History of the Future: Narratives of Hope & Despair

Below: scribblings that comprised my presentation at the 2015 American Society for Environmental History annual meeting in Washington, DC. I was the gadfly on a panel that investigated the viability of the history of sustainability as a distinct line of subdisciplinary inquiry. The idea of sustainability began to crescendo in ASEH circles after the annual meeting in Tallahassee in 2009. That conference hosted an informal—and very well attended—open discussion on sustainability and the Society’s Committee for Sustainability was formed thereafter. Sustainability was not explicitly present in the program, but it served as one of the dominant undercurrents in presentations and informal conversations. I don’t think we had explicitly articulated the role sustainability could play in our work, but as our field has continued to mature and expand, each conference births a theme or direction for subsequent work. If you look beyond conference titles and just take in sessions, Q&As, plenaries, and book room chatter (I’ll forego the bar talk), often the richest thematic takeaways are not obviously present in the program. All this to say that in 2009, “sustainability” seemed to be that “a-ha!” theme. By the 2011 meeting in Phoenix, the program was saturated with sustainability topics, driven in no small part by the term appearing in the conference title. As the thoughts below outline, I’m a skeptic. I probably overplay my hand here a little, but I don’t see what the history of sustainability does for historians unless it is a part of a more ambitious history of the future.

 

History of the Future: Narratives of Hope and Despair

I come to bury sustainability, not to praise it. As a popular ideal and as an organizing theme for environmental history, I find it problematic. It does a disservice to intellectual inquiry by narrowing the field of discussion. It misdirects contemporary and historical understandings of social and environmental crisis. And it limits our capacity to effectively contextualize past, present, and future.

Sustainability is appealing. As a concept, it fosters dialogue and hope. We can talk about scarcity crises, but I defy you to identify two things more scarce than dialogue and hope in our contemporary environmental struggles. Over the past few decades, sustainability succeeded in bringing an impressively eclectic group of activists, economists, policymakers, and industry to the table. After the 1972 Stockholm Conference, what emerged—on the surface—was an intriguing marriage of Northern environmental lobbies and Southern development interests, identifying and stressing their common concerns and building multilateral cooperation toward realizing a greener and more prosperous world. This relationship reinforced the important notion that environmental protection did not function in isolation from peace, social justice, and economic development. (But neither did it invent this broader relationship). Please don’t mistake my attack on sustainability as an attack on the two lines of historical inquiry presented by my co-presenters. This is important work that requires further investigation, not least because it helps us to globalize environmental history.

That work is necessary, because sustainability is a concept whose definition has shifted over time and place. Its history also indicates that its goals are increasingly obscured by political compromise and diffusion. While the vagaries of the idea are appealing insofar as they can bring wildly disparate parties together and breed a superficial consensus, the fact that sustainability means different things to different people has resulted in little substantive change in terms of lasting efforts and successes in curbing the global environmental crisis. To make matters worse, just as sustainability and sustainable development have crashed into the popular imagination, they have continued to evolve without a clear notion of what the goal of global environmental politics should be (witness, for example, the continuing failure to develop any tangible plan to confront climate change). In short, sustainability is, in Bill McKibben’s words, a “buzzless buzzword,” designed to “obfuscate [and] paper over the tension between the fact that societies are overexploiting the planet’s physical resources and the fact that everyone seems reluctant to stop this rapaciousness.”

Let’s be very clear about the not-so-new problems that gird sustainability. More than twenty years ago, Donald Worster argued that the sustainability ideal rests on an uncritical, unexamined acceptance of the traditional world-view of progressive, secular materialism. The world view that brought us the current environmental crisis is considered completely benign so long as it can be made sustainable. I’m not sure that anything has changed. I can put that more strongly: nothing has changed. To this end, sustainability and sustainable thinking are imbued with what Helga Nowotny has called “the hubris of believing in progress.”

The evolution of sustainability as an idea has emerged out of older strains of environmental thinking that can be linked to stewardship, husbandry, management, conservation, and ecology. With these intellectual ancestors, sustainability shares an energetic capacity for planning for the future, but it is unique insofar as it gives little or no thought to the past. To sustain is a conversation between the present and the future—and it has typically been organized thus. 

So I come to bury sustainability. I read its past and present as more ruse than muse for global environmental governance. Let me shift, though, from denouncing the deceased—and alleviating my alliteration—to imagine more constructive methods of engaging the questions that sustainability tried to illuminate. I want to briefly touch on our expanding environmental lexicon before situating the kernel of this work within a more functional intellectual foundation.

