Filling a Semantic Void

void

I am finding it increasingly difficult to come up with ideas for this blob. I don’t feel right in always being critical even as I see more and more reasons to think that way. I don’t see much out there that suggests that global society is waking up to the havoc our modern ways are wreaking. I find it harder and harder to explain why I am not pessimistic, but remain hopeful. I think it possible to hold these seemingly opposing thoughts. I believe that there is a way to move toward a flourishing world away from the deteriorating condition of the times. I am hopeful that, as we begin to adopt the new story, the world will change for the better. But at the same time, I am pessimistic as to whether the rate of adoption will be fast enough to counteract the trend toward natural and human collapse. I fall back on this short quote by W. S. Merwin when I get mired in pessimism. It’s taken from an introductory piece by the poet, Alison Hawthorne Deming, in a book in which I have a chapter.

Recounting a visit by W. S. Merwin who had been describing to her class the lack of progress on a conservation project. A student asked, “How do you keep going. I mean, are you at all optimistic.” Merwin responded, “I’m not optimistic. I am very pessimistic. But that does not mean I am not hopeful. You make a decision to be hopeful. When you’re in a lifeboat, that’s not the time for your worst behavior, but for your best.”

It is very important for me and all others concerned about the future to remain hopeful. Pessimism has a paralyzing effect, the opposite of that which hope brings. Stay the course; stick to your guns; fall seven times, stand up eight. Merwin echoes these old saws and sayings. I have been thinking, writing, and teaching about sustainability for a decade or so. The hegemony of the words we use keeps us locked in the present. The rich, future-oriented way I have been talking about sustainability has been buried by the way the word is used is used virtually everywhere out there; business, government, NGOs and other advocacy groups, schools. and more. This is a big problem for me as I have used the word extensively in virtually everything I have said or written. Sustainability, out there, refers to acting such that the global system can continue to develop as it has for a couple of centuries. It is the form of development that is to sustained. We are to continue to progress toward some mystical goal. When we started on this journey, those who developed the underlying ideas believed that this course would lead us to perfection, although it was never clear what they meant. Back then, they believed that God had given humans the tools to discover facts about the world and it follows, then, if humans would use these tools to shape their lives, they would eventually reach that perfection. Otherwise why would they have been given the tools.

While some still believe that God is behind everything, our institutions are largely secular, based on the facts we have discovered without regard as to why they are out there. As I and many others are saying, this modern journey has indeed produced much progress measured in materialistic terms but has brought us to state far from perfection. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that whatever progress we are making is now coupled to changes that can only be seen as contrary to the expectations that our history has given us. Unsustainability, the constellation of natural and human ills, is growing and threatens both the earth and its inhabitants. Its proximate causes can be linked to the size of our economy and to the means by which we produce and consume. There is little or no call to reduce the size of the economy or the rate that should grow; solutions are to come either from great improvement is the way we produce and consume our goods or by adapting to whatever changes come from continuing to behave the same way we are now.

Starting tn the 1980s and 1990s, many people began to recognize the trends, but had no conventional way of describing them. You could talk about inequality as an isolated problem, but it was difficult to convey the enormity of the situation without a simple, neat word. Unsustainability arose to fill this semantic void, a phrase used by Leo Marx in his essay, “Technology, The Emergence of a Hazardous Concept.” (Technology and Culture, 51 (3) pp. 561-577, 2010) This condensation of a constellation of problems into a single word has enabled its diffusion and the subsequent high level of attention paid to it. The positive reaction to unsustainability was a plethora of remedial programs largely done by businesses. Initially these activities were scattered and, without a name to describe them, the institution of business could not say much about what was going on. A new word, greening, was coined, to encompass all the activities aimed at reducing sustainability. This new word sufficed for about a decade until it was clear that greening was inadequate to counteract growing unsustainability. Greening could not encompass he enormity of social problems as well as those of the environment . A new phrase was needed to describe the early activities aimed at the larger set of issues. The “semantic void” was filled with “sustainability.”

But the meaning of sustainability was never clear. It became a shorthand for eco-efficiency and corporate social responsibility. The key question of what was to be sustained was never explicitly asked. Nor were questions raised about the source of the causative factors of the deteriorating conditions of the Globe. If there was any image behind its use, it was the continuation of social life based on an economic system of benign growth. Sustainability acquired a kind of agency. Do something called sustainability and it would make things better. Leo Marx, in the article I cited above, wrote:

To invest the concept of technology with agency is particularly hazardous when referring to technology in general—not to a particular technology, but rather to our entire stock of technologies. The size of that stock cannot be overstated. By now we have devised a particular technology—an amalgam of instrumental knowledge and equipment—for everything we make or do. To attribute specific events or social developments to the historical agency of so basic an aspect of human behavior makes little or no sense. Technology, as such, makes nothing happen. By now, however, the concept has been endowed with a thing-like autonomy and a seemingly magical power of historical agency. We have made it an all-purpose agent of change. As compared with other means of reaching our social goals, the technological has come to seem the most feasible, practical, and economically viable. It relieves the citizenry of onerous decision-making obligations and intensifies their gathering sense of political impotence. The popular belief in technology as a—if not the—primary force shaping the future is matched by our increasing reliance on instrumental standards of judgment, and a corresponding neglect of moral and political standards, in making judgments about the direction of society. To expose the hazards embodied in this pivotal concept is a vital responsibility of historians of technology.

Sustainability has also a “thing-like” quality. It will solve our problems just as technology will. The nature of much of what goes for sustainability is little more than technology in disguise. I did not recognize this character of sustainability until recently and have used it extensively in my work. Now I have stopped, but the word is all over my books and blog. Sustainability does not convey an image of the life we seek, only a process that is supposed to get us there but instead created the problems it is now supposed to cure. We are not some numerical abstraction, but human beings. Sustainability, like technology, tacitly assumes that we are merely such abstractions.

I now talk about “flourishing” in hopes to fill the semantic void that now exists. The idea of progress is a good one but began as a theological concept. It, like technology, is empty of meaning until we give it some. The mysterious end of progress has become dimmed over time and now is couched in quantitative terms. But, as I just said, we are not abstractions, and numbers tell us very little about the human condition. I hope that flourishing will afford us a meaningful vision of how life can and should be. If we speak of progress, it should refer to flourishing as the end, not to some disconnected process. Progress has become an end, itself not a means to some vision that reflects our humanness. I thought sustainability would be a good substitute, but the end being sought has become distant and diffuse. If we are to address our real problems, we have to stop using words like progress, sustainability, or greening. There is no vision of a future other than more of the same. Flourishing has the potential to wake us up and give us an explicit end. With that, we can begin to raze the present cultural structure and replace them with beliefs and norms tied to the vision of flourishing.

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