Cultural Sustainability

futurelab default header

by: danah boyd

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?

Original Post: