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Collaborative Research Fora: Sustainability

Beyond Sustainability: Viability and Vitality of Traditional Artistic Forms and Social Practices

Food and ritual language exchange.
The exchange of food and ritual language in Colombia's Sibundoy Valley. Photo provided by John McDowell.

Concurrent with heightening public debates over ecological and environmental sustainability, we call attention to the sustainability of cultural forms studied by folklorists and ethnomusicologists. Moving beyond general conversations on sustainability, however, we focus on assessment of the conditions that make it possible for these forms and the people who create them to thrive. In pursuing this theme, we highlight significant entanglements of expressive forms with environment and place. Such current themes as ecopoetics and ecomusicology embrace the intimate connection between cultural creativity and environment and take note of mounting threats to this nexus as communities experience the ravages of global development and global climate change. Through this project, we direct our attention to the peoples, places, and practices associated with self-determination and local resistance, and we explore how people employ expressive culture to grapple with issues of sovereignty, internal colonialism, and multinational adventurism.

Societies and individuals around the world face the challenges of environmental degradation, climate change, loss of biodiversity and cultural diversity, and endangered languages and communities. While many of these issues are long-standing problems, they have been exacerbated in recent decades through sweeping social, economic, and technological transformations as well as through rapid increases in the world’s population, consumption, depletion of resources, destruction of ecosystems, and political-economic disparities. In many parts of the world, these challenges have reached a critical stage that threatens both the future of human societies and the natural environment. National and international governance bodies, local groups and organizations, and transnational networks alike have responded to these challenges in diverse ways through the implementation of policies and action programs and through the promotion of discourses of sustainability.

“Beyond Sustainability: Viability and Vitality of Traditional Artistic Forms and Social Practices” seeks both to conduct research on and contribute to efforts designed to promote not only the sustainability but also the viability and vitality of diverse human societies, ways of life, values and practices, and the environments in which they are learned and practiced. We seek to bring together in dialogue colleagues working at the intersections of cultural practices and the environment with the goals of creating connections between scholars in the human and natural sciences and practitioners to encourage research, teaching, and practice focused on empowering individuals and their communities to cultivate grounded expressions of their place in the world.

The fields of ethnomusicology and folklore demonstrate a long and sustained research interest in diverse social groups, practices, values, and local belief systems throughout the world as well as on the ways that people use artistic forms to express, meet, and advance their needs. We conduct comparative and ethnographic studies of local communities as well as their connectivity to trans-local and trans-national networks. This project intends to build upon these strengths by bringing together scholars and practitioners around a set of issues concerned with the sustainability of cultural diversity and the environments in which diverse social and artistic practices can thrive. Among the topics open to exploration are ecopoetics, ecomusicology, indigenous projects and networks formed in relation to issues of the environment and social justice, eco-tourism and sustainable agriculture, and traditional ecological knowledge.
We hope to collaborate with others pursuing solutions to these challenges, including in envisioning new models of international governance structures and policies, reframing older development models, and re-imagining interpretive frames and discourses of sustainability that attend to diverse values and ways of life.  A key concern is documenting the ways diverse groups have envisioned their futures and created organizations, networks, communities, and movements at the local, national, and transnational levels.

Our working group came up with three concrete examples to suggest some of the horizons for this initiative:

“Beyond Sustainability: Viability and Vitality of Traditional Artistic Forms and Social Practices,” at its heart, is a quest for cultural diversity, equally at risk as biodiversity at present on our planet. Identifying conditions conducive to viability and vitality in traditional expressive repertoires offers a significant contribution to urgent conversations addressing sustainability in the twenty-first century.