Sustainability Through Literature: Greenwashing and Awareness

Authors: Regan Russell, Abigail Axton, Kayla Clark, Kira Magnus, Brennan Borden, Abigail Kennedy, Sophia Olechowski 

Sustainability is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. There are three pillars: social, environmental, and economic. The UN has 17 sustainable development goals. The UN has created an agenda for sustainable development that “provides a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, now and into the future” (17 Goals). These include strategies to improve health and education, reduce inequality, and improve economic growth, while simultaneously tackling climate change. From the resources to create literature to the concepts tackled, sustainability and literature are intertwined. Literature tackles concepts and serves to promote change through awareness, often African American stories highlight these needs and how actions affect your environment, showing the importance of connections with nature. Both the African American stories and the 17 goals share a common thread of saving future generations and promoting awareness of the effects of present issues.

In Chapter 10 of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Lucius Brockway is training the invisible man to perform the job that he has been in charge of for years, but Brockway does not provide him with the crucial information that is needed to safely handle the job. The relationship between the two characters could be seen as akin to the relationships between activists and those in power. Without this education, Climate activists across the country consistently warn companies and authorities of the potential effects of climate change but are ignored by many and overlooked due to the lack of baseline education on the topic. While Brockway does warn the invisible man to watch the pressure, he fails to explain the drastic repercussions of failing, “I wants you to keep a ‘specially sharp eye on this here sonofabitch. The last couple of days he’s ‘veloped a habit of building up too fast. Causes me a heap of trouble. You see him gitting past 75, you yell, and yell loud!” (13). The invisible man ignores the pressure, due to the gaps in his training, which leads to the explosion that occurs at the end of the chapter despite constant warnings, the explosion affects the Invisible Man but not Brockway because he runs away, which can be a symbol of younger generations bearing the brunt of environmental downfall that was brought on by older generation’s mistakes. This generational cause and effect is also represented in Lucille Clifton’s Generations poem which discusses the need to work because when you die there will still be people after you.

Beyond this, many companies have been guilty of something that has been coined as the term “greenwashing,” misleading consumers to believe that their products have been produced in a sustainably sound manner or have environmental benefits that they do not possess. The company that Brockway and the invisible man work for is named Liberty Paints who advertise their paint as pure. Even creating a slogan advertising this; “Keep America Pure With Liberty Paints”, but their paints are shown to be impure. This false advertising shows the behind-the-scenes deceit that major companies produce to cut costs whilst still maintaining a positive appearance despite the negative effects they have on the environment. This is dangerous as without awareness there is no room for improvement or reform. As mentioned in the UN’s goals, education is necessary to create changes in sustainability. In both of these examples from Invisible Man, a lack of education directly leads to misinformation and a disastrous accumulation of pressure. Similarly, Kwame Alexander’s Life poem demonstrates the concept of instead of trying to fix issues it turns into a political contest to see who is more morally right while ensuring a lack of blame. This promotes the growth of negatives rather than reworking issues to find new solutions.

Another work of literature that raises questions about sustainability and climate change is the poem “Life” by Kwame Alexander. This poem follows a narrator who finds their home being eaten by termites (ll. 1-4). In response to the termites eating his home, Alexander’s narrator’s friends assure them that “the good/liberal ones/ were not involved” (ll. 6-10). Rather than taking action to protect the narrator’s home, the friends are worried about the identity of the termites. After the narrator’s friends assure the narrator about the termites, the poem ends, implying that the termites were not stopped from destroying the home entirely. The termites in the poem can be used as a metaphor for many issues, including climate change. Using that metaphor, one can see how the poem is critiquing how issues relating to climate change often go unsolved because there is a greater focus on preserving the “innocence” of one’s political identity. No one wants the world to end because of climate change, just like the narrator’s friends don’t want the narrator’s house to be destroyed, but the need for one’s identity to be right often distracts from doing the work that will solve the problem. Alexander’s poem illustrates and criticizes this prioritization of keeping the image of one’s identity innocent. 