In terms of environmental vocabulary, sustainability’s ugly but more competent sibling is resilience. In a 2009 workshop on “Expertise for the Future,” Libby Robin remarked that resilience has two definitions: a mathematical one and another in plain English. The mathematical meaning implies that change is inevitable and something that can generally be predicted. The plain English or cultural definition of this mathematical or predictive model is more intriguing. Like sustainability, resilience can be qualified by society, economics, and the environment. But it pretty much rejects the notion that sustainability is possible (change is inevitable, after all), and implicitly recognizes that bad stuff is going to happen.

That said, having resilience—or being resilient—is a good thing. It means acquiring flexibility; anticipating unknown or unforeseen troubles; and preparing for survival in tough times. As environmental historians start to grapple with the “great acceleration”—as we start to take seriously the idea of the Anthropocene—resilience provides historians with an interesting framework for interacting with global change.

But I want to move beyond semantics. The history of sustainability- and resilience-thinking constitute specific areas of inquiry with a larger history of the future, which I take to mean the study of how past peoples—individually and collectively—imagined the future. The future is omnipresent in the historical record. It is an idea, a proposal, a scenario, rather than an orchestrated series of events. As social constructions, they have their own histories that would reward our investigations.

Because the future plays such a critical role in shaping the human condition, historians would do well to examine the “history of the future,” or how past societies imagined and/or prepared for what was to come. We are in perpetual interaction with the future. On a daily basis we are pre-occupied in planning for it. From memos to to-do lists, our present selves leave communiqués for our future selves. We plan vacations, retirement, grocery lists—all with at least one eye on the future. Most of these activities are mundane, but they consume an inordinate amount of time and social creativity. Socio-politically, economies look forward; so does infrastructure planning and disaster preparedness. Climate models, weather forecasts, famine predictions are all expressions of engagements with the future.

In effect, there are two branches to engaging history, environment, and future. The first involves exploring the institutional interpretation of global change. The scientific and technological interactions with the physical environment and the intellectual inquiry into changing patterns constitute an exciting overlap between the histories of science, technology, the environment, and the future. The second avenue of inquiry traces the cultural ramifications of these more formal frames of analysis. Where the intellectual pursuits of explaining and predicting global change are largely conducted among emerging experts, the cultural response

If history recounts what people did, much of the history of the future examines what they thought they were doing. This perspective invites opportunities to investigate the manner in which new technologies mediated visions of the future and, conversely, how imaginations of the future shaped subsequent technological innovation. Material culture—green design, urban planning, dam removal, dyke reinforcement—offer stories that reflect the temperaments of their time, but also an articulate foray into a future conversation.

Science, technology, environment, future, and their overlapping histories reconvene in the emerging fields of vulnerability and disaster studies. After World War II, disaster preparedness became a science as the developing world sought to insulate its peoples and economies from natural and technological catastrophes. Perhaps not surprisingly these new interests received considerable military support during the Cold War, as Jake Hamblin has shown in his recent work.

Fears around nuclear holocaust, the proliferation of toxic chemicals, and the scientific consensus on global warming drove the developed world into panicked discussions of what the environmental future held. Vulnerability and disaster studies turned into major industries, complete with new kinds of experts who analyzed, predicted, and prepared for different future scenarios, drawing on computer modelling, probability, and big data to do so. In effect, the single greatest development in post-materialist society is that its population became evermore risk averse (this is a forward-looking kind of cultural tension). I think this is an interesting angle that deserves more attention. There is, of course, a counterpoint, where concerns about emerging scarcity and uncertainty invited imaginative optimism over technological futures. If Hamblin’s bleak interpretation of vulnerability and environmental catastrophe offer declensionist prediction, Patrick McCray’s The Visioneers examines how limits inspired human ingenuity.

Cultural responses to environmental risk are interesting historical phenomena, and they sit squarely in the sights of our history of the future. Calculating risk—whatever the scale—is an explicit conversation with the future. In addition, it binds the scientific and the technological with the cultural. In a cultural reading of past environmental futures, analysis of success is less relevant than the optimism or pessimism that courses through the primary sources.

An explicit history of the future promises a novel toolkit for unpacking the Anthropocene and the emerging discovery that humans have irrevocably changed the planet they inhabit. And in so doing, an ambitious history of the future contributes to historical inquiry on a far more critical scale. Political and economic imperatives tend to put emphasis on a shorter timeframe that lacks pragmatic viability when the environmental stakes are so high. David Armitage and Jo Guldi recently argued that historians have enabled this kind of shorter-term thinking. The disciplinary shift away from the longue durée to the analysis of more concentrated time scales has resulted in concomitant shrinking perspectives of the future. In effect, by limiting their scope in exploring the past, historians have contributed to reducing the attention/imagination span of publics to look forward. They note that contemporary society functions within fiscal quarters and political cycles, but that warnings of environmental apocalypse twenty years hence are received as abstractions. Mainstream media has difficulty communicating their scale and scope, while in the political arena there is limited incentive to work in such ambitious timeframes. In response to this, it is time for historians to consider returning to larger syntheses—to take stock of what we have learned. New organizing principles like the Anthropocene hearken back to big history, and provoke historical inquiry: how were portents of change interpreted in the past? And what did historical actors suppose they meant for the future?

