Does ‘sustainable’ really mean ‘unnatural’?

Flickr: ecstaticist

Diane Ragsdale raises some fabulous and fascinating points in her latest blog entry on ‘sustainability’ in the arts. Rather than accepting the common-knowledge-but-impossibly-vague use of the term ‘sustainable’ we hear at conferences and read in project reports, she digs a bit deeper into the concepts that lie beneath. When we talk about making an arts organization ‘sustainable’ in the quality, quantity, and revenue/expense balance of its work, we tend to mean that it will remain about the same — despite dramatic shifts in its environment. The same number of productions at about the same quality, with a similar number of staff.

Back in the day, success or sustainable meant ‘growth’ in some significant metric (output, reach, quality, revenue, contributions, etc.). But since 2008 or even before, ‘sustainable’ has meant flat. I recall at the Arts Presenters conference following the 2008 market collapse, a common meme was ‘flat is the new growth.’ If you could retain your position and not lose ground, you were winning.

But Diane draws on the insights of an economist to question whether ‘sustainable’ and ‘sustained’ really mean the same thing. For one thing, everything in nature is subject to cycles of growth, conservation, release, renewal (for more on this, see an earlier post). Striving to break that cycle or extend one phase actually goes against nature while delaying (and likely increasing the destructive power of) the next phase. This is why preventing ALL forest fires leads to a greater threat of a MASSIVE forest fire.

Further, since all systems are themselves part of and parent to other systems — larger ones, smaller ones — our effort to stabilize one system will most certainly have an effect on systems above or below the one we’re working on. This certainly happened in Madison, where a single, professional theater company was consuming more and more energy, attention, and money as it fought its ‘release’ phase. And that struggle withheld food and energy from the smaller theater artists or ensembles that might have found their way. After the professional theater finally imploded, a whole new ecology of theater found root.

And no, I’m not heading toward the obvious but now rather tedious discussion of ‘thinning the herd’ or ‘we have too many arts organizations’. I’m just suggesting, as Diane seems to be, that we’re clear and precise not only in defining what we mean by ‘sustainability’ but also what system we’re striving to sustain.



  1. David R White says

    A lot of interesting theory here . But my philosophy of sustainability, after years involved in rural arts development in NH and now that I’m running an artist residency and performance center (The Yard) on Martha;s Vineyard has now become The Yard’s mission caption: “Seed. Grow. Reap. Repeat. ” (trademark). for smaller organizations and for artists, that is both reality and aspiration.

  2. Joan says

    The following I excerpted from The Sustainable Cities Aalborg Charter in Europe. Reading this document was the first time I’d seen a presentation of what sustainability overall really meant.
    The important idea is that even the supposedly abstract Descartian worlds of thought (and, yes, music making) are eventually related to actions that involve the real, living systems and creatures of the earth, as well as social justice, and economic exchanges (and not just the present system’s definition of what an economic system means) that should be fair and related to what the local and global environment can actually sustain and what real democracy and social justice can applaud. So, just societies, environmental health, and economic sustainability, have always been interwoven inside each other. Each one has always affected each other although until now we haven’t seen it consciously and measured it scientifically. This concept of sustainability isn’t a new kind of advertising campaign. It’s a long overdo awakening to our real planet and to every group and individual’s affect on Earth, all the time. Composers and players moved into new eras as people discovered new ways of living together and expressing themselves, as democracy fought its way up into the -dare I say it- 1%, as science and technology rearranged our relationship with our bodies and our work. Listen to the Romantic composers long for nature, for the old sensibilities, while also celebrating new tough energies and connections. Listen to the Modern movement speak to the terrors of global battles, the death of gods, overwhelming economic power of the powerful, and the refusal of the human spirit to give up individuality, justice. What are composers writing about our lives and our struggles today? Doesn’t this relate to true sustainability? If we don’t play them, if we take away all school children’s tools to develop an understanding of arts’ languages of personal feeling and spirit, isn’t this another sustainability war arts organizations should participate in too, with all our might? There’s the issue of sheet music and paper and digital libraries; of stages, lighting, heating and electricity use and alternative power; musicians’ salaries, our relationship to social justice and equity in the neighbourhood, to newspapers and critics, to being a part of local gatherings and local education. To relating out into other arts organizations as much as possible rather than fighting each other for local dollars. Trying to change the models of funding, trying to keep our economics near the ground, and our voices heard about being connected to healthy lifestyles, excercise, etc. Sorry for going on, but if we, like every other group on the planet, don’t touch and relate to the real worlds of nature, society and justice, classical musicians and their organizations will NEVER be sustainable.

  3. Joan says

    Sorry, here’s the quote I forgot to include!

    “The idea of sustainable development helps us to base our standard of living on the carrying capacity of nature. We seek to achieve social justice, sustainable economies, and environmental sustainability. Social justice will necessarily have to be based on economic sustainability and equity, which require environmental sustainability. “