Untangling Sustainability

By Liv Binda, Sarah Bracy, Claire Corbeaux, Lindsey Kriaris, Noah Mazer, Sarah-Anne Michel, and Morgan Torre

Sustainability is a frequently used buzzword, defined as “a socio-ecological process characterized by the pursuit of a common ideal.” Almost every day, efforts are made to conserve resources on a global scale, as well as on local ones. SUNY Geneseo, for example, demonstrates a commitment to environmental sustainability through initiatives such as composting programs, hosting a campus beautification event, giving out Campus Sustainability Leadership Awards, holding exhibits that feature art that deals with issues of ecological sustainability, and launching a campus sustainability month.

In class recently, we started looking at sustainability from a wider perspective and began investigating and incorporating the three pillars of sustainability: economy, society, and the environment. The United Nations recognizes another pillar that exists outside of, yet interacts with, these canonical pillars. In our estimation, the pillar of cultural sustainability is equally as important as the other three, but is often underrepresented and rarely discussed. Indeed, Geneseo often fails to consider this fourth pillar and the role it plays on-campus: a recent email about the Sustainability Leadership Awards explicitly referred to “the three pillars of sustainability (economic, social, and environmental)”.

While Geneseo (and arguably American society as a whole) tend to view sustainability and sustainable practices as necessarily positive, this view is likely informed by the connotation the term has gained through its association with the environmentalist movement. Removing “sustainability” from this contextualization would leave us with a definition that is a simple descriptor, without intrinsic positive value: “the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.” Defining sustainability in this way can enable individuals and institutions, like SUNY Geneseo, to break away from the traditional mapping of the term and recognize its ambivalence. Sustainability, particularly in regards to the environment, can indeed be a positive entity worth working towards and upholding. However, it can also refer to the perpetuation of the harmful actions, attitudes, and institutions that function on environmental, social, economic, and cultural levels. Specifically, SUNY Geneseo, while making strides to solve environmental issues, simultaneously sustains destructive societal practices and fails to sustain the culture of many marginalized groups on campus.

We ask ourselves, what are we at SUNY Geneseo doing to promote cultural sustainability? This is not to say that we have made no effort at all, in fact, earlier this semester, we brainstormed as a class both avenues and obstacles to integrative learning, some of which have a lot to do with this discussion of sustainability. A few of the institutions we have on campus that arguably promote diversity and inclusion are the Diversity Summit, the Access Opportunity Programs (AOP), and various multicultural clubs such as the Black Student Union, Latino Student Association, and Chinese Culture Club, to name a few. However, we feel that there is still progress to be made in terms of our efforts to promote multicultural sustainability.

Have previous tactics been effective? Well, sort of. It is one thing to talk about what needs to change, but it is another to learn about actions we can take to promote this change. While we have several institutions in place to ensure that the cultures of minority groups are represented at Geneseo, Geneseo fails to question what societal practices should continue to be sustained. Recent events on campus have demonstrated that the administration of the college is not meaningfully committed to making the college a safe and inclusive space for all individuals. Throughout the past few weeks, there has been an increase in incidents of violence committed through the abuse of public spaces and social media posts. Particularly, undertones of white supremacy have resurfaced on campus, causing students great discomfort. This issue is frequently addressed and admonished in the work of Steve Prince.

Indeed, Dr. McCoy once asserted that “there is probably nothing more sustainable than anti-blackness in the United States.” In our group conversation, we came to the consensus that Dr. McCoy’s statement points to an unfortunate trend in society which is the human tendency to maintain the status quo established by potentially oppressive ideologies and institutions. This commitment to upholding the status quo can allow harmful ideologies and institutions, as well as the damaging effects and events they inspire, to be sustained over many generations. This idea voiced by Dr. McCoy is simultaneously reinforced and contradicted by Prince’s work, and particularly, by his artist statement for “Urban Stations.” Here, Prince describes a particular aspect of the piece, the red thread of paint that links each individual panel, and explains that “The red drop is our enduring symbol of hope and the promise of renewal after our days upon this earth are done.” That is, Prince believes that the human soul is renewed by some kind of afterlife, despite the fact that the individual human body is inevitably temporary.

This notion reaffirms the idea that ideologies and institutions outlive individual humans and thus are capable of propagating certain attitudes and practices that impact culture, as well as the three canonical pillars of sustainability on a long-term scale. One might feel overwhelmed in the face of institutions and ideas that appear unshakeable in the length and strength of their influence; however, Prince’s art reaffirms the power of the individual, even in the face of a society that seems to prioritize sustaining established status quos. Many of Prince’s art pieces bring in the greater community to educate and reform regarding negative sustained practices. Thus, through his art, Prince is capable of calling to question what we should and should not sustain, as well as calling others to action regarding these issues.

Two pieces, in particular, demonstrate Prince’s power, as an individual’s engagement with these pieces could veritably challenge their perceptions of what institutions, ideologies, and other facets of culture should or should not be sustained. The first such piece is entitled “Urban Stations,” a work that retells the New Testament’s depiction of Christ’s crucifixion. Prince mirrors the story of Christ’s crucifixion by telling the story of a modern-day man wrongfully convicted of a crime and sentenced to death by lethal injection. The “Urban Stations” show an array of characters aiding the wrongfully convicted man along his journey and leaves those who engage with the piece with a central message of a community acting as one, working towards the goal of helping each other through times of suffering. This piece sustains the culture of Catholicism while challenging other facets of culture present in the United States. Apathy represents a large issue that pervades American culture, embodied especially in the “thoughts and prayers” mentality that justifies indifference and inaction in those who witness a struggle or tragedy that does not directly impact them.