In this vein, perhaps we can rehabilitate sustainability, not as an organizing concept, but rather as part of series of tools through which historians might examine past futures.

Temporality & Sustainability

Here’s a short piece I wrote for a workshop last year at McMaster’s Institute for Globalization and the Human Condition. It sought to bring together a variety of different themes from across different projects in my work. I’m not sure this short writing venture worked, but it offers a quick look at the problematique of sustainability in its contemporary parlance, which is something I am currently revisiting. I’ve become  re-interested in the relationship between global environmentalism and development questions, especially as they relate to the rise of “sustainable development.” I wrote a bit about this here, and would like to explore the behind-the-scenes efforts of the Founex meetings in the 1970s and their efforts to articulate a definition for “eco-development.” More on that to follow.

Time, Globalization, and the Human Condition

Sustainability has gone mainstream. It now serves as the universally accepted cornerstone of political and ethical guidelines for dealing with the planet’s ecological and social crisis. Just as environmental issues are now entrenched within the popular media, sustainability and sustainable development have become global buzzwords that unite environmentalists, legislators, and industry the world over. As a result, the politics of sustainable development constitute a happy marriage of Northern environmental lobbies and Southern development interests, identifying and communicating their common concerns and building multilateral cooperation toward realizing a greener and more prosperous world.

Here’s the rub: sustainability is a concept whose definition has shifted over time and place. Its history indicates that its goals are increasingly obscured by short-term political compromising and diffusion. While the vagaries of the idea are appealing insofar as they can bring wildly disparate parties together and breed a superficial consensus, the fact that sustainability means different things to different people has resulted in little substantive change in terms of lasting efforts and successes in curbing the global environmental crisis. To make matters worse, just as sustainability and sustainable development have crashed into the popular imagination, they have continued to evolve without a clear notion of what the goal of global environmental politics should be.

This is a problem that strikes at the very root of contemporary global environmental governance, and it is bound in sustainability’s complicated past. While sustainability’s political history can be traced through a series of Earth summits and studies—notably Our Common Future—and more focused international conventions that were initiated shortly after the creation of the United Nations, its intellectual history is far older and more nebulous. Both histories and their interactions are pivotal for a deeper understanding of the political climate that is steering our contemporary efforts to address the tenuous state of the global environment.

While a more detailed analysis of sustainability’s place in time might carefully consider its intellectual heritage—from, it seems, the German “Nachhaltigkeit,” which was coined in print by Hans Carl von Carlowitz in 1713 in a book titled Silvicultura Oeconomica—and link that to its place in global environmental governance, situating sustainability in a discussion of temporality raises some interesting questions about its applications. As an historian, I’m drawn to sustainability because of its implicit interaction with time. So many efforts to engage with the environment are static. They assume nature, societies, and civilization are immobile objects on a canvas that can be moved, altered, or bandaged. Insofar as sustainability plans for (or predicts) a greener future, it is conscious of the fact that time moves and so do people, ecologies, and hazards. Historicizing sustainability provides an important contextual lens for engaging with contemporary debates about our environmental future, but I think it also serves a further intellectual purpose insofar as history can help to illuminate one of the foundational obstacles associated with misunderstandings or miscommunications about applying sustainability in a global context. The evolution of sustainability as an idea has emerged out of older strains of environmental thinking that can be linked to stewardship, husbandry, management, conservation, and ecology. With these intellectual ancestors, sustainability shares an energetic capacity for planning for the future, but it is unique insofar as it gives little or no thought to the past. As an unfortunate result, sustainability implies a concerted effort to imagine a greener future, but this effort suggests as its goal an unrealistic end of crisis—or end of history.

And its future, too. The future is always just an idea, a proposal, a scenario, rather than an orchestrated series of events. One of the enduring challenges in realizing a more sustainable future consists of re-engaging with how we might plan for the future. Political and economic imperatives tend to put emphasis on a shorter timeframe that lacks pragmatic viability when the environmental stakes are so high. Rather, sustainability debates should be reaching for a much more sophisticated and expansive notion of time. Planning one year into the future, or two or twenty frequently lacks the kind of foresight and breadth of perspective that might help to plan for mitigating our environmental trespasses. Our contemporary notion of “the here and now”—in which our political and economic decisions are made—is frequently constrained to some variant of “this place and this week.” A more effective brand of sustainability demands a more ambitious interpretation of time, looking and planning much further into the future. Thinking sustainably involves ensuring clean air, soil, and water, an abundance of resources and amenities, and innovative planning, if not in perpetuity—how long is sustainability for?—for a very long time. Gambling on a future technological fix coming in the near future does not constitute sound planning (history says we have been very good at planning for these, and not very good at realizing them).

