Sustainability in Life, Place, and Justice by Do Lee

In the documentary No Impact Man, a New York City family attempted a yearlong experiment of living with ‘zero’ environmental impacts in response to a natural world in crisis from climate change and ecological limitations. The mass media was highly captivated by the spectacle of the family’s experiment and ran stories such as the 2007 New York Times’ article, “The Year Without Toilet Paper,” that depicted the family as strange and extreme. Implicit in the film and the media coverage is the assumption that it is possible and even necessary for people to have zero or minimal impact on nature to avert catastrophic climate change. However, this assumption imposes a impossible, false, and possibly damaging separation of the person and the environment. Sustainability, in the face of challenges like climate change and ecological limits like peak oil, must be understood with people situated within social and physical contexts that involve reciprocal relationships by which people both affect and are influenced by the social and material context. Within this framework, a number of questions emerge:

  • What are truly sustainable lifestyles and societies?
  • What are we sustaining and why?
  • How can sustainability be constructed and reproduced in our time period, diverse places, and varied social systems?
  • What does it mean to think globally and act locally?
  • Who wins and loses in sustainable development?
  • How could sustainability be fair and equitable?

To conceptualize sustainability, Agyeman et al (2003) propose ‘just sustainabilities,’ which argues that the development of sustainable societies are inextricably linked to social and environmental justice. In addition, the emphasis on ‘development’ in sustainable development troubles many scholars. Arturo Escobar (1995) deconstructs ‘development’ as a means of colonializing control by industrialized western countries over ‘underdeveloped’ countries. As such, Banerjee (2003) examines how sustainable development colonizes spaces in the Third World for the capitalization of nature and likewise, Fraser (2012) uses the ideas of Karl Polanyi to understand the fictitious commodification of the ecological, social, and financial as a crisis of capitalism. Morse (2008) proposes a form of post-sustainable development that focuses on a process of discourse between the local level and the external expert. In regards to specific cases of environmental justice, the readings explore an ethnographic study of environmental racism and activism in Augusta, Georgia (Checker, 2005), a critique of western-style environmental justice as it applies to post-colonial contexts such as India (Williams & Mawdsley, 2005), an examination of the political and cultural mean-making of the landscape through anti-clearcutting activism of the Grassy Narrows First Nation, and understanding the multiple forms of spatiality that produce and disrupt environmental injustice (Walker, 2009).

The reading list includes the examination of psychological roles in sustainability such as the psychological implications of changing global and local environments from technological, geophysical and sociopolitical transitions (Stokols et al., 2009), the role environmental psychology in sustainable development (Bonnes & Bonaiuto, 2002), and the application of a holistic social-ecological framework that draws upon affordances to understand sustainable behavior (Kurz, 2002). In addition, a few articles draw upon the philosophy of pragmatism to provide intriguing explorations of the implications of sensory experience in the world as it pertains to environmental responsibility and research (Hobson, 2006), the development of habits in sustainable transportation (Schwanen et al., 2012), and integrating rationality and lived experience in sustainable development (Holden, 2008). The readings also excavate the roles and meanings of place (Alvarez & Rogers, 2006, Bott et al, 2003, Uzzell et al, 2002) and the implications of the local (Feagan, 2007, Krueger & Agyeman, 2005) in sustainability.

In summary, I constructed this recommended reading list in order to present an interdisciplinary range of the implications of life, place, and justice posed by academic deliberations about the meanings, missteps, and opportunities of sustainability.

Do J. Lee is an Environmental Psychology doctoral student at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY). His research interests include the critical exploration of the processes and social justice implications of how people adopt sustainable behaviors such as bicycle commuting within environmental and social contexts. His professional career includes over ten years of work at environmental organizations in California and Washington DC along with service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan. He graduated in 2003 with a M.P.A. in Earth Systems Science, Policy and Management from Columbia University and in 1997 with a B.A. in Molecular Cell Biology from UC Berkeley.

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 Supported by the CUNY Doctoral Students Council.