Against Sustainability: Reading Nineteenth-Century America in the Age of Climate Crisis

By Dr Michelle C. Neely

As 2020 has unfolded, the United States has seemed to walk further and further off an apocalyptic cliff. Police violence and civil rights violations go unchecked, immigrant children remain imprisoned, a pandemic rages, federal environmental protections continue to be dismantled, the Arctic is on fire. It’s tempting to wish that we could somehow turn back the clock and return to some more normal state of things. And yet, the very collapse of ordinary life reveals how much injustice was always a part of that status quo: how many threats Black Americans face in their day-to-day lives, how little Constitutional protections or checks and balances count if there is no one to enforce them, how many Americans lack adequate health care, how much Americans over-consume and pollute. What would happen if we let go of our rose-colored nostalgia for a past that only benefited some and instead embraced this collapse as an opportunity to build something better? If we let our imaginations be governed not by apocalypse, but by utopia?

This is the animating impulse of my new book, Against Sustainability: Reading Nineteenth-Century America in the Age of Climate Crisis (Fordham University Press, 2020). Against Sustainability grew out of two related questions: Why have mainstream U.S. environmental ethics so spectacularly failed to prevent our well-publicized descent into “the sixth extinction” and a catastrophically warmer world? What kinds of environmental paradigms might reorient the U.S. toward something better? To answer these questions, Against Sustainability identifies and reckons with the nineteenth-century literary and scientific architects of some of our most familiar and influential environmental paradigms. Through a series of creative, interdisciplinary nineteenth-century archives, the book defamiliarizes and rejects strategies such as sustainability, recycling, and preservation by illuminating their logics and the contexts of their emergence, contexts that include early industrial farming, settler colonialism, capitalism, and chattel slavery. What becomes clear is that these familiar environmental topoi are compromised beyond instrumentality; they are hopelessly entangled with the very systems that generate the environmental degradation to which they apparently respond. In their place, Against Sustainability argues for multiple, unusual, and even provisional environmentalisms capable of reorienting the dominant American environmental culture toward more just and livable futures.

The book focuses its critique on mainstream, majoritarian U.S. environmental culture, which has historically been led by relatively wealthy, white Americans, rather than on the vibrant veins of U.S. environmental activism and culture led by Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, organized labor, women’s collectives, and so on. This focus is grounded in an awareness of the global impact of dominant, Anglo-American environmental ideas and practices. It is not simply that Americans consume an untenable percentage of the planet’s resources, at an untenable rate. Americans also export their environmental attitudes and ideals globally: elites all over the world increasingly imitate or aspire to imitate American patterns of consumption, and U.S. companies and NGOs seek to impose American environmental paradigms such as wilderness preservation worldwide.

Against Sustainability begins by exploring the logic of sustainability as a paradigm. After exploring several critiques of the sustainability paradigm, the introduction uses the case of food sustainability to exemplify one in particular: sustainability rhetoric’s dependence on a pastoral fantasy of a “more sustainable” past whose recovery will enable the mild reform and thus persistence of a damaging status quo. While contemporary U.S. food reformers such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser direct us to a pre-1950 or pre-1900 agricultural ideal they imply we can recover, my archival research demonstrates that from the colonial period onwards, American farmers and food producers sought to maximize their profit using practices that are supposedly twentieth-century innovations, including grain rather than grass-feeding cattle, innovating technology such as “machines for milking” that prioritized speed over animal welfare, the use of dangerous additives to make commodity food look and taste more appealing, and much more. Ultimately, the example of sustainable food illuminates how sustainability as a paradigm prizes continuity with destructive pasts and thus inhibits meaningful transformation of the present. Significant change will come only from transformative paradigms that help mainstream Anglo-American environmental culture confront the past more truthfully and then imagine and act for a more environmentally sound present.

In the chapters that follow the introduction, Against Sustainability maintains a dialogic structure that interweaves chapters on familiar paradigms emergent in the nineteenth century with chapters excavating more unusual paradigms from the same period. A first chapter explores the limitations of recycling as an environmental ethic that responds to the problem of runaway appetite. The chapter makes its argument through readings that contrast nineteenth-century Walt Whitman’s poetic investment in compost and cyclical renewal with the twentieth-century poet Lucille Clifton’s resistance to fantasies of effortless material recycling and consequence-free consumption. Chapter two explores an alternate response to the problem of overconsumption through a paradigm I call joyful frugality. In a rich antebellum archive of popular advice literature and through the writing of Henry David Thoreau and the poetry of Emily Dickinson, this chapter shows how joyful frugality shifts the site of pleasure away from consumption, making anti-consumerist lifeways seem not only possible but, more importantly, richly appealing. Chapter three uses readings that juxtapose nineteenth-century writers George Catlin and Herman Melville with contemporary work by Louise Erdrich and A.S. Byatt to explicate the flawed aesthetic and spatial logics of preservation, as well as preservation’s imbrication with settler colonialism. If, like recycling, preservation generated some positive practices, the paradigm remained and remains violently complicit in the very problems it is designed to address. The book’s final chapter identifies the surprising paradigm of radical pet keeping theorized in the work of two nineteenth-century Black women writers, Hannah Crafts and Harriet Wilson. Crafts and Wilson envision a form of radical pet keeping that depends on an ethic of care and foregrounds interdependence across differences, making it a useful paradigm in the Anthropocene, as our climate crisis increasingly forces all life on Earth to live in the world Anthropos has built.

Against Sustainability concludes with a coda that contrasts Anglo-American and certain Indigenous North American approaches to “zero waste.” Using these examples, the coda suggests that there are contexts in which sustainability works as a paradigm; it makes sense to “sustain” environmental cultures that resist rather than perpetuate the systems responsible for our environmental degradation. Mainstream U.S. environmental culture, however, needs to break from values and practices inimical to just biotic community, a shift I argue might come from dethroning sustainability and replacing it with a critical utopianism that centers critique and transformation. Such a utopian orientation, combined with a commitment to strategic, provisional ethics—joyful frugality and radical pet keeping among them—might help bridge the gap between our deadly present and a more livable future.

Ultimately, Against Sustainability elucidates the value of embracing unusual and perhaps even provisional environmentalisms from unlikely sources as the first step to a more fundamental reworking of mainstream U.S. environmental ethics. The alternate environmentalisms theorized in the work of the writers I explore are not necessarily ideal, or even helpful at all times and for all people. Instead, they are provocative environmentalisms that might goad twenty-first-century, mainstream U.S. culture in particular to imagine and embrace more ethical responses to an increasingly compromised world.


Michelle C. Neely is an Associate Professor of English, Co-Director of American Studies, and affiliated faculty in Environmental Studies at Connecticut College. She is the author of Against Sustainability: Reading Nineteenth-Century America in the Age of Climate Crisis (Fordham University Press, June 2020).