A Conversation about Sustainability, Epistemology, and Politics

by Christine Skolnik

Here is a dialogue which originated in a recent EC comments thread but is certainly worthy of its own post.  It begins with the last paragraph of my January 25th piece Sustainability, Politics, and a Conscious Turn.

Christine Skolnik: Get Busy—Political sociologist and activist John Gaventa has illustrated that “participation itself [ . . .] increases political consciousness” (Gaventa 16).[1]  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).[2]  [ . . . ]  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).

Domenico D’Allesandro: 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to many with alternative ideas due to the perceived lack of discipline e.g. lack of credentials that are based on outdated modes of work.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-judgment. 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.

Jeff Tangel: Capitalism is a tautology and 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.” Capitalism is a means of selection, not just one of many, but the only one, so we are told (TINA).[3]  We have been led to believe that it is science, and when faced with this “reality” we can do only so much to craft a hospitable environment within that box.

Christine points to a way out of the box by, “…reclaiming political agency [which] is inextricable tied with reclaiming a moral perspective as ‘ethical, good, right, honest, decent, proper, honorable, just, principled’ human beings.” This is 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 what is being talked about. In order to complete a consciousness turn we have to break out of capitalism’s epistemological box and demand 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, the most beautiful thing to do, not surrender in service to the most cost effective idea.

It seems to me that if we are to achieve sustainability we need an economic system that speaks our language: one that makes us feel more human, not less.  We need a language that doesn’t disenfranchise and alienate us from ourselves, each other, and the natural world with its models and algorithms, but instead brings us all together chatting excitedly in the kitchen as we cook up a tasty meal.  Politics! . . . horizontal and inclusive, because only then can we avoid epistemological hubris.  So let’s take over the kitchen and kick out the tyrannical tautology that masquerades as science while serving endless platters of an amoral cuisine.  Let’s see what kind of good stuff we can cook up, together—epistemologically free.

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, 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[4] 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” that the post-structuralists 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 . . .  http://www.communityeconomies.org/people/JK-Gibson-Graham

Domenico D’Allessandro: The rhetoric far outstrips the praxis regarding sustainability. The current disastrous economic model is used as the measuring stick for potential solutions.  The preferred practice of funding increasing number of reports (even when the issues are well understood) gives the impression that much work is being done while resources are withheld selectively from projects that may actually resolve some of the problems.

This supports the prevailing silo-driven hierarchy in the disciplines. Creative solutions that come from new world views and broad perspectives have a hard time getting to the table.  The main obstacle is political corruption; Chicagois the national leader in this arena. The flow of money and influence from corporate entities that have much to gain maintaining the status quo has grown to the point where a few corporations hold more power than governments. The greatest setback is failing to grasp that life sustaining processes are stochastic in nature and our engineered solutions linear. However a few people have shone a light in the right direction including Lynn Margulis in her (ZERI) approach based on the five kingdoms of nature and Edward O. Wilson in his elegant body of work and introduction of “biophilia’ into the discourse.



Christine Skolnik: Reviewing this thread and circling back to Domenico’s comments on who gets to speak and which arguments can be deployed in which contexts, I’m brought back around to the issue of discursive practices.  Jeff hits it on the nail when he observes that capitalism has no language for ethical reflection.  Economics and moral philosophy parted ways some time ago, and now they don’t even speak.  But even worse, the tyranny of the economic mind (writ large) precludes the possibility for dialogue.  Harking back to one of my previous posts, I say we are in the midst of a psychosis.  The ubiquity of economic thinking incapacitates us to think in any other way.


That post also said something about the need for poets—truly inspired ones.  Crazy as foxes, and in some ways alien to the culture.  This post, however, may call on radical artists, scientists, economists, and rhetors to speak without permission (thank you, Guy Zimmerman, for practicing the unthinkable).  If we found the will to lead . . . would we?

Guest Bios:

Domenico D’Alessandro is a regenerative designer—promoting vertical watersheds for water quality/management and habitat creation in the urban core beyond LEED criteria, BMP’s, green roofs, and green walls applications.

Jeff Tangel is an environmental activist, ex-trader and lifelong refusenik; a grad student in the MALS Program at DePaul, he is inspired by Occupy and hopeful about an American Spring and the end of neoliberalism and its pleonexic apologists.

Guy Zimmerman is a seasoned playwright, director, and filmmaker.  He is currently a Doctoral candidate in Drama at U.C. Irvine.  His myriad intellectual interests include complex adaptive systems as they apply to global environmental, economic, and political challenges.


[1] Gaventa, John. Power and Powerlessness: Quiescence and Rebellion in

            an Appalachian Valley.Urbana: UIllinois P, 1982.

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

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

[3] “There is no alternative.” (Margaret Thatcher).

[4] According toMoore’s Law the number of transistors that can be placed on a circuit doubles every two years.


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