Hijacking Sustainability by Adrian Parr

by Lara Killian

3 May 2009

cover art

Hijacking Sustainability

Adrian Parr

(MIT Press)

The central idea of Parr’s book Hijacking Sustainability is sound: the concept of sustainability has been co-opted by American companies, governmental bodies, and even Hollywood for the purpose of advancing their respective agendas. The result is antithetical to the whole point of sustainability. Unfortunately, Parr’s method of supporting her arguments is so convoluted and pseudo-academic, it becomes rather inaccessible reading.

Much of the text in the first half of the book, “The Popularization of Sustainability Culture”, reads like the captions on the wall of a gallery showing an eco-art exhibit. Parr mostly aims for scholarly and scientific writing but then veers into a pop culture tone at random intervals. Some sentences are just too long, with difficult logic (plus they’re just not logical at times.) Statistics should support Parr’s assertions, but when they are used at all, they are included in such indiscriminate plenty that the point is lost. For example, an argument that the reinvention of Wal-Mart as an ecobrand is laughable is simple enough to understand, but throwing in a paragraph full of statistics about how many retail feet exist per person in the US versus the UK versus Africa detracts from the central point: “as sustainability culture goes corporate, it is turning into another branding strategy.”

Often wordy to the point of losing the thread of her argument completely, Parr provides plenty of helpful references in the form of endnotes, but the average reader is unlikely to flip back and forth. As Parr then uses author names from the references in her discussion, without providing context for someone who isn’t referring to the back of the book regularly, I found myself confused on a number of occasions about what research Parr was referring to. For someone already familiar with authorship on the subject of sustainability, this might not prove to be an obstacle, but I found it distracting. Footnotes, though they would be plentiful (as is, there are 25 pages of endnotes for 166 pages of text!), would be a better idea for helping the reader to follow along.

Hijacking Sustainability is most interesting when concrete examples are given about what people are doing regarding true sustainability—like examples of activism including car-shaped tents given to the homeless as both a pseudo-art installation and social experiment. A chapter on sustainability culture within the White House as different presidents have come and gone is a good case study for supporting the book’s overall premise. First Lady Michelle Obama has been in the news lately for her gardening efforts at the White House, but Parr asserts that this is not the first organic garden to be planted at that venerated Pennsylvania Avenue address.

Parr’s discussion of the timeline of greening efforts at the White House as an example set for the US as a whole extends right back to the building of the presidential residence, with natural temperature control mechanisms put in place by original architects. The White House sets an example for others to be inspired by, and it is often the values of the family in residence that affect the green agenda implemented by the staff, Parr points out.

Parr undermines her own credibility when she slips into disrespectful references to world leaders whose attitude toward green initiatives has been less than ideal. Referring to the former president as “President Bush Junior” comes across as condescending, even to this liberal-leaning reader. In addition, the lack of attention to segues makes much of Parr’s material disjointed, as though this book is more of an early draft of her ideas than something intended for mass publication.

In chapter three, provocatively titled “Ecovillages: An Alternative Social Organization”, Parr uses 14 out of the 16 pages in the chapter ranting about the fake nature of artificially constructed suburban communities before coming to the professed point of the chapter. It is almost as a digression that Parr finally starts to discuss the ‘social resiliance’ of ecovillages, where residents tend to barter rather than buy, and every action is undertaken with the good of the community in mind. The inability to consistently focus on the central point of a chapter’s premise significantly detracts from Parr’s intent to educate the reader about sustainability issues.

The second half of the book comes under the heading “Challenges to Sustainability Culture”, and here Parr finally starts to hit her stride. Bringing in concrete examples of e-waste transforming the landscape of third world countries where people who try to harvest reusable and resaleable materials from discarded electronics are exposed to poisonous toxins. Whenever we upgrade to a new efficient and environmentally friendly device, the discarded old device becomes someone else’s problem; the promoter of the new item might have neglected to mention this. The only appropriate reaction is outrage, and Parr finally manages to inspire that emotion in her reader. The writing becomes more readable in the second half of the book, and perhaps starting here would make it easier to stomach the academic tone of the first half of the book.

Parr moves through discussions of trash, disaster relief, slums, and poverty in the second half of Hijacking Sustainability, treating each topic within a social context, emphasizing that a one-size-fits-all approach is ineffectual. She also discusses some aspects of sustainability that are contradictory, for example the reaction of the Indian government following the tsunami of 26 December 2004. The government sought to enforce resettlement zones 200-500 meters back from the shoreline in an effort to protect the fishing communities from likely further coastal erosion and sea level rises. The villagers protested, as a move that far back from the shore would harm their ability to fish as they have for generations. On the one hand, an example of ecologically minded preventative measures, on the other hand the desire to preserve a cultural identity.

Overall, Parr provides some food for thought with regard to the ubiquitousness of so-called ‘green’ measures, which in many cases are being turned into marketing concepts. But would we prefer that the concept of green living remained a marginalized idea?

Hijacking Sustainability



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