by Miriam Greenberg

From Boom Winter 2013, Vol. 3, No. 4

Toward critical sustainability studies.

Editor’s Note: This is only an excerpt from Miriam Greenberg’s article. 

Sustainability is a futuristic, even utopian, project par excellence. As with all utopian projects, sustainability offers a vision of the future to galvanize us to imagine our world otherwise and engage in the work necessary to change it.

Sustainability asks us to define those things of greatest value in our present that ought to be sustained in order to achieve this utopian vision of the future. Simultaneously, it forces us to consider those things that are not of value, and should not be sustained. Sustainability is thus a striking example of the power and limits of utopian ideals.

This dream of a sustainable future, in all its complexity is deeply rooted in California. Sustainability is now a global discourse. But California has played an out-sized role over the last century in promoting the discourse, as well as in embodying sustainability in the eyes of the world. This has especially been the case in California’s most famous green zone, the Bay Area, which has been at the forefront of eco-oriented lifestyles, cultural experiments, and politics for over a half century.¹

Wildflower mural in Union City by Mona Caron. Courtesy of the artist.

Indeed, the Bay Area is often imagined as the heartland of “ecotopia.” Ernest Callenbach coined the term in his 1975 cult novel of the same name, in which an Edenic Northern California, with San Francisco as its capital and the Sierra Nevada as its defensible border, has seceded from the rest of the nation. Ecotopia helped establish a futurist mythos in which sustainability is identifiably Californian, and California itself becomes less a place than an ideal—one that others around the world can only dream of attaining.²

This ecotopian vision has had remarkably wide and enduring influence. Given the global cultural, media, and economic influence of California, as well as the dramatic natural attributes of the West Coast, sustainability projects hatched in the Golden State have had something of a branding advantage.³ Green Californian vistas have been reimagined through advertising, product design, regional vision plans, lifestyle magazines, architectural experiments, films, and literature. They have also had a profound impact on modern, eco-oriented organizations and social movements—from the Sierra Club to the alternative food movement—that remain associated with the state’s unique landscape and supposedly unique state of mind.

This has had the effect of reifying a dominant vision of sustainability, providing authentically “Californian” images, experiences, faces, and products to ground this inherently abstract notion, and has thereby solidified the state’s reputation—and in particular iconic cities, regions, and landscapes—as the spatial and cultural embodiments of our sustainable future. California, and especially Northern California, have become a sustainable mecca to make pilgrimage to, gain inspiration from, and seek to emulate.

If Northern California is cast as the capital of our sustainable imaginary, Southern California is its inverse: a dystopian nightmare of sprawl, smog, and reckless overconsumption. Ecotopia‘s promised land was based on a regional binary of North/South, with the dividing line drawn somewhere below San Jose. The Central Valley, meanwhile, is erased altogether. As explored through Kristin Miller’s photo essay in this volume, this binary has been rooted in, and an inspiration for, science fiction fantasies of film, television, and literature since the 1960s, preoccupied as this genre has been with the prospect of imminent environmental and social collapse.

Photograph by Mona Caron.

To scholars of utopia, this juxtaposition of expansive dreams and rigid boundaries will be familiar. For as with all utopian projects, visions of sustainability are both vitally hopeful and frought with contradictions. Collective “wish images” of our idealized future have long been presented as universal and all-inclusive across lines of class, race, and geography, while also drawing boundaries that exclude. They have been portrayed as monolithic and consensual, while necessarily being shaped by multiple and often competing imaginings. And while appearing as visions of an ideal future world, these visions are inevitably cobbled together from past experiences and ways of knowing, which themselves go unacknowledged.4

In everyday life, these contradictions lead to real dilemmas for all of us working in the field of sustainability—as teachers, scholars, practitioners, activists, and citizens. As urgent as our current situation is, and as pressing as our desire is to push for a sustainable future now, if we are to overcome these dilemmas we first need to step back and ask some very basic questions about the nature of our goal. Namely, what is to be sustained and what is not? And who gets to choose and who does not?

Upon trying to answer these simple questions, one soon realizes the inherently political nature of the pursuit of sustainability. The complexity of these politics assert themselves even though—perhaps especially because—sustainability’s adherents and promoters tend to view and present the concept as so common sense and unquestionably good as to be “post-political.”5

This is an alluring proposition—who doesn’t want to sustain something, and who doesn’t want their ideal future to be easily achieved? Moreover, any argument against sustainability can seem like one for the forces of the apocalypse. Yet, seeking answers to these questions, one sees that in fact sustainability is neither simple nor singular. Rather, multiple sustainabilities are in circulation, and in competition. What’s more, these different versions reflect the particular values of the individuals, communities, industries, cities, nations, and so on, that are in position to define the term. Hence, the sustainable future we seek to build depends entirely upon whose sustainability we are talking about.

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El Camino mural in Hillsdale by Mona Caron. Image courtesy of the artist.


Image at top by Mona Caron. Courtesy of the artist.

1 Richard Walker, The Country in the City: The Greening of the San Francisco Bay Area (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008).

2 Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia (Berkeley: Bantam Tree Books, 1975).

3 For example, see Abraham F. Lowenthal, Global California: Rising to the Cosmopolitan Challenge (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009) and the program in Global Californian Studies at UC San Diego:

4 My approach to the study of utopian ideas is particularly influenced by Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. For analysis of Benjamin’s concept of dialectical “wish images,” see Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989), chap. 5. For critical theories of utopia, see David Harvey, Spaces of Hope (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) and Frederick Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005).

5 On the “post-political” uses of sustainability discourse, see Erik Swyngedouw, “The Antinomies of the Postpolitical City: In Search of a Democratic Politics of Environmental Production,” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 33 (2009): no. 3, 601–620; and Melissa Checker, “Wiped Out by the Greenwave: Environmental Gentrification and the Paradoxical Politics of Urban Sustainability,” City and Society 23 (2011): no. 2, 210–229.

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