cultural sustainability

cultural sustainability

Since Davos, I’ve been thinking about cultural sustainability. This isn’t a term that I heard there, but one that I wish that I had.

These days, when people in business talk about sustainability, they mean environmental sustainability. Traditionally, the environment was an externality that was ignored. More and more, with the conversations of “carbon neutral,” people are starting to think about what it means to environmentally sustainable. At the same time, a company can be environmentally sound and completely destroy local economies and other aspects of culture through their moves.

To me, the idea of “cultural sustainability” is about companies whose actions offset the consequences of their presence (or disappearance). For example, when large companies abandon cities that they’ve been in for years and where the entire city revolves around them, their move has a HUGE culturally destructive force. How do they offset this in a functional way? How does this get considered to be an externality that needs to be factored in? (It used to be through layoff benefits and pensions that kept going no matter what… this is no longer viewed as critical.) Large companies who come into a town and put out of business a variety of different local merchants have another kind of culturally destructive practices. This is why the conversations around Wal-Mart get so heated: capitalism vs. cultural sustainability.

When companies were smaller and local, there were pressures put upon them to be good local citizens. They invested in the towns where they were present and operated as key actors in creating culturally sustainable systems. It was normal for a company to help out with a local school event because education made sense for the company because it meant better employees. As companies get bigger and bigger (and “globalized”), there’s less pressure to be invested in the culture. Even if there was, what culture should they invest in when they’re so big? Mostly, big companies give back to communities for PR purposes.

There are numerous points of pressure placed on companies right now to be environmentally sustainable, but this is not the only kind of sustainability that matters. That said, there are lessons to be learned. For a long time, the conversation tended to devolve into capitalism vs. environmental sustainability. More and more, folks are saying BOTH and finding ways to make that work. How do we do this with cultural sustainability? What pressure points need to be put into place where culture is evaluated as an externality in the models that economists draw up?

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18 thoughts on “cultural sustainability

  1. John Larkin

    As I began to read your post I thought you would be commenting on how corporations can have a negative impact upon the culture of a town or city by virtue of their entrance and continued presence. As I read on I realised my misconception and then your thoughts resonated with me as I recalled the impact of mine closures and the downsizing of a steel mill in our region a couple of decades ago. Fortunately, the local university grew in size and stature and tourism also took off. Combined, these two forces managed to keep our region alive.

  2. Christian Toennesen

    An interesting post, but I think you are too restricted in your definition of ‘sustainability,’ mainly in asuming that it relates only to environmental performance.

    The whole idea of triple bottom line reporting – which could be seen as an attempt to be more sustainable – is about putting financial results next to environmental AND social performance. You will also notice that ‘ethical’ stock indices, such as Dow Jones Sustainablity and FTSE4Good, are attempting to quantify (social) good by putting in place certain screening measures prior to listing companies.

    Having done fieldwork in a big company in the extractive industry, among others, I can assure you that there are departments focusing on nothing but social performance, which, at least to some extent, seems to overlap with your idea of cultural sustainability.

    If you are in Berkeley at the moment, I am actually a visiting researcher with the STS Center. Please do get in touch if you would like to have a discussion about this.

  3. Ailia

    Your post reminds me of China’s solution to the cultural heritage – and current manifestation – being lost to the Three Gorges Dam reservoir (I heard about it on NPR). Acknowledging that the progress would destroy the towns, they moved the whole things, brick by brick, to other areas. For the towns that had become tourist sites because of their fascinating color, locals were actually replaced with outsiders who were taught the history and acted local! Of course, when it came down to it, the actual people still suffered the loss of their home.

    In the history of the U.S., the intentional involvement of companies in local culture hasn’t often been held up as something to be proud of. Now maybe this isn’t an accurate representation, but I’m thinking especially of the representation of Ford Motors in the book Middlesex. In their beliefs that they had a responsibility to improve the culture of Detroit, they intentionally tried to eradicate all of the immigrant cultures that had arrived. Among other things, of course.

    Point being, it sounds nice to protect people from being forced into a “loss of culture” – but what would that even mean? Loss of livelihood is one thing, easing transitions from one economy style to another makes sense, but culture is a response to these things (and, obviously, many more) and I can’t see how it could ever hope to be preserved or reshaped or whatever without way more bad than good.