So: to globalization. One of the important developments in environmental history over the past number of years is that material nature’s motility does not adhere to the boundaries of the nation state. Resources, contaminants, people, and ideas are constantly on the move, making global connections that transform how we should think about environmental crises. Tropical rainforest destruction satiates Northern tastes for beef; mercury-based fungicides banned in the developed world found their way to developing nations; climate change—rising seas and desertification—has initiated an unprecedented form of human migration. To engage with greater sustainability—or, perhaps, more usefully, greater resilience—necessarily involves not just a re-envisioning of temporality, but also a broader geographical context.

Criticisms of the idea aside, sustainability possesses an energetic (and hopeful) capacity for inclusive planning for the future, which is a much-needed quality in contemporary environmental practice. And its meteoric rise in social, political, economic, and cultural circles warrants careful attention as a valuable lens or portal through which we can examine critical aspects of global politics and nature’s impact on the human condition across a multitude of places and through time, backwards and forwards.

Soviet Sustainability

Quite frequently, our analysis of environmental issues and their history concentrates on social and ecological protection in the face of liberal capitalism. As if that were the only system to cause the need for (or confront) sustainability. In a fascinating essay on the foibles of sustainable development in The Wealth of Nature, Donald Worster notes that “the sustainability ideal rests on an uncritical, unexamined acceptance of the traditional world-view of progressive, secular materialism.” Real environmental salvation is attainable without having to forego the amenities that are so environmentally costly to produce. This is a serious problem that requires further investigation, but I’m especially interested in a side issue that relates to the monolithic nature of the western, capitalist environmental cause.

At the 24th Soviet Communist Party Congress in March 1971 (in the build-up to the UN Stockholm conference), Leonid Brezhnev offered an intriguing (if somewhat vague) articulation of the Soviet awareness of the global environmental crisis:

Our country is prepared to participate together with the other states concerned in settling problems like the conservation of the environment, development of power and other natural resources, development of transport and communications, prevention and eradication of the most dangerous and widespread diseases, and the exploration and development of outer space and the world ocean.

The above was quoted in the March 31, 1971 issue of The New York Times (p. 14). There’s a lot to interpret here, not least whether his reference to “other states concerned” is simply “the rest of the world,” or a more loaded criticism of “some other states.” And an interesting reference to the development of outer space as part of a larger environmental/sustainability initiative, though it suggests a rather important connection between science, technology, economy, and nature. Further, Brezhnev’s excerpted quotation above also seems to situate the Soviet Union’s environmental concerns very much in the same spirit as the developing world’s, wherein economic development remained as central (and likely more so) as environmental protection.

A growing literature to draw on to explore this further from Douglas Weiner, Paul Josephson, Loren Graham, and others…

The History of a Sustainable Future?

A bit of background on the book series. In 2007, a group of young(ish) scholars across North America created the Sustainable Future History Project, a loosely organized cabal that provided opportunities for networking and collaborative projects. We also shared a strong sense that history’s contemporary relevance—especially with respect to environmental issues (our shared specialization)—was frequently overlooked and that history could provide important context in planning for a more sustainable future. From the Sustainable Future History Project’s website:

It’s a bit of a funny name and a peculiar concept (looking backward to look forward), but the Sustainable Future History Project is predicated on the idea that in order to fully understand the social, political, economic, and ecological extent of our contemporary environmental crisis we need to be conscious of its historical context.  Moreover, resolving our global environmental problems requires careful thought and planning; future success is dependent upon a deeper appreciation of the past.  This is the point: historicizing sustainable futures is based less on the notion that we should learn from past mistakes, but rather on the premise that solving the environmental crisis will demand the most and best information available, and history provides valuable insight into the creation and proliferation of the environmental ills we hope to curb.

Lots of interesting conversations and ideas sprang out of the groups various informal chats and meetings at conferences. The most substantial development thus far was the creation of the MIT Press book series, which was started in 2009. The real tenor of the series is to try something different. The books are short; maybe half the length of a standard academic monograph. The idea is to produce a series of short, smart, and accessible books (complete with the traditional academic apparatus: notes, bibliography, etc.) on the history of topics that have pressing environmental resonance. The point is to produce books that appeal not only to our peers, but also to undergraduate classrooms and policy makers and activists. At the time of writing, we have received considerable interest from a very interesting variety of scholars, and are looking forward to receiving the first manuscript submissions later in 2012. Stay tuned.