Expanding the Concept of Sustainability

Painting by Camille Pissarro: The Church and Farm of Eragny (1895)
Camille Pissarro: The Church and Farm of Eragny (1895)

What comes to your mind when you hear the word “sustainability?”

Among most in the conservative movement, “sustainability” evokes a feeling of suspicion, and an inclination to disagree with whatever is being said. Conversely, it is almost a “God-term” for the progressive/transgressive Left. This is an irony, and being an intelligent reader you can probably already see where I am going with this.

Absent political misuse, “sustainability” is a positive term, suggesting continuity, stability, order, peace. However, it has been disingenuously employed in the service of suspicious causes, precisely because it is such a positive term in itself. Of course, some libertarians, in a parody of themselves, rush the barricades to show how thinking responsibly about the future is harmful, and the invisible hand will take care of everything. But among conservatives who do not believe that anarcho-capitalism will solve our problems, or that “greed is good,” a viewpoint is lacking which will avoid the political non-solutions of both Left and Right.

Sustainability is a concept we hear a lot about in terms of natural ecology. Ecologists are concerned, rightly, that civilization not get into a situation in which it runs out of the physical resources it needs to persist. But almost invariably today it seems that those most visibly concerned about ecology (the Gulfstream Greens) have little to no concern for human culture. Thus we have Prince Philip and Bill and Melinda Gates, for instance, advocating a ludicrous Malthusian ideology of “zero population growth” which if carried out would spell disaster for human civilization (and, I note incidentally, the environment as well).

Hipster conservatives, readers of Wendell Berry that we are, readily admit that the natural world is beautiful and alive, resilient and fragile, requiring affection and stewardship–a word which suggests mankind’s caretaking role. In this issue of The Hipster Conservative I propose that we expand our use of “sustainability” to encompass not only our interactions with the natural world, but our views on culture, society, and the state–the human world–as well. I suggest that in addition to its application to the natural world we adopt the following three-part expansion of the idea of sustainability:

  • “Moral Ecology”–moral and ethical foundations stable enough to sustain strong, diverse, and compassionate human societies;
  • “Social Sustainability”–structures which encourage the formation of strong, long-lasting social units; and
  • “Cultural Conservation”–an approach to arts and letters tending to preservation and cultivation of cultural heritage, not its perversion.

These categories are impossible to wholly separate from one another, just as they also cannot be separated from stewardship of nature. But natural ecology itself cannot be sustained unless we pay attention to culture.

We got the idea for this theme of sustainability when we were reading Demons by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. (You may have noticed some commonplaces in the previous issue.) In this story, a group of merrymaking upper-class young people, nihilists with nothing to do but run around doing mischief, happen upon a tragic scene: a quiet, respectable lad from the country has committed suicide in a hotel after squandering, in four days of debauchery, the money his family had saved up for years and entrusted to him to purchase his sister’s wedding trosseau. The merrymakers treat this tragedy as one more joke, and some even jokingly taste the grapes and wine the young man had been eating before he shot himself.

The young suicide is an image of the sacrilegious and flippant upper-class nihilists: They are wasting the cultural patrimony of many generations with their riotous and immoral behavior and ideas. The only difference is that they can seemingly afford to do so, while the country boy is utterly and immediately ruined. (See the excerpt at the end of this month’s issue.)

This situation warrants comparison to present-day pop culture. The popular and political culture of today is really what Philip Rieff called an “anti-culture,” feeding destructively as it does upon the ideas and institutions of the past. This is largely true on both the political Right and Left, although the Right still largely acknowledges the importance of positive cultural institutions such as the family, the church, and public order. But the anti-culture of narcissism and antinomianism is a serpent devouring its own tail; it tends to disorder and ruin of all kinds.

The idea of “sustainability” thus applies. The anti-culture cannot be sustained. Nihilism cannot sustain itself; it can only exist by devouring, and the culture that sustains itself by consuming itself will eventually kill itself.

In this issue, we concern ourselves with some of the aspects of cultural sustainability mentioned above. We know that religious institutions at their best are cultural stabilizers and preservatives; I explore how religious institutions may themselves be sustained. Separately, I also consider the issue of religious circumcision which has been in the news.

Glaucon, a new contributor, contributes an appreciation of one of the most unique and underappreciated economists of the twentieth century, Wilhelm Ropke, and his Humane Economy. Our historian and cultural critic Bede Adulescens discusses Russian punk feminists and Lana Del Rey.

Cultural sustainability depends in large measure upon having children to pass the culture on to. We are very pleased to feature in this issue an essay by the Catholic blogger Marc Barnes. Despite his young age, Mr. Barnes rivals some of today’s best Christian apologists in his ability to contend forcefully and reasonably for his beliefs. His essay, uniting science and sociology, is entitled “Sustainable Sex.”

We also received a lengthy and impassioned critique of N.W. Smith’s review of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones, from a Mr. Newcastle. This response was very much in the spirit of thoughtful yet high-spirited writing we seek to promote, so we have published it in this issue, along with a rejoinder from Bede more or less expressing the opinions of the editorial board.

I hope you enjoy this issue of The Hipster Conservative, and look forward to bringing you the final issue of 2012 come November.


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THOMAS HOLGRAVE is a conservative but not necessarily a hipster. He is the publisher of The Hipster Conservative. He has never read a comic book he liked. He is an occasional theologian who has been known to become quite exercised over questions of Puritan doctrine and practice. Not much else is known about him.

4 thoughts on “Expanding the Concept of Sustainability”

  1. Anti-culture is promoted by Rupert Murdoch as much as by Hollywood, as you seem willing to confess. But this fact highlights the silliness of your “Hipstercon” criticism. Paleo-conservatives were wary of commercial and business values entering private life (read Ideas Have Consequences) and were subsequently expunged from the Republican party and the conservative movement more generally. Whisper a hint of criticism of the job creators, and you’re likely to be brained with a copy of Atlas Shrugged. There is no place for you. Stewardship over the environment? Family values over advertising revenue? Compassion? What is this hippie nonsense?

  2. This journal is delicious. I wrote my thesis on Theology and Ecology. The idea of viewing cultural and social trends in light of sustainability is so desperately needed, and so well applied in this journal. Thank you for your work.

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