Sustainability, Politics, and a Conscious Turn

by Christine Skolnik

Here is a thought experiment inspired by post-structuralist political ecology, an engagement with affective neuroscience, and a notion of consciousness as a locus for political action.

Post-Structuralist Political Ecology—In this post I follow Arturo Escobar who focuses on discursive practices within the context of political ecology.  Escobar, like the poststructuralists from whom he draws inspiration (primarily Foucault and Deleuze), asserts that nature and society are social constructs, without denying that they also exist within a material realm (Escobar 326).  Similarly, while my experiment focuses on consciousness as a locus for political action, I do not mean to negate or even trivialize the material world.  My complaint is with an excessive emphasis on that world within political discourse.

Affective Neuroscience and Consciousness—Affective Neuroscience defines consciousness as a process which mediates external and internal realities for the purposes of survival broadly understood (Solms 18-30) .  Through affective modes we ascribe value to both external and internal realities in order to mediate our relationship to the environment and, indeed, our relationship to ourselves (Damasio 124-26).  Similarly we evaluate our own emotions as either indicators of our conscious relationships to things, or clues to our unconscious inner states, which include autonomic bodily states, as well as more classically unconscious motives (Panksepp 9, 51; Lane Being Aware).  This discursive practice couples values with emotions although most affective neuroscientists would concur that values also have cognitive elements (Lane “The Study of Emotion”).



Politics and Consciousness—In Power and Powerlessness John Gaventa cites “consciousness” and “the political will” as “elusive notions” recuperated as “observable processes” by communications theory (16).  As an expression of consciousness, politics can be understood as mastering and stewarding the worlds of our inner lives, in addition, or even more radically in contrast to, mastering or stewarding the natural world (as an outside).  Politics can refocus on “the polis” (the body of citizens) and the challenges of regulating human life.  Within this paradigm politics becomes a meta-process of human self-regulation, and specifically the regulation of our perceived needs.

What follows is a sketch of three perspectives on the environment: Modern, pseudo-sustainable, and conscious.  Within each rubric I briefly analyze the key value term “resources.”  In each case I also try to distinguish externalities from internalities in accordance with my stated bias.

The Old Modern—A traditional or “Modern” orientation to the environment focuses on creating economic wealth.  The environment exists for our benefit and all life forms are subordinated to human life to the point of degradation (Escobar 328, Fairbanks 79- 80).  This perspective, dominated by old-school economics, is currently characterized by factory farming, protracted colonial exploitation, and hostile foreign policies revolving around various types of resources.

In a traditional political environment, “resources” serve the exigencies of consumer capitalism (Escobar 336).  In the U.S. this view produced manifest destiny and political investments in natural resource conservation (Thiele 3-5).  More recently resources and biodiversity have been coupled with the biotech industry (Escobar 334-36).  In every case a resource is something to be found in nature as an outside.  Within this paradigm capitalist democracies are considered superior forms of government through the tautologies of consumer capitalism; our way of life is better because we can buy more things which we cherish above all else (Fairbanks 90-92).

The Pseudo-sustainable—The second perspective is a turn of the century approach I identify as conventional sustainability or pseudo-sustainability.  This viewpoint is largely defined by the Brundtland Report (1987) and the dream of reconciling capitalism with the environmental movement (Escobar 328).  Epistemologically, it is the “moment” in which Western society recognizes a set of emerging environmental crises—global warming for example—but is not yet willing to give up its attachments to free-market capitalism.  This liminal position is supported by a faith in the capacity of industrial capitalism to evolve and to solve global problems.  It remains invested in technological and economic development (Escobar 336, Sachs 434).  It is environmentally conscious but not radically so.  It still perceives an essential separation between human life and the environment as an outside (Escobar 331).  Although it may incorporate ideas of simplicity and alternative values, it does not engage in a serious critique of consumer capitalism (Sachs 429).

