Against SustainabilityReading Nineteenth-Century America in the Age of Climate Crisis

Against SustainabilityReading Nineteenth-Century America in the Age of Climate Crisis

Michelle Neely

Print publication date: 2021

ISBN: 9780823288229

Publisher: Fordham University Press

Abstract

Against Sustainability responds to twenty-first-century environmental crisis not by seeking the origins of U.S. environmental problems, but by returning to the nineteenth-century literary, cultural, and scientific contexts that gave rise to many of our most familiar environmental solutions. In readings that juxtapose antebellum and contemporary writers such as Walt Whitman and Lucille Clifton, George Catlin and Louise Erdrich, and Herman Melville and A. S. Byatt, the book reconnects sustainability, recycling, and preservation with nineteenth-century U.S. contexts such as industrial farming, consumerism, slavery, and settler colonial expansion. These readings demonstrate that the paradigms explored are compromised in their attempts to redress environmental degradation because they simultaneously perpetuate the very systems that generate the degradation to begin with. Alongside the chapters that focus on defamiliarization and critique are chapters that reveal that the nineteenth century also gave rise to more unusual and provisional environmentalisms. These chapters offer alternatives to the failed paradigms of recycling and preservation, exploring Henry David Thoreau’s and Emily Dickinson’s joyful, anti-consumerist frugality and Hannah Crafts’s and Harriet Wilson’s radical pet keeping model of living with others. The coda considers zero waste and then contrasts sustainability with functional utopianism, an alternative orienting paradigm that might more reliably guide mainstream U.S. environmental culture toward transformative forms of ecological and social justice. Ultimately, Against Sustainability offers novel readings of familiar literary works that demonstrate how U.S. nineteenth-century literature compels us to rethink our understandings of the past in order to imagine other, more just and environmentally-sound futures.