Sustainability In Literature

By: Americus Burke, Isabel Landers, Emma Pozak, Danielle Scolton, Amber Ellis, Jake Elvers, Rachel Sharpe

Sustainability can be defined as, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” (Sustainability | United Nations). Sustainability can then be further broken down into three smaller categories, also known as the three pillars of sustainability. These three pillars are: environmental sustainability, which can be defined as, “the responsible management of natural resources to fulfill current needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs,” (Examples of Environmental Sustainability | SNHU), social sustainability, which can be defined as, “identifying and managing business impacts, both positive and negative, on people,” (Social Sustainability | UN Global), and economic sustainability, which can be defined as, “ practices that support long term economic growth without negatively impacting social, environmental, and cultural aspects of the community,” (Economic Sustainability). When looking at the connection between sustainability and literature, we can find a profound connection between how different time-dependent views on sustainability affect how literature portrays its function in everyday life. Reading historical works “ depict an ecocentric worldview provide us with deep and rich accounts of the non-human, teaching us environmentally friendly attitudes in ways in which other texts and media do not,”(Sustainable Literary Competence). By focusing on social, environmental, and economic sustainability, we will be able to make deeper connections to the literature.

While exploring issues of economic sustainability, Invisible Man also deals heavily with social sustainability as it applies to the relationship between institutions and their laborers. Using the definition of social sustainability from our first paragraph, it’s obvious that the business model used by Liberty Paints is unsustainable in its treatment of lower level workers. Brockway, arguably one of the plant’s most valuable laborers, takes on a heavy workload for very little pay, even though his actions as an individual are key in the success of the company as far as the actual production of the paint. Not only is he taken advantage of, he is also taken for granted, as “They thinks ‘cause everything down here is done by machinery, that’s all there is to it. They crazy! Ain’t a continental thing that happens down here that ain’t as iffen I done put my black hands into it!” (19). Liberty Paints as a corporation benefits from keeping workers like Brockway desperate for employment, discouraging them from seeking union representation or better wages. In separating their workforce like this, the company is able to enact more control over their workers, which is an unsustainable connection between institution and individual. Within similar media there is also the institution of the college that the protagonist previously attended before his job at Liberty Paints in chapter 10. It’s revealed later in the book that the supposed letter of recommendation written by his former college president, Dr. Bledsoe, was instead a request for the man’s employers to keep him running. The protagonist remarks: “I had a feeling that something had gone wrong, something far more important than the paint; that either I had played a trick on Kimbro or he, like the trustees and Bledsoe, was playing one on me…” (9). The institution of the university continues to have a negative impact on the protagonist’s life, setting him up for failure even after he is expelled. By continuing to assert their power over an individual like the protagonist in such a damaging way, the rule of the university and the company over its individuals is made socially unsustainable. 

Furthermore, in the poem, “The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant”, a few examples of social sustainability are present. At the end of the poem, the servant says, “‘Tis God alone can give us peace;/ It’s not the pow’r of man:/ When virtuous pow’r shall  increase,/ ‘Twill beautify the land” (Hammon). The emphasis on virtuous power increasing to beautify the land suggests a vision of a society where justice, fairness, and equity are recognized. Social sustainability requires the acknowledgment of systemic inequalities and promoting inclusivity to ensure that everyone has access to opportunities and resources. By prioritizing virtues like fairness and equity, people can work towards creating a more sustainable and just society for everyone. Again, the servant says, “Then will the happy day appear,/ That virtue shall increase;/ Lay up the sword and drop the spear,/ And nations seek for peace” (Hammon). The imagery of laying down weapons symbolizes the dedication to resolving conflicts peacefully. Social sustainability requires building techniques for conflict resolution and promoting dialogue. By prioritizing peaceful means of conflict resolution, societies can create an environment where all people have the opportunity to thrive and contribute to the common good.

Economic issues can be found in every aspect of society, so naturally they find their way into literature to be consumed and regurgitated once more. Chapter 10 of Invisible Man follows the protagonist through a day at a new workplace – Liberty Paints. He soon discovers that the company has been “Firing the regular guys and putting on you colored college boys…they don’t have to pay union wages” (2). Unions have a history of excluding African Americans even though the general goal of a union is workers’ rights (a living wage, job security, insurance, etc.). Without these things, making a living is not economically sustainable, but neither is an exclusionary union that limits who has access to these benefits. Economic sustainability is often not a single goal, as different economic decisions benefit some, but not others. Through this, a long history of discrimination against African American workers at the economic level can be uncovered. 

Within the economic structure there is a distinct hierarchy between worker and boss. As a worker, there is a fear of making a mistake and losing one’s livelihood. Without a union, workers have few rights and can’t argue for a number of things such as a living wage or insurance. As the boss, there is no sense of fear as they hold all the power, and without proper restrictions they can fire anyone they please. Unions must provide workers with the power to negotiate; to fight back against unfair treatment in work environments. Yet the history of unions is one wrought with conflict and racial discrimination. As previously touched upon, African American workers were often excluded from unions and so they often found himself receiving lower wages compared to their white counterparts, which is reflected in The Invisible Man’s union. The progression of unions has been a complex and evolving journey, marked by both challenges and advancements and encompassing both social and economic sustainability. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many unions were racially segregated, excluding African American workers or offering them limited membership rights. This discrimination persisted through much of the 20th century, gradually improving as Civil Rights Movements gained momentum. At the time Invisible Man takes place, however, unions were not sustainable. 