A pseudo-sustainable orientation constructs “resources” as an even more precious, even sacred, set of external objects.  The widely cited Brundtland report gestures toward a new age but does not threaten the old order (Escobar 332).  Conventional sustainability approaches focus on developing alternative energy sources rather than focusing on human consumption.  However, critics argue that in this realm we are counting chickens before they hatch (Trainer).  And we continually ignore sagacious warnings that we cannot solve global problems using the same technologies/epistemologies that created them.

A Consciousness Turn—A conscious turn is catalyzed by a realization that human behavior is the cause of environmental crisis.  It coincides with acceptance of anthropogenic climate change and a recognition of human responsibility.  Bruno Latour calls for a cast of “well articulated actors” participating in “a political ecology that will never again oblige them to become without debate, either objects belonging to nature or subjects belonging to society” (Latour in Keil 647).  Unless human beings take responsibly for their behaviors, they cannot cultivate or experience the will or believe that they are capable of changing themselves.  Though the media and various levels of government contribute to environmental crises, human behavior is the efficient cause (Fairbanks 90-91).  A conscious turn requires commitment from individuals and communities to sustain a high level of environmental consciousness as a form of moral consciousness.  Though this vision is surely idealistic, such an epistemic change is not beyond the arc of history:

Large-scale “changes of worldview” which are also changes of values, such as the transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance or the acceptance of heliocentrism, are historically commonplace, and there is no reason to suppose that a change of worldview generally benefiting life on earth should not be just as possible. (Fairbanks 97)

One merely needs to broaden one’s perspective.

An internal, conscious response to the “resource” problem, a critical political approach, would focus on reexamining our own needs as individuals embedded with communities (Latour in Keil 647; Fairbanks 92).  Ethicists suggest that a radical re-evaluation of American habits of consumption and the use of consumer pressure could have a significant impact on both the economy and the environment (Fairbanks).  In line with this argument we could reclaim our national cultural resources of friendliness, honesty, and simplicity.  Indeed, any number of core American values could be mobilized to turn Americans from a nightmare of ecological degradation and socio-economic injustice toward a lucid ecological dream of reconciliation (Owen, Fairbanks 90).

Get Busy—Political sociologist and activist John Gaventa has illustrated that “participation itself [ . . .] increases political consciousness” (Gaventa 16).  Ethicist, Sandra Jane Fairbanks concurs.  One of her recommendations for developing environmental virtues in the American psyche is to encourage participation in local environmental initiatives (97- 98).  Fairbanks argues that, given the urgency of various environmental crises, we simply cannot wait for constituencies to develop virtues in an ad hoc manner.  She also suggests wide spread recognition of this urgency, in addition to “virtually instant communication” could facilitate a rapid change in worldview (Fairbanks 97).  In my view reclaiming political agency is inextricable tied with reclaiming a moral perspective, not as “church ladies” but as “ethical, good, right, honest, decent, proper, honorable, just, principled” human beings (your online thesaurus).

Works Cited


Damasio, Antonio R.  Descartes’ Error. New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1994.

Escobar, Arturo. “Construction Nature: Elements for a Post-Structuralist Political Ecology.” Futures 28.4 (1996): 325-343.

Fairbanks, Sandra Jane. “Environmental Goodness and the Challenge of

American Culture.” Ethics & the Environment 15.2 (2010): 79-102.

Gaventa, John. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in                an Appalachian Valley. Urbana: U Illinois P, 1982.

Keil, Roger. “Progress Report—Urban Political Ecology.” Urban Geography, 26.7 (2005): 640-51.

Lane, Richard D. and David A. S. Garfield. “Becoming Aware of Feelings: Integration of Cognitive-Developmental, Neuroscientific, and Psychoanalytic Perspectives.” Neuro-psychoanlaysis. 7.1 (2005): 5-30.

Lane, Richard D., Lynn Nadel, John J. B. Allen, and Alfred W. Kazniak. “The Study of Emotion from the Perspective of Cognitive Neuroscience.” Cognitive Neuroscience of Emotion. Ed. Richard D. Lane and Lynn Nadel. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000.