In addition to criticizing the prioritization of one’s image over meaningful change, Alexander also discusses individual and collective action concerning climate change. The feeling of need to preserve the blamelessness of one’s political identity stems from the desire for individual emotional comfort. The work that it takes to fight climate change is uncomfortable, and it is much easier to feel that one is doing the work by being on the “correct” political side. However, the desire to put one’s comfort first sacrifices the collective survival of all; it puts others who do not have the privilege of being distracted from climate change at risk. Alexander illustrates this in the urgency of his poem. His narrator does not have the privilege to be distracted by the termites destroying his home. By focusing on the identities of the termites, his friends are putting him at risk for their own comfort. The friends are also putting people other than the narrator at risk through their actions. It is termites that are destroying the narrator’s home, and termites will spread and eventually affect everyone involved. In this way, “Life” shows that a focus on one’s individual experience can be dangerous for everyone, especially those who are already vulnerable.

One could also argue that Alexander’s poem also highlights where and how individual action is necessary. The poem is very short and ends without an actual answer to what has happened to the narrator’s house. While this may just imply that the house was destroyed, it also allows room for a double meaning that implicates the reader. By stopping the poem before the house is potentially destroyed, Alexander gives room for the reader to intervene in the conversation. In doing so, Alexander highlights the need for individual action on the part of the reader and allows them to start putting the survival of all over their own comfort. 

Another poet who discusses the implications of individual and collective action and experience is Lucille Clifton. Clifton’s poetry, specifically her poem Generations illustrates how individual actions can have an impact on larger societal structures. In her verses, Clifton expresses the “responsibility to something/besides people,” ensuring that our presence leaves a positive impact rather than worsening its challenges. Clifton sheds light on the importance of individual actions when it comes to sustainability saying “if it was only/you and me/sharing the consequences/it would be different” acknowledging that the consequences of our actions will not only affect the people on Earth now. As Clifton observes, even after humans become “the bottoms of trees” their legacy continues through future generations. As one explores how individual actions can affect broader social systems and groups of people, Clifton’s words emerge as a powerful tool for educating people on the necessity of sustainable thinking and behavior. Clifton reveals how personal choices intersect with systemic forces and highlights the urgency for collective action to ensure a future for all. 

Additionally, Ellison’s depiction of events in the paint factory raises important issues about how we view industrial labor, especially in relation to problems with sustainability. There are many types of labor that we tend not to encounter in our day-to-day lives, and as a result, the products of such labor are taken for granted, their origins going unquestioned. This sort of “invisible labor” is represented by the work in the basement of the factory. Little recognition is given to the workers who keep the company functioning by being, as Brockway describes them, “the machines inside the machine” (18). The important labor in the basement is literally concealed by those working upstairs, and much of the rigorous work is assumed to be mechanized. Ellison’s protagonist being behind the scenes has to do with the fact that the men upstairs are all white but he’s doing all the hard work that is overlooked. These kinds of hidden industrial jobs are often unsustainable at a structural level, as when the public generally does not see the processes that produce the products they take for granted it is easier for companies to greenwash their processes and leave themselves implicated in dangerous and environmentally unfriendly industrial practices. 

Furthermore, with much of this industrial work largely concealed, it is easier to place the blame for its deleterious effects on individual workers, rather than on institutional structures. This is shown in Ellison’s work as well. The equipment worked with in the basement is shown to be potentially dangerous, and when this causes a catastrophic explosion, the blame is placed on the new worker rather than on the institutional environment that set up the conditions for the accident. The cause of the accident is attributed to the fact that people like the protagonist “ain’t no good for the job,” making no mention of workplace hazards or lack of extensive training (28). Not only is the protagonist’s labor taken for granted in the industrial process, but he also ends up facing the consequences of how the industrial process is structured. Corporations are the ones who contribute the majority of negative climate change but it is the individuals who feel the pressure and experience the side effects- similar to Brockway working for years but the other character is the one there when everything explodes and he feels the pressure.

These perspectives contextualize our reliance on productive forces that are harmful to the environment and to workers, and how unsustainability can persist so perniciously. People depend heavily on the work of those who are most dependent on resources and are often most affected by environmental issues. They keep us safe and comfortable, but the nature of their work is kept separate from ordinary life leaving them largely unacknowledged and unappreciated. The relative lack of attention to these sections of the labor force makes it easier for them to get stuck in the unsustainable practices they are built upon and directs public scrutiny away from the practices of such institutions.

