After attending Professor Robert Markley’s lecture, “After Sustainability: The (Future) Histories of Climate Change,” on Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but draw connections between the sort of issues he was discussing in terms of “eco-violence” (or violence against the environment, especially plant-life) and the different forms of colonial oppression that we have been encountering time and time again, in every work we read in this class.
One of the most interesting aspects of Markley’s lecture was the controversy over what does stability really mean? Especially in an English course, diction is important. According to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) sustainability means: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level OR avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. I take the time to point this out, to illustrate to you how this word that is so readily thrown around in various forms of rhetoric actually explains very little about how to achieve its means. This is a utopian word, which sounds great in concept, but is an island away from practical application in most senses.
That is not to say “sustainability” is not an admirable goal, or even an essential one, but the means necessary to bring that utopian ideal into realistic existence cannot be accomplished by spotting speeches and padding pamphlets. Even in “ideal” circumstances, or under the best conditions, in order to obtain “sustainability” in one area, sacrifices must be made in another. In fact, many times efforts made to “save the planet” or to improve the environment backfire in unexpected ways. For instance, in the lecture Markley mentioned that redwood trees had been transplanted to New Zealand, whose volcanic soil promised three times the average rate of growth. However, due to this fast development, the bark of the trees did not mature in the typical fashion and ended up being too soft to be useful.
Many oppressors of the environment, like those of people, seem to have rhetoric which implies that they are doing the landscape a favor by making necessary improvements. Like many foreigners in “savage” lands (since the ways in which the area had developed, or been “cultured” was unknown and not understood by them) they decided it must be backwards and in need of being “liberated” from itself. Many forests have been cut down, marshes drained, foreign species (primary grasses and crops) planted all under the guise of “cultivation.”
Does this rhetoric sound familiar? It should because we have been reading about it all semester! Does it sound religious? Kind of like the religion justification similar to “the divine right of kings” that Johnson uses when he makes the dictionary, essentially “weeding” out the words that weren’t quite up to his standards. Kind of like the thought process of the Houyhnhnms (highly educated horses) in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travel’s, who advocate for the wiping out of entire species (in this case humans) in order to maintain “balance.” More recently we see ideas of “cross-pollination” at the end of Equiano’s narrative when he poses the solution of intermarriage as a way to “eradicate” African heritage and “breed” in European culture.
This is a running narrative that still continues today and is being propagated by officials in our country, the United States of America, who seem incapable of drawing inter-disciplinary connections between the uprooting of invaluable resources in terms of both people and the planet. Hopefully this blog will help some of you also see the way in which these running narratives of oppression are not only cultural issues in terms of people, but also the planet at large, making them truly global concerns. Unfortunately, oppression is a fundamental aspect of co-existence, whether it be between two clashing groups of people, or humankind and the planet. The sooner we accept this in all its various forms, the sooner we can make a conscious effort to create a society that actually supports sustainability.