    I really enjoy reading your blog!

  4. Branedy

    You should visit Ireland. When the economy was low, and labor cheap and well educated, Multi-Nationals were encouraged build in small town Ireland with low or non existent corporate taxes. And the Celtic Tiger grew. Now that the cheap labor force exists in Eastern Europe, the corporations are moving their operations there.

    They are abandoning whole facilities and infrastructure build for them by the government in the small towns and laying off all the local employees upon whom the entire community depended for economic input.

    Who is at fault, the corporation, the government or the community?

  5. leblase

    The sustainability of a culture – any culture- obviously has to do with as many components as culture itself.
    Economy and language are foremost: from them depend many other aspects of culture.
    And both are influenced by the technology of their time.
    Knowing how much economy and culture have been dependent on technology might induce people to think sustainability is going to be a very unreliable element of life for individual development amongst society, since technologyies go on almost constant turn-over.

  6. Ken

    Nice post, danah. I’ve struggled with these issues for years, myself – first as a political scientist interested in more critical understandings of sustainable development and environmental justice, then as a student of ecological economics (the closest I’ve seen to a truly comprehensive approach to economic thought). I can’t say I have any truly pithy conclusions, but if you’re ever in the Puget Sound region, perhaps we could chat.

    I suspect the most potential is in some combination of your interests in social connectedness, Jane McGonigal’s reality gaming, and my work on informational limits in social institutions (re: public media and “informed consumerism”).

  7. Brian O' Hanlon

    I recently read a book called DEC is Dead, Long Live DEC. It may sound a bit strange – but a music band I was listening to at the time – Modest Mouse, with their gorgeous melodic sounds, waning kind of nostalgic tunes, struck exactly the right sort of chord for me, when reading the book. The book was really about the high points, the success and ultimate demise of the company. You should know too Danah, that this book looked at a lot of the issues of ‘lock-in’ and proprietary-ness, that you hint at in other posts here. Just thought I would offer the recommendation of music.

    Mind you, when reading Kevin Kelly, I tend to put on Mogwai a good bit. Don’t know exactly why. I think it is because a lot of Kelly’s stuff is biological and about living organisms etc. If you look at economics, as brought up in this post, as something biological – as Kelly often does – but not exclusively Kelly, the reference is strong in alot of good writing about economics, the idea of a big player getting wiped out, maybe does create an environment, in which ideal conditions exist for other things to happen.


  8. Brian O' Hanlon

    Drat, hate not having edit functions…. anyhow.

    Culture is defined by the fastest growing age segment. It is not only online products and environments that are currently swinging toward a more mature audience. There is a general trend across western societies towards that. It is not like Jimmy Dean’s era, when the vast majority of population was youth. Most of the ‘young people’ in the future, in western societies will be ‘imported’ from regions of world, where education and prospects don’t even exist.

    But take an environment, like that of Kids and the cinema – The cinema is too locked into the youth segment. I went out of my way to get to a cinema, to watch the movie ‘Brokeback Mountain’, where grannies are regular customers. For some reason, going to see such a beautiful and complex movie as that, didn’t work for me, in the usual pop corn selling mega plex. The ‘local’ miniplex worked better for me. So sometimes a place which appeals to the older audience is a good thing.

    Intel’s Andy Grove wrote a book called ‘Only the Paranoid Survive’, which neater encapsulates his companies approach to brand innovation. Wrote visiting that reference, on this area of research I would say.

    But a book I only discovered recently, and explains a lot of why products outlive their brand attractiveness, is the book about the automobile industry, ‘The machine that changed the world’. It is about Lean manufacture Danah, the Japanese were the first to exploit shorter product cycles. General Motors were huge innovators in this sense too, in competition with Henry Ford, who really was a one car model for the road kind of a car manufacturer.


  9. daedalus2u

    I think that some of it is the monetizing of everything. If something doesn’t have a liquidatable value, it isn’t worth anything. Sort of like the tragedy of the commons, but more subtle. Who ever first realizes that the “good will” of a company can be liquidated, can buy the company, liquidate the good will, then sell the company (minus the good will) to someone who doesn’t realize the good will has been liquidated.

    This is in effect what formerly good companies do when they sell crappy products. They can fool their loyal customers and liquidate as undeserved profits the good will those customers had.