Panksepp, Jaak.  Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions.  New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Sachs, Wolfgang. “Deep Ecology and the Shadow of ‘Development’” Deep Ecology for the 21st Century: Readings on the Philosophy and Practice of the New Environmentalism. Ed. George Sessions. Boston: Shambhala, 1995. 428-44.

Solms, Mark and Oliver Turnbull. The Brain and the Inner World: An Introduction to the

Neuroscience of Subjective Experience. New York: Other Press, 2002.

Thiele, Leslie Paul. The Heart of Judgment: Practical Wisdom, Neuroscience, and Narrative. New York: Cambridge, 2006.

Trainer, Ted. Reviewable Energy Cannot Sustain A Consumer Society. Dordrecht: Springer, 2007.

Image Sources:

1. Descartes’ Error:

2. Gro Harlem Brundtland:

3. Fractal Image/Indra’s Net:


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9 responses to “Sustainability, Politics, and a Conscious Turn

  1. Domenico D'Alessandro

    A good analysis. I would add that there is a serious problem of exclusion even among the ‘eco’ crowd. Doors are closed to many with alternative ideas due to the perceived lack of discipline e.g. lack of credentials that are based on outdated modes of work. The silo effect is still quite strong – what we need is an open roundtable where ideas and concepts can be brought without pre-judgement. My personal experience has been that a concept must be ‘economically defended’ based on the very market forces sustained by the status quo model, thereby subject to money as the all important means of selection. This is true of the various foundations I encountered, it seems we always have to wait for the politically connected to embrace an idea before it becomes reality and this is a very slow train.

  2. Christine Skolnik

    Too true. Not only the problem of silos but of disciplines that are out of touch. Economics first of all because it’s so influential:

  3. Jeff Tangel

    Great post Christine, and comment Domenico. While there are many good issues raised of special resonance for me is that you both point towards the epistemological box in which we are trapped in while trying to figure out how to achieve sustainability. Christine, as I mentioned I loved that you raised the idea about the “tautologies of consumer capitalism; our way of life is better because we can buy more things which we cherish above all else (Fairbanks 90-92)”. Capitalism is a tautology and if anyone were so impertinent as to challenge its veracity they would ultimately be met with a parent’s last line of defense: “Because I said so!” I think Domenico shows how this works in practice: “My personal experience has been that a concept must be ‘economically defended’ based on the very market forces sustained by the status quo model, thereby subject to money as the all important means of selection.” Ah! Domenico has gotten at the tautology: the truth is capitalism is a means of selection, not just one of many, but we are told it’s the only one (TINA). We have been led to believe that it is science, and when faced with this evident reality we can only do so much to craft a hospitable environment within that box. As we might build levees to shield our crops from flooding so too we can only go so far to build social support systems or put in place environmental measures within the constraints of “reality”.

    But Christine points to a way out of the box, “And we continually ignore sagacious warnings that we cannot solve global problems using the same technologies/epistemologies that created them.” And this: “In my view reclaiming political agency is inextricable tied with reclaiming a moral perspective, not as “church ladies” but as “ethical, good, right, honest, decent, proper, honorable, just, principled” human beings (your online thesaurus).” A consciousness turn!

    The problem is that all of these qualities are utterly alien to capitalism—not so much that “it” is opposed to any of these ideas or sentiments—just that it has no idea whatsoever what it is you’re talking about. And so: maybe we should really push ourselves against this utterly domineering, closed minded, repeatedly punitive, pugilistic, pugnacious and often petulant parent who is actually a foster parent foisted on us (your online alliterator) —and say this: We want an economic “system” that understands what every one of those words mean. Thus we will do such and such because it is the right thing to do, the honest thing to do (as you discussed at coffee)—not because it is the most cost effective. And a comment by Randy on another post, in which he wondered whether artists could be called upon to give a fuller understanding of the world, applies here as well: we will do such and such because it is the most beautiful thing to do. I say we need them, desperately! After all, who wants to live in a big box blacktopped world?

