10 March 2008

danah boyd (and me) on Cultural Sustainability

Another brilliant and insightful post from danah boyd, and one that gets to the heart of (one aspect) of what I'm researching. She picks up on a term that is mostly used in Northern European and Aboriginal contexts, and muses on cultural sustainability:
To me, the idea of "cultural sustainability" is about companies whose actions offset the consequences of their presence (or disappearance). For example, when large companies abandon cities that they've been in for years and where the entire city revolves around them, their move has a HUGE culturally destructive force. How do they offset this in a functional way? How does this get considered to be an externality that needs to be factored in?
What danah is talking about is partly incorporated in my suggestion of replacing the often cliché corporate vision statement with a tactility statement, answering the question, who do we want to touch, and how do we want to touch them, today? Understanding the multiplicity of ways - essentially through the five valence relationships - that an organization can touch the communities in which it locates, and with whom it does various forms of business begins to address the concept of cultural sustainability.

But the key, I think, comes from understanding the problematics of the term sustainability, drawing from the analogous term, environmental sustainability. The widely and commonly held definition of that term comes from the Brundtland Commission's report, entitled Our Common Future in 1987. That report suggested that sustainable development is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." A not unreasonable approach, but one that presents hidden dangers. Who decides what are the needs of the present? Who can know what will be required to meet future needs? Whose values are being imposed on both the current and future generations in defining needs, especially relative to wants (and such things as maintaining an affluent and privileged lifestyle)? Herman Daly takes a different approach. In his position paper presented to the World Bank in 2002, he describes a throughput-based construct of sustainability, specifying that "the entropic physical flow from nature’s sources through the economy and back to nature’s sinks, is to be non-declining." In other words, don't take more (energy) out of the planet than you can return.

In these terms, environmental sustainability is not so much about anticipating future needs, or economically offsetting present profligate ways (hearkening to the neo-liberal doctrine that if everything was monetized, the problem of externalitites* would be solved). This whole business about purchasing carbon offsets, for example, is a mechanism for the privileged and affluent to effectively outsource their environmental guilt, without necessarily reducing their environmental consumption as Daly suggests. Rather, environmental sustainability from a deep ecology perspective is about ensuring that there will be energy resources in the future by making sure there is no net depletion of resources today. In a way, it's the old campsite rule: When camping, leave the campsite in better shape than when you found it.

Cultural sustainability, I think, can be subject to similar thinking. It's not about economic offsets to any cultural damage that an organization may inflict on a community by either its presence, or its subsequent departure. It's about ensuring that an organization does not deplete the complex ties, dynamics, and networks of relations from which culture in a community emerges. It's about the multiplicity of ways in which an organization touches those around it in any locale, be it in geo-presence or not. It's about the socio-psychological, identity, knowledge, ecological, and yes, economic connections that are formed among all the participants in a community. Simply put, I think the campsite rule applies here, as well: The introduction of an organization to any community should leave that community in better cultural shape than it was in before the organization arrived, and after the organization departs.

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*A note on externalities - one of the concepts that danah introduces in her post. Business corporations are sometimes thought of as externalizing engines. To maximize returns, they attempt to externalize as many expenses as possible; in other words, to make what would otherwise be taken as expenses on their balance sheet somebody else's problem. Prior to environmental protection laws (and their enforcement, which is another matter altogether), polluting the environment was an externalizing action in which industrial waste spewed into the natural environment becomes someone else's problem and expense. The environmental cost of packaging is an externality in much of North America, since it is accounted for in municipal (ie. somebody else's) waste disposal costs, unlike in many parts of Europe where the producing organization is financially responsible for the cost of packaging disposal. Eliminating externalities is an economic solution to consequential damage, but does not necessarily prevent the damage in the first place.

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