Sustainability in Terms of Language, Justice, and History

I attended a panel designed to discuss sustainability from the perspective of language, justice, and history. The panel was titles “Imagine” and aimed to present the different forms available to the topic of sustainability. I thought this panel was particular interesting in the representation of different academic departments including English, Philosophy, and History.

Professor Alf Siewer’s began his portion of the panel by introducing the ideas of rhetoric and poetry in relation to the way we discuss the environment and topics of sustainability. He commented on how rhetoric and poetry are not mutually exclusive, despite the impression that rhetoric is some times given a negative connotation. Examples of text from Darwin, Von Uexkull, and Linda Hogan all showed different ways of thinking connectively between human and non-human symbols, metaphors, and experiences. Professor Siewer’s also presented through a number of diagrams the many ways societies, economics, and environments can connect, and argued that society is a too impersonal word to represent individuals and households at large. A big take away from Professor Siewer’s presentation was that sustainability can be a discussion beyond quantitative data and the kind of rhetoric reserved for sciences.

On a slightly different subject, Professor Gary Steiner gave a presentation on the way we view sustainability and justice. His perspective of sustainability required that sentient beings be treated with dignity. Focusing on poor farming practices and the quantity of animals killed for food, Professor Steiner cited the anthropocentric prejudice that humans have created in their rationalization of law and justice. An early definition of justice required that a beneficiary be able to listen to justice, thereby excluding animals and non-human sentient beings. Various philosophers from Aristotle to Rawls were cited as continually rationalizing the idea of human superiority, while Professor Steiner argued that the same things that supposedly make us “morally superior” allow us to do evil. An overarching important point of Professor Steiner’s presentation was that in order to think of sustainability as justice people need to begin to recognize their obligations and duties of justice to non-human species.

The third panelist was Professor Claire Campbell, who discussed cautionary tales through history. She began her presentation by discussing how history plays a role in our forward progress and stated that “knowing what isn’t sustainable is a start.” Professor Campbell argued that reviewing history is important because it provides examples and evidence of our bad habits, mistakes, and the unintentional consequences of our actions. Using a quote from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, she explained how imagination is linked to cultivation, imperialism, and other historical ventures. I found Professor Campbell’s explanation of history of the future to be particularly interesting as she framed history to be the decisions people made in order to achieve the future they wanted. While history is often not considered a creative field, she asked the audience “what have we already done in the name of imagination” and explained that understanding the past requires a certain level of imagination to connect the dots.

I found the panel presentations and discussions on Thursday morning to be very interesting. I really enjoyed learning how sustainability can be viewed through different lenses that don’t require an intensive background in fields like Biology and Chemistry.

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