    It seems to me that if we are to achieve sustainability we need an economic system that speaks our language, that makes us feel more human, not less. We need a language that doesn’t disenfranchise and alienate us and nature with its models and algorithms, but brings us all together chatting excitedly in the kitchen as we’re all cooking up a tasty meal. Politics! So let’s take over the kitchen, kick out the tyrannical tautology that serves up endless platters of an amoral cuisine while strip-mining our yards, and see what kind of good stuff we can cook up, fresh, box-free, no instant pudding…I want real pudding!

  4. Christine Skolnik

    Give this man some real pudding post haste . . . . Seriously, your comment is one chewy and yet wholesome (in the Buddhist sense?) treat. Will need to reflect, but in the mean time I want to post a link to *Plato’s Revenge* which three of us are now reading (or have read). Also very chewy:

  5. Christine Skolnik

    I’ve drafted a response but am hoping to assemble a collaborative post based on this conversation and some new responses. Domenico, please contact me:

  6. Guy Zimmerman

    Fascinating discussion. I wonder where the issue of “externalities” figures into the critique. The epistemology being referred to here, if I’m reading the exchange correctly, refers to a perpetual tendency to reduce processes to things – reification, basically. “True cost accounting” would seem to me to be a trojan horse rolled in through the gates in that, in terms anyone can follow, that the cost of an item should reflect the net cost of its creation. The logic does many things at once in a rhetorical sense in that it points toward the artificial aspect of markets – that they are created within certain artificial boundaries – and it also points toward an unsettling connectivity between the discrete “things” of the consumer economy. This is to say that I don’t think true cost accounting would ultimately be possible, but that grappling with this impossibility would itself be transformative.

    I think Moore’s Law is already having a similar effect in that anything that can be reduced to digital information is instantly devalued as a commodity no matter how much we continue to value. Popular music is Exhibit A in this context – the public loves it more than ever but the music industry makes about a third of what it used to on selling music. The perpetual re-encoding of “flows of desire” the post-structuralist view as the central feature of Capitalism seems to be encountering limits, again, in terms of connectivity. It may be that capital finds ways to leap that boundary, but I really do think that the global integration of the economy will continue to throw up limiting conditions associated with connectivity…and that the inner correlate of this phenomenon is a re-configuration of our own relationship(s) to desire/lack and, possibly, a new “post-structuralist” mode of identity. In terms of politics this would result, possibly, in a shift away from the reified generalities that continue to define our discourse. It seems to me that Gibson-Graham are an expression of this, to some degree…

    • Christine Skolnik

      Thanks Guy,
      A generous response. “I’m really humbled right now” (as they say on “The Voice” which I stupored into last night. Here’s another idea for a conference. The next logical step for EC I think. Or a non conference. Something “completely different.” Maybe virtual. (Yup.) But no Monty Python skits, pudding, poetry reading of any kind, and especially NO PINK FLLOYD (Jeff).

  7. Jeff Tangel

    Hi Guy and Christine–sorry been away from this…Guy I think you make some great points, most of which I even understand! (I need to do a lot more reading about post-structuralism for example; and thanks for the Gibson-Graham reference, their book looks interesting). My “grappling with the impossibility…[of] true cost accounting…” has certainly been “trans formative” for me. I now realize our sovereignty has been conscripted and our development (broadly defined) constricted by this discourse–and I’m not happy about it! But Christine I’m not sure I can cope without Pink Floyd’s economic treatise, “Money”, or a pet shop keeper trying to sell me an expired parrot–which, I now see, might be a great metaphor for capitalism’s definition of development (once good, now, not so much!). But seriously, I hope you don’t mind of bit of levity and regular connection to a more commons culture; it helps me understand and is, I think, both where ideas become manifest and where some good ones might be lurking…

  8. Pingback: A Conversation about Sustainability, Epistemology, and Politics | environmental critique

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