Our visit to the heating plant adds further perspective to these issues of sustainability. Although Geneseo lauds itself as a sustainable campus, claiming the label of “one of the nation’s most environmentally responsible colleges,” it exhibits many of the failures in sustainability common in industrial processes ( For example, Geneseo gives the sense that its energy sources are highly efficient, yet as displayed by a graphic posted in the office of an energy specialist for the heating plant which compares beer to AC power, a significant portion of the energy produced in the heating plant is considered wasted, not all of it being “usable” energy. It was also stressed that using steam energy as the heating plant mostly does is much more sustainable than using oil as energy, but the heating plant still uses oil and natural gas as an energy source to fall back on if needed. However, these resources are only used if it is absolutely necessary to provide heat for the campus, which is seen as essential for the campus to function. This clearly shows how dependent we still are on finite and inefficient resources, no matter how well-intentioned the energy-producing processes are

Our experience is also connected in some ways to the labor conditions displayed in Ellison’s work. There are many safety measures in place to protect the laborers often invisible to the general campus body, but these measures do not guarantee safety for all employees; for example, in the case of an explosion, only one of the building’s walls is equipped to withstand the force of the blast. There were also many ways in which an explosion could occur that were outlined to us, and these are only prevented by strict adherence to safety guidelines, adherence that seemed to be lacking in the sense that students were allowed to cross taped caution lines that mark where only workers should be allowed to be. Sustainable industrial practices also include security and justice for industrial workers, which often do not take the forefront of these processes.

As current college students, we are all actively a part of the future generation, one of which is consistently affected by the generations that have come before us and the decisions that they have made. Students on the Geneseo campus can see the amount of waste that is produced, especially in places like on-campus dining halls. However, many students are unaware of important factors in their daily lives, such as where their heat is coming from. Students must be cautious while shopping because greenwashing is something that many large corporations take part in, making it difficult to decipher what purchasing decisions will have a harmful effect on the planet and which ones will not. The exploration of sustainability and black literature, both as interactants and individuals, matters to not only this class but our overall Geneseo education because of the awareness and implications it brings about concerning intersectionality and performativity. Through the literature we have read we have learned the importance of having a duality when it comes to fighting injustice and not focusing all efforts on one injustice in particular, but rather on a certain issue as a whole. The need for more information and education on sustainability and how it interacts with our lives, both past, present, and future, becomes more apparent every day. While efforts are being made to promote awareness on campus, there is still a severe lack of information and misinformation being spread. Climate change will affect everyone, in one way or another. For example, the current changing of the seasons. What once was winters full of snow days, now becomes a season where the temperature changes on a whim. Schools rarely use their snow days now. In this, anyone can see the real-time changes that have happened to our planet. Change needs to occur, if not for ourselves, but for the future.

Seed Shape Essay

It is a warm day as the sun seeps through the gaps between the trees. The ground, littered with growth, is lush and green. The sweet song of a bird is there, and off in the distance, the gleeful splashing of water. A glance around shows nothing but greens and browns, the soft hues of nature. From these colors emerge shapes, at first appearing random. A second look will reveal the truth: the repetition of a shape gives way to the leaves, bushes, and vines all around. These are fractals, an unending pattern that often appears in nature. 

Fractals are commonly used in geometry, yielding five essential components: recursion, scaling, self-similarity, infinity, and fractional dimension. In African Fractals, recursion is described as “…fractals are generated by a circular process, a loop in which the output at one stage becomes the input for the next. Results are repeatedly returned, so that the same operation can be carried out again” (Eglash 17). Essential recursion is the repetition of input becoming output and vice versa. Scaling is when multiple parts of varying sizes are taken into consideration. Self-similarity is what aspects of the pattern are repeated and how. Infinity is the tool used to connect fractals to dimensions. Finally, the fractional dimension is the dimension that fills in between the dimensional areas of the plane (Egral 19). Fractals always have a seed shape or the starting shape that is then repeated. In any class, there are seed shapes that connect one part to the next. These appear in course concepts. The central idea that seems to be this course’s seed shape is the concept of the both/and. Through the analysis of the works we go through we find the application of the both/and.

