Sustainability and What It Means to Be Human

By Hicks, Laurie E. | Studies in Art Education, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Sustainability and What It Means to Be Human


Hicks, Laurie E., Studies in Art Education


What does it mean to be human? And how is our humanity constituted by our relationships with others? These are two questions central to much research in the disciplines that make up the liberal arts and sciences. The concept of sustainability has come to prominence in recent years in response to increasing signs that the natural environment has incurred significant damage caused by human activities. Investigations of sustainability directly challenge the idea that to be human is to live in the world detached from the natural environment. Both personal and cultural identities are formed in relationship to a world beyond the human. Yet we often allow that non-human world to remain invisible, a barely assumed background that we take for granted. Despite our tendency to focus on human perceptions and human relationships, the natural world occasionally pushes back and insists on being part of the dialogue, As environmental degradation increases, this push back becomes more visible and disciplines from across the academie spectrum must take up nature's challenge. How will we learn to make our relationships to the non-human world conscious, responsible, and enduring? Thinking about sustainability is an unavoidable part of thinking about our own humanity and the source of our identities.

The concept of sustainability has come to mean different things to different people. In its multi-dimensionality, sustainability has ecological, economic, cultural, and ethical aspects, Differences exist over what should be sustained, what the goal of sustainability should be, and what methods will be most effective. Many of these differences arise because sustainability is used in different domains for particular parochial purposes. For some, the key issue is ecological. How can we restore and sustain intact wild environments with their component species? For others, the focus is economic. How do we ensure an enduring supply of natu ral and human resources to maintain a flourishing economy? And for others, the key issue is cultural and ethical. How do we promote justice for the poor and marginalized alongside healthy urban and natural environments?

Given these different domains and starting points, questions can be raised about how the ecological, economic, cultural, and ethical dimensions of sustainability relate to one another. How much can be subsumed under the sustainability umbrella, so to speak? Does sustainability require the reduction of poverty, or just the preservation of intact natural environments? Is sustainability compatible with economic growth, or does it require radical modification of the consumer society? Despite the frequency with which sustainability is discussed, there remain many uncertainties about its real meaning and practical implications.

Even in the absence of a commonly accepted definition and an agreed upon set of applications, sustainability has implications for the arts and arts education. Sustainability's various formulations, metaphors, and principles provide an interpretive lens for investigating educational and artistic practices. They implicitly highlight a particular set of goals and values that could guide our relations with and impact on the human and natural environments constitutive of our own nature as human beings, citizens, and cultural agents. Thus, sustainability motivates critical reflection about social and political practices, and spotlights human engagement with the cultural and natural worlds. And the conceptualizations of sustainability challenge the present generation to think about the continuing impact of sustainable policies, innovations, artifacts, technologies, lifestyles, and ethical attitudes on future generations both of humans and non-humans.

The fi rstthree articles in this issue of Studies in Art Education address the problems of sustainability directly from within the context of art education. The final two articles do not take up sustainability as a central concept, yet they are both interested in the role played by various cultural and environmental contexts in understanding what it means to be human. …

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