The second piece that calls into question which aspects of culture we should or should not sustain is Prince’s “Old Woman in the Upper Room.” This piece features an old woman, presumably of Native American heritage, sitting upright in bed with her hand hauntingly raised, reaching towards a chain and pocket watch being held by Prince’s iconic horsemen. A girl stands at the doorway of the room, observing the scene unfolding between the old woman and the horsemen. The little girl seems to have accidentally stumbled upon the scene and there is a look of surprise in her expression. The old woman holds her palms open, inviting the young girl in.

Prince presented this piece at a public reading of the Apology to Native Peoples of the United States in front of the U.S. Capitol building. This apology was never announced or publicly read by any U.S. government officials, and was thereby symbolically buried and forgotten, just as the historical treatment of Native peoples in the United States has been. In our interpretation, the chain represents the maltreatment of Native peoples by colonizers and the pocket watch symbolizes the time that has passed where Native peoples are still without justice. The young girl could be interpreted as the general United States public, who in the face of the public reading enacted by a group of Native peoples in 2012, are now aware of the mistreatment Native Americans suffered at the hands of the government. Prince’s work creates a call to action for other individuals to educate themselves on the injustices that Native peoples suffered and urges them to stop purposefully forgetting the atrocities the United States has committed against Native peoples.

In an interview, Prince expressed that, as an African-American man,  he “deal[s] with some of the hurts and pain, but also…with the triumph and the resistance; the creativity, the imagination. Which are those things specific to African-American culture—the survival, the retention of so much history, things from the past that have been passed on… There are a lot of scars of our pasts… we can’t gloss over those scars and act like happiness is going to replace all that. You have to get at the root of it, you have to go down to the foundation…”(Source). Prince’s artwork demonstrates how bigotry is fostered over time, particularly through the American government’s failure to address its foundational racism. In order to begin the healing process, it is crucial to acknowledge the root of our society’s harmful system of ideas and eliminate their influence. Systemic racism is very real, and Prince communicates how entwined it is in the foundation of our society through his own artistic lens. He celebrates the strength and resilience of oppressed groups while simultaneously calling for action against systemic bigotry and hatred.

While Prince’s art primarily serves to question which cultural practices and elements should or should not be sustained, his work also includes and interrogates the remaining pillars of sustainability. This interrogation is perhaps most clearly shown through Prince’s piece “Judges: Delilah Didn’t Do It.” This particular work depicts a figure who appears to be female doing the hair of a figure that appears to be male on a street-facing front porch. The background of this piece features an elevated highway and a street sign that reads “Esplanade Ave.” These elements are allusions to a particular neighborhood in New Orleans that was bisected and effectively destroyed by the construction of a highway. The neighborhood in question is a historically black neighborhood called Treme that was thriving culturally, economically, and environmentally prior to the highway’s construction. It was in Treme that traditions such as Baby Doll masking developed, making Treme culturally rich. Small businesses thrived and the streets were filled with environmental beauty in the form of trees and parks, but also in great community spirit.

Treme suffered tremendously when I-10 was constructed: I-10 split the neighborhood in two and effectively obliterated the small businesses, removed the parks, and crushed the community spirit. Of course, it is no coincidence that Treme was the neighborhood it was decided I-10 would run through. According to Prince in his lecture, the highway was originally supposed to run through the French Quarter; however, government higher-ups decided that the culture of the French Quarter was too rich and that it was too integral a part of New Orleans to have a highway run through it. This anecdote demonstrates that the decision to relegate I-10 to Treme was one made on the basis of placing one culture above another. New Orleans’ city planners chose to sustain the culture of the French Quarter rather than that of Treme. Through sustaining the culture of one neighborhood and not another, the city planners impacted the other three pillars of sustainability with respect to Treme, as the city suffered economically, societally, and environmentally upon the highway’s construction.

So, why does this all matter? Why have we devoted over 2,000 words to the discussion of sustainability? Why have we interrogated various definitions of the word? Why have we analyzed the work of Steve Prince along the way? Overall, the answer lies in the need to address the tension between the individual and the institutions that decide what becomes sustainable with respect to all four pillars. On the environmental level, individuals are often blamed for environmental issues, such as climate change, of which corporations are the true primary culprits. Corporations blame individuals in order to deflect their own responsibility in our current crisis, just as individuals place the blame entirely on institutions for instilling harmful attitudes that damage some cultures while glorifying others, taking their own influence and responsibilities out of the equation in the process. In both cases, apathy is at the core of sustained practices, be it denial of climate change or culture-bashing, that harm us and our planet.

Without human consideration and attempted action, we cannot change our institutions or their ideologies. At SUNY Geneseo, we are promised a liberal arts education and a commitment to campus-wide academic freedom through a respectful exchange of ideas on a variety of topics. As individuals, we each have a personal responsibility to care and thereby impact the institutions that will shape future generations, thus sustaining the ideologies and practices that we want to preserve. If we do nothing, then we are just as responsible as our society’s institutions for sustaining the practices that we, personally, consider unequal.

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