking.

And rather than just protesting sweatshops, the increasing disposability of fashion, and the alienation of many tech products, activist groups are involved in crafting, making, and mending. This idea of sustainability recognizes the material relationships we have with the resources we use, and works toward transforming the dominant and unsustainable practices of production and consumption.

These trends and movements can be framed in at least two important ways. First, they embody the institutionalization of a new materialism, the direct involvement of groups in sustainable practices, and the development of institutions focused on materials flows and collective practices that reimagine our relationship with the natural world. Second, such practices are clearly a Foucauldian form of resistance to the relations that contribute to the continued reproduction of unsustainable practices.

Is sustainability another way to frame these movements? Only if your conception of it includes notions of justice and empowerment, along with a thorough engagement in everyday material life—the things that pass through our bodies, the practices we use to transform the natural world, and the institutions we can shape collectively. Yet it is precisely because sustainability has become so infused in the discursive realm, while much of everyday life remains unsustainable, and politics unresponsive, that new materialist movements have turned their focus to such concerns.

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