Monday, April 18, 2011

William Cronon's "The Riddle of Sustainability"

On Thursday evening (April 14) William Cronon gave a plenary address at the ASEH conference entitled, "The Riddle of Sustainability: A Surprisingly Shorty History of the Future." A professor at University of Wisconsin, Madison, Cronon is one of the most distinguished figures among environmental historians. In fact, he is the incoming president of the American Historical Association. Despite the fact that he has written several historical classics, such as Changes in the Land (1983) and Nature's Metropolis (1991), many people today might recognize him more for his recent political travails. He has been at the center of controversial political situation in Wisconsin and has been critical of the Republican Party. After he wrote an editorial for the New York Times, the Wisconsin Republicans filed a FOIA to obtain his e-mails. You can followup if you are interested, on Cronon's blog, Scholar as Citizen ( This most recent history was alluded to, but not dwelled upon.

In his lecture, Cronon opened up with a discussion of sustainability. The word sustain, has very deep roots, but sustainability does not. It is a very recent world. He discovered this through a search of Project Gutenburg. I think this is a great assignment for the Culturnomics team that I wrote about in an earlier posting. Cronon then addressed why it emerged so suddenly in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He concludes that there were several factors. On the political level the Republicans ceded the environment and most conservation policies to the Democrats. Polls show Americans don't identify as environmentalists, even if they overwhelmingly support National Parks and clean water. In other words, there is something divisive about the term. Sustainability provides a bridge around that troublesome word and identification. Both right and left can meet in the sustainable middle. Second, rising concerns on global warming and the a 1987 UN report led many to look for a formula for having our cake and eating it too. Sustainability became a method to maintain prosperity while also avoiding resource depletion. It offers a very rosy scenario where it appears to be more a matter of tinkering than of really radical changes. Cronon cited Walmart's sustainability plan as an example to keep profits while still addressing resource use.

A couple of the audience members asked if corporate and political interests could really be trusted to carry on a socially just version of sustainability. Cronon seemed very optimistic. But on the way home I pondered less the questions than the direction of the questioners. They were on the left and critical of the corporate side of sustainability. On the other side, I recalled a recent National Review article referring to hybrid cars as "vanity" cars. It was a harsh criticism, but there is some justification in it to the extent that one can put solar panels on their roof, but one has to have a lot of money to lay out in order to do it. Not everyone can afford it, even with a credit and even if it will pay for itself in the end. This to me suggests that sustainability might not hold the edges. The left fears heartless corporatism, and the populist right perceives it as elitist feel goodism.

After this lecture the conferences panels tended to focus more on sustainability. I did not. Hornaday was so convinced that most American wildlife directly faced mass extinction that any discussion of ecology (or proto-sustainability) was way too premature. The slaughter of wildlife had to stop or there would be nothing to sustain or manage. It was that simple to him.


  1. Hi Greg,

    Thanks for this reflection on Cronon's ASEH 2011 plenary. I referred to some parts of this at my Sustainability History Project website, “Sustainability, History, and William Cronon”.

    I was also at Cronon's plenary, but I haven't yet found the time write down my own thoughts. I did, however, resonate with much of what you and Lauren Wheeler wrote, so I hope you don't mind that I referred to your reflections!

    I was at another session in Phoenix that I found highly interesting for myself and the SHP, "Sustainability and its Discontents." I have found the time to write about this particular session.

    Keep up the good work!


  2. Thanks for the kind comments James!