The both/and is the careful consideration of a muli-point-of-view state of mind. It is understanding one side and then looking at a concept from the other. With every encounter with the works in this course, the both/and has been applied demonstrating the recursion of the seed shape. One of the first instances was when working with Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use.” This story features the visit home by Dee/Wangero, the daughter of the narrator, and her partner. The concepts of art versus use and which honor heritage more come into play. Upon the first encounter with the story, the class was practically in unanimous agreement: Wangero is a dislikable character who is condescending and entitled. This is an easy opinion to obtain from the way she is described. However, on a second look, one must recognize that the story is written from one perspective: the mother’s. It is from this perspective that the audience gains all information about Wangero. However, with this knowledge, one can glean an understanding of Wangero’s perspective. Here came a reading with the notion of resentment. Wangero seems to be everything the mother is not, she is confident, beautiful, graceful, and smart. When the mother reflects on how Dee used to read to them she thinks, “She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice…Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away, like dimwits, at just the moment we seemed about to understand” (Walker). Wangero was the only one able to read in the family, placing her above her mother and sister. In the section alone, a sense of resentment can be found from the emphasis on dimwits and ignorant and from how the mother phrases the reading as “forcing words.” with this in mind, perhaps what appears as Wangero’s transgressions might be dramatized from the quiet envy seeping from the narrator. In this instance, the both/and is necessary to fully understand the story. Without it, the work is almost incomplete. 

Another work is Octavia Butler’s short story “Bloodchild.” In this story, the tale of a young man who lives in a human colony on an alien planet is told. It grapples with concepts of pregnancy, insects/parasites, and knowledge. At the end of the story, Butler includes a section titled “Afterword” in which she explains the intentions of the story, “On one level, it’s a love story between two very different beings. On another, it’s a coming-of age story in which a boy must absorb disturbing information and use it to make a decision that will affect the rest of his life” (Butler 30). The story is about so many things and yet, somehow, people reduce it to something it is not: a story about slavery. Here is where the both/and appears in its next iteration. For most of the class, it was easy to interpret the story as about anything but slavery. There is not any subtext that even seems to hint at this being the hidden goal. Despite this, many believe the story is actually about slavery. Since we could see one side very clearly, the next step was to view the opposing viewpoint. This was the tricky part, but with considerable effort, there were a few potentials for why we guessed someone maybe could see it as such. One option was the notion of being owned. In the story, a point is made that the main character is owned by the alien, something that could be seen as justification for this view. The other potential was simply the fact that people believe that African Americans only write about slavery as a narrative. While this is untrue, it is something people genuinely believe. With this story, both/and requires you to think outside of your comfort zone, working actively to see from every perspective, even the ones you do not agree with.

The seed shape of the both/and is imperative to the analysis of literature. Without this careful thought, certain themes, tones, and perspectives can be lost. The intentions and meanings fall to the wayside, leaving a more literal and flat study. Even beyond literature, keeping an open mind to varying perspectives and the simultaneousness of seemingly opposite aspects allows for a deeper understanding of the world and other people. If an open mind was a constant, there would seemingly be a more general sense of respect and acceptance. Trying to see the both/and of any situation or literary work can be difficult, but it is certainly needed. With every iteration of the both/and, the fractal shape of the ENGL 337 African-American Literature begins to take its shape. 