    There is an ice cream place in Cambridge, Toscanini’s

    They were being forced to close because of non-payment of taxes, and an appeal to their customers brought in $31,000 and brought them back from the brink. This is a case of “good will” of the customers being used under an extraordinary circumstance. An ice cream place with no good will would be unable to do such a thing. In “it’s a wonderful life”, it was the good will that Jimmy Stewart had accumulated that saved the bank and the town.

  10. Bertil

    I wish I could have seen your post earlier. Sorry for the long response.

    Once again, I’ll play the economist — sorry about that, I can assure you that there are amazing professors in any of the universities that dwell, could explain that to you with better examples; one thing is sure: you are ready to take a class, Microeconomics, but maybe go for Institutional economics, or Historical economics rather then the more common Neo-classical school; or maybe the usual tour, through the eccentricities of the religion of the market would suit you.

    First of all, there are three ways to model environment: as externalities, a “Nature-player” and capital.

    Externalities are everything that you don’t put in a contract (or a market transaction): parenting, violence, pollution. This approach compares how bad is the pollution with how good. The default, usual solution with this view has been offered by Coase, first in a paper about radio waves, then more specifically: give the asset an owner–he will contract it to interested parties and know what is best (most profitable) to do. That owner could normally be anyone, from the general public to local authority to a private company. Funny thing is: most of the arguments against that apparent neutrality rely on the few other works by the same Coase (a genius: the best training in economics is to read everything he did — the whole five papers). The elevator pitch: ownership by a private company is a good idea for short-term regulation.

    The Nature-player is a Game theory bootstrap to consider the consequences of someone’s action that are not decided by someone else. Al Gore is all into that: we have to change how behaviour, or something that looks a lot like an angry polar bear is going to surf to our shores on a melting iceberg and you don’t want to kwon the end of the film. Apart from the efficient but annoying anthropomorphism, a great way to hide the over-simplification behind a curtain of eco-psycho-fit — that can easily be used by semi-religious fanatics. Main real problems: integrations, measurements. The elevator pitch: some threshold cannot be crossed back.

    The capital approach shows where humans are very bad at, and where economics aren’t helping: what we have is an asset. Understanding how much is worth is an impossible task, pioneered by Pr. Henry (someone wanted to cut a forest that was planted by Louis XIV hoping to give masts to the the French Navy of the year 2000); impossible because understanding risks on what is valuable in the far-away future is like asking Cory Doctorrow if the accounting in his book is accurate: it almost doesn’t make sense. The elevator pitch: Creation is an amazing gift.

    Second thing: your post is actually about social concerns, namely the externalities of layoff. The problem seems to be that someone’s expertise, his knowledge of the company is lost. Given how fast companies change, I actually thing that the main value lost is the aknowledgement of the worker’s qualities: the trust his boss could have in him vanishes, and he might become depressed.

    Recommendations might sweeten that — but it doesn’t seem enough. Policies in Europe have tried to encourage the company laying off to take part into his conversion, generally not so successfully: the unemployment is still high. One reason is obviously that it is long-term unemployment; other developed economies like the USA have more short-term unemployment that might benefit from it. A reason you cannot see in the figures is that these programs tend to be absolute jokes, leading either to nowhere or declassing people: your empirical, interview-based, person-to-person approach would be great to understand that, danah.

    What you ask for is to have the companies interested in that: namely, that could mean to have them pay the laid-off employees until they have found something. That would be very efficient to have them help look for something. To concerns in such an approach: who controls whether a new job offer is “worth it”? There is more then a risk of declassification, relocation, etc. I’ve heard about having the company pay for the difference, but how could you repay the children for a mother having to drive two hours away?

    More concerning is the history of such a system: this existed between the XVIIth and the XIXth century in Europe (at least in France), as the Workers’ notebook: a professional passport. Talk about a Big Brother nightmare. Having a company directly pay for someone’s job search is implying it: HR managers will ask to have some control over it — and no SciFi writer seems to be paranoid enough to imagine the Leninist situation this would become. Leaving voluntarily a company means to face alone an army of HR managers that are trying to get rid of they own.

    Do I think that companies should be implied, and pay for the workers it laid off? Yes; actually it seems to be the consensus: this paper would be great on the subject, if it was in English.