However, over time, unions have played a pivotal role in reducing economic disparities between black and white workers. One key aspect of this progression is the recognition of unions as a vital institution for enforcing more equal outcomes by income class in the U.S. economy. The policy-driven shrinkage of unionization has been identified as a significant factor contributing to the rise of income inequality in recent decades. Despite the historical issues with racism within organized labor, unions’ overall effect has been to reduce economic disparities between Black and white workers, making it one of the most equalizing institutions in American society. Moreover, unions have actively contributed to the Civil Rights Movement, providing direct political and economic support starting as early as the 1930s. The decline in unionization after 1980 has been linked to the steady rise in the black-white wage gap, highlighting the importance of unions in narrowing racial pay disparities. African American workers have been more likely to be in unions than white workers since the mid-1940s, and they have experienced a larger pay premium from unionization. Furthermore, unions have been instrumental in reducing racial wealth gaps. Overall, unions play a crucial role in strengthening democracy by mobilizing workers to vote and advocating for policies that benefit workers of all races. Despite the challenges unions have faced and continue to face, they remain essential for promoting economic equality and racial justice in the United States (Bivens et al., 2023 ). Therefore, through intentional inclusion, unions have become a sustainable model for all workers, not just white workers. 

Economic and environmental sustainability clash in Farming While Black and a visit to a heating plant emphasizes connection with nature and pushes back against unsustainable practices. Also touched on is the overtaxing of resources through industrialization, an attempt to “force in nature and to act accordingly” (54) with human will. The chapters sparked a discussion of comfort and sustainability; the workshop mentioned in the text, Black Latinx Farmers Immersion (BLFI) program, is intense, and participants “ sacrificed just as [they] hoped to receive” (53). The give and take of effort and labor to and from a people and their environment, however, is not always practical. Manual labor is more time consuming and expensive than machine labor in most cases, and heating a home is not environmentally friendly; there is a balance to be found between long-term and short-term comfort. However, this tension is not black and white, as a visit to the heating plant revealed. Steve Morrison, our guide, stated himself that if one of the chamber doors were to open then it would cause an explosion. This would indicate that, by taking things the earth gives us and attempting to exert control over them without giving back “we invite a kind of death” (57). On the other hand, In terms of safety within the workplace in reference to short term comfort, monitors, valves, constant staffing, and alarms protect workers and students alike. The plant uses water to heat buildings as opposed to oil, is incredibly efficient, and shuts down heat to most buildings for breaks, all of which support environmental sustainability. Although industrial does not mean non-sustainable, intentional design is essential, and is often found through connection with nature, as is discussed in Farming While Black. The practices of sustainable farming using African dark earth; fertile soil invented by women in Ghana and Liberia 700 years ago, and heating a university using steam may mirror one another, if important connections between the earth and its people are recognized. In a field, “If you pause in stillness, you can hear the honeybees dancing on the buckwheat crop all the way on the other side of the field” (99) just as the sounds of the heating plant hum above voices.  Sustainability can be defined as acting intentionally as to protect those who come after us. While environmental sustainability is often the first to come up in discussion, all three pillars, environmental, social, and economic, are not only important but also intrinsically linked. They also allow us a medium through which to look back on ideas regarding sustainability that we have pushed past. Through empathizing with characters in narratives we understand motives and circumstances that define historical sustainability, which provides the groundwork for a future unlike our past: a sustainable future. Examining sustainability beyond just environmental concerns and incorporating perspectives from Black literature offers a more comprehensive understanding of the concept. Sustainability covers not only the preservation of natural resources but also social justice, equity, and cultural preservation. Black literature provides rich insights into these aspects, shedding light on historical injustices, resilience, and the ongoing struggle for environmental and social sustainability within Black communities. Furthermore, our course concepts emphasize the importance of looking beneath the surface, delving into the underlying narratives and historical contexts that shape our understanding of sustainability. Black literature serves as a powerful tool for uncovering these deeper layers, challenging dominant narratives, and amplifying marginalized voices. Through works like Lucille Clifton’s poetry, Invisible Man, and Farming While Black we learn to interrogate surface-level assumptions and confront the complexities of sustainability in relation to race, power, and privilege. Moreover, integrating Black literature into our exploration of sustainability aligns with the broader goals of our Geneseo education. As a liberal arts institution aiming to foster critical thinking and inclusive excellence, Geneseo encourages interdisciplinary approaches to learning that engage with diverse perspectives and experiences. By incorporating Black literature, we enrich our understanding of sustainability and cultivate a more inclusive and equitable learning environment.

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