Abigail Kennedy: Final Self-Reflective Essay

In 2008 the world faced a global financial crisis. This began with corruption and fraud that would fester and spread throughout the large businesses and government. According to the Inside Job, a documentary from 2010, big businesses involved within the financial industry abused their powers to obtain more and more money. One of the first things they did was to utilize Collateralized Debt Obligations, or CDOs. The CDOs were toxic, wreaking financial havoc on the investors who used them. The CDOs were bad, and would cost customers innumerable amounts of money. The businesses, on the other hand, would only make more money. The more money investors lost, the more money the businesses made. Additionally, rating companies were paid to push out high ratings for CDOs and other investments. Everything became rated triple A, which investors would trust to mean that it was safe to invest. However, this would only cost the investors everything they had. The documentary also touched upon other fraud occurring in this time period, more specifically within the housing industry. The home foreclosure rate was skyrocketing. Banks would grant people loans that were more than the customer could ever pay back. People would take loans out for homes they could not afford, and consequently lose their deposit. Then, companies would purchase homes, then sell the mortgage to either themselves, or other companies, and purchase them again in a repeated cycle. This topic is mentioned in the podcast, The Giant Pool of Money. The treatment of mortgages drove up the price for homes, ruining the housing industry. People were losing their money, their homes, everything. Inside Job also discussed when the market for CDOs crashed, plunging the entire world into an economic crisis. The banks, relying on the CDOs, went bankrupt. The banks had global reach, destroying the economies of other countries. There was a mass recession; people were laid off from work and expelled from their homes. However, according to Inside Job, those who were responsible for the crisis were able to walk away with their fortunes intact. There were little to no repercussions for them; most were either allowed to resign or kept with financial compensation in the millions. The world that was in existence in 2008 could be described as an apocalyptic dystopian world. People were forced to leave their homes, held no jobs, and were largely homeless and angry. There was mistrust towards the government and the banking industry. The book The Parable of the Sower, by Octavia E. Butler, takes place in a world plagued with mistrust and terror.

The world in The Parable of the Sower is destroyed by climate change, drugs, and disease. The world has turned to an apocalyptic one, where the weather is extreme and the people are worse. People go around doing whatever they want. This can include killing, raping, stealing, doing drugs, and even commiting arson. People tend to have low empathy, and the majority of the world is considered dog-eat-dog. The police do nothing to help those in need, and the government is extremely radical and does little to help the people. Water is rare, and therefore extremely expensive. On top of that, well-paying jobs are becoming scarce. The story follows Lauren Oya Olamina on her journey of religion and faith. Lauren lives with her family in a gated community in Robleto, Los Angeles. Her home is surrounded by a protective gate. Lauren lives with her father, stepmother, and her four half-brothers. Lauren’s community is held together by religion, Lauren’s father leading the community in their faith with his sermons. Her father is a professor and Baptist pastor. The people of her community all fervently believe in their faith, as it is one of the few things they have from their days before the apocalypse. Lauren, however, does not believe in the same God that her family does. Lauren believes that God is Change, and that her religion is meant to prepare people to live amongst the stars. She believes that the key to humanity’s future is a life in space. Lauren calls the religion “Earthseed” and develops it in secret. In an act of rebellion Keith, Lauren’s half-brother, runs away and works with a group outside the walls. Inevitably, Keith is found dead, having been tortured up until his death. Soon after, Lauren’s father goes missing. After these tragedies, only more misfortune falls upon the community. A group of outsiders break into the gated community, leaving only three survivors: Lauren, Harry Balter and Zahra Moss. The three survivors decide to head North, with Lauren disguised as a man. On their journey they meet several people, many of which join them. Lauren teaches the group about Earthseed, and many join. One person who joins is Taylor Bankole, a doctor who owns land up in Northern California. The group decides to head to that property, as it is their safest bet. During the journey, Bankhole and Laura form a relationship. Once the group arrives at Bankhole’s land, they form the very first Earthseed community: Acorn.

The novel itself tells an incredible story of Lauren’s journey in developing Earthseed and spreading it. However, with the course concepts from the course “Expulsion and the Housing Crisis” in mind, the story changes slightly. In the course, we learn about the housing and expulsion crisis of 2008, and its effects on the economy and the people alike. Some of the course concepts include trust, fraud, moral hazard, apophenia, and expulsion. Throughout the course we have consumed various types of media. We have watched documentaries, listened to podcasts, and read novels. With each media, we were to make connections between the prior works we consumed, and utilize our course concepts. Parable of the Sower was the last thing we worked with, meaning we had an arsenal of prior knowledge to use when we read it. Knowing that we were meant to make connections from the novel, I read it differently. As I read, I looked for examples of expulsion, trust, and fraud. This in itself is an example of apophenia. Apophenia, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is “the tendency to perceive a connection or meaningful pattern between unrelated or random things.” Essentially, the tendency that people have to make connections between two things that are not necessarily connected. Octavia E. Butler wrote Parable of the Sower in 1993, 15 years before the 2008 market crash. Therefore it is highly unlikely that this novel was intended to have connections to the crash.