    Some people are not good, motivated; should we force to HR managers to thing about what or where he could be helpful? Would it be a better use of their time then to have them check lists of cold, pseudo-scientific criterion?

    Understanding, measuring, implementing mechanisms to make the best of the little we know. . . all that seems very much available to the young, wide-eyed student that I am.

    The only reason these sounds arguments have not been heard for the past decades is nothing but lobbying — and you best action would be to support Lessig on this one. My father and all the marine biologists have been warning about pelagic desertification, and calling for a moratoria on the most destructive fishing techniques for years. Try to talk to fishermen and you’ll understand that even at gunpoint, he wouldn’t get it; sad thing is: now, their jobs are really at gunpoint now. I’m afraid HR and managers are not more aware about how much their workers crave consideration. Denial.

  11. Clay Newton

    It would be ideal to have an open discussion around a cultural sustainability report card: a series of concrete attributes that could be measured with regard to an organizations impact on the people + place it is affects. Do you know of such a thing?

  12. Andrea

    Well–first point, culture has always been a part of the sustainability discussion. You can go right back to the ’92 Earth Summit declaration, and sustainability was always defined as having three pillars: economy, environment, society. Which arguably is far too few; but that’s a separate debate. In any case, the costs and benefits of various kinds of development on a culture or society has always been part of at least the academic discussion, and is more and more a part of the policy discussion. It’s not happening on the popular level yet but I think this is a matter of time.

    Second, you’re misusing the term “sustainability.” Sustainability really only refers to whether or not hte business practice can be continued indefinitely or not. Even slash-and-burn agriculture and clear-cut forestry are sustainable within certain limits–but this is not a model or metaphor that anyone would want business to apply to human societies, I don’t think. You could completely decimate a local culture or society as long as you could argue that eventually it would repair itself. That’s not good. I know this point might seem a tad pedantic, but it’s an important distinction: when it comes to culture and business we’re not looking for sustainability so much as health.

    If you’re interested in looking up more on this subject, there are some good organizations doing work on the subject of sustainability (including ways to measure cultural and societal health).

    IISD–International Institute for Sustainable Development, at, is one of the better ones.

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  14. Haakon Faste

    Culture is a complicated phenomenon. To me cultural sustainability implies that a fundamental and underlying quality of culture be preserved; certainly investments in the performing arts, visual arts, languages, humanities, preservation and heritage, social sciences and so on are both integral and intertwined with the sustainability of a culture. They also play a central role in scientific ambition, innovation, ecological awareness, economic stability, happiness, etc. What we’re discussing here is really the future of human experience, not simply if we’ll still be around to enjoy it but the quality of the life we’ll have left to enjoy.

  15. Haakon Faste

    Culture is a complicated phenomenon. To me cultural sustainability implies that a fundamental and underlying quality of culture be preserved; certainly investments in the performing arts, visual arts, languages, humanities, preservation and heritage, social sciences and so on are both integral and intertwined with the sustainability of a culture. They also play a central role in scientific ambition, innovation, ecological awareness, economic stability, happiness, etc. What we’re discussing here is really the future of human experience, not simply if we’ll still be around to enjoy it but the quality of the life we’ll have left to enjoy.

  16. Reza Pirooz Far

    This is exactly the term that I mentioned it in Urbais Center, in Manchester, UK, in my lecture for the first time, under the title of:

    Cultural sustainability Vs. Functional sustainability, in Manchester

    My joint lecture with Prof. Cooper in June 2006, to discuss about the future of Manchester as the financial core of North-west of the UK, tried to address this fact that in people eyes these two types of activities towards a sustainable urban community, in some notions, have so much of undeniable controversy. And it is true!

    However the lecture was more detailed and studied the issue from different point of view from what you presented in here.

  17. ash

    so can you give me a clear definition of cultural sustainability and how an individual like me self can contribute at a personal level??

  18. Candyce Testa

    Hakkon Faste said, “cultural sustainability implies that a fundamental and underlying quality of culture be preserved.” This resonates true to me. Culture is not static, it is ever changing to satisfy the needs of a modern people. I see Cultural Sustainability as a concept that empowers us with the tools we need to uncover various ways to capture what we can from the cultural past in order to find creative ways of merging it with our cultural present in order to create a stronger cultural future.

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