 However as a student, if I am meant to look for connections, I will look for connections. For example, one could say that Lauren is expelled from her home, just like how several people in 2008 were. Or that the takeover of Lauren’s community could be considered a hostile takeover. The Investopedia definition of hostile takeover is “the acquisition of one company by another corporation against the wishes of the former.” Lauren’s gated community could be considered the company that gets taken over, and the group of outsiders could be considered the corporation that takes over the first company. Suddenly, a connection has been made between the business world and the novel. In reality, the two technically have no correlation, they only happen to have things in common. Looking for connections means you will make connections, whether or not there are any to be found. Someone reading the book for pleasure would likely not try to connect the Parable of the Sower to the 2008 housing and expulsion crisis, and they certainly would not connect it to William Shakespeare’s King Lear. However both King Lear and Parable of the Sower have themes of accountability. In both novels, accountability comes in the form of death. In King Lear, Edmund is the second born of his father, Gloucester, and is illegitimate. Gloucester’s first, legitimate son, Edgar, is to inherit Gloucester’s land and title. Edmund is jealous over the fact that his brother will inherit everything due to his legitimacy. Eventually Edmund hatches a plot to kill both his brother and his father. He successfully gets rid of them both, however Edgar lives. Edmund even manages to dethrone King Lear and take his throne. Later on, Edgar comes back and challenges his brother to a duel. Edgar wins the duel by stabbing Edmund, which kills him. Arguably, Edmund pays for his crimes with his life, and therefore he is held accountable. In The Parable of the Sower, Lauren’s half-brother Keith goes on an unapproved trip outside the gates of their community. During this trip he gets jumped by outsiders, and subsequently loses a key to the gates. After being reprimanded by his father, Keith runs away and joins a group of thieves outside the gates. Keith thrives for a while, but unfortunately is murdered. As Lauren states, “The body was Keith’s…Someone had cut and burned away most of my brother’s skin. Everywhere except his face. They burned out his eyes…” (Butler 112-113). It could be argued that for stealing and losing the key, Keith was punished with death. Therefore, Keith was held accountable in the end. In reality, these two deaths have nothing in common. Connections made are ones I drew specifically for this essay. I made these connections in order to show how easy it is to fall victim to apophenia.

At SUNY Geneseo GLOBE, A Geneseo Education for a Connected World, insists that students should gain practice in the ability to “reflect upon changes in learning and outlook over time.” The course “Expulsion and the Housing Crisis” accomplishes just this. Throughout this semester, we have learned more and more about the 2008 crisis. Using the knowledge we have gained, we looked at the various works in the course differently. In other words, our knowledge gained in this class changed how we viewed other works. The fact that I was able to make connections between otherwise disconnected works means that the course did its job. Beyond that, each work we looked at was from a different time period. For example Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower was published in 1993, Michael Lewis’ The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine was published in 2010, and William Shakespeare’s King Lear was first performed in 1606. Each of these works were written separately and in different time periods. However, each work has certain themes and connections that can be made, and all can be connected to the 2008 crisis. Knowledge can change perception, just as it changed my reading of Parable of the Sower. Knowledge is a powerful tool, and it helped my class observe the changes in outlook over time. Each media we consumed related to the crisis in some form or another. However, each work also contained its own outlook on its story or lesson. These individual stories and works become part of a large web of information that we have spun for this course. While some connections were forged intentionally by us, others may have been made unintentionally by the authors. 

Admittedly, I have enjoyed this class. It has given me a new perspective and appreciation for concepts relating to the 2008 crisis. I might never have read Toni Morrison’s A Mercy if I had never taken this course, as I had not heard of it prior. Additionally, I can now make connections to the 2008 crisis. For example, the dinosaurs in Michael Criton’s Jurassic Park, were made in bad faith, a course concept. Knowing about the past crisis also allows for the understanding of how such things happen sometimes, and how they may happen again. Knowing about the past helps prepare for the future.