Of Stone Tools and Sustainability

In some of my earlier blog posts I began to toy with the idea of exploring a parallel or an affinity between music and ethics. It’s not that music makes us ethical or – as Plato supposed – that certain kind of music might draw people toward virtue or toward vice. It is rather that ethical perception and action may draw from modes of human cognition other than those caught up in language.

What this means in practice is that some values – some of what draws attention and motivates action – cannot adequately be expressed in words, and that ethical action may have more in common with musical improvisation than with dispassionate logical reasoning or legal judgment.

Over the past few years, I have started in earnest researching and writing about “the music of ethical action”, as I sometimes call it. It turns out to be quite the rabbit-hole to have fallen down!

My research has recently drawn me into the orbit of cognitive archaeologists, those who examine the tangible remains of long-past hominin societies to draw inferences about how they experienced and – eventually – thought about their world. One subject of lively debate is the relationship between language and music: How did they develop? Did they emerge sequentially or in parallel? If they emerged sequentially, which came first?

I’ll likely take up some of these questions, by and by. For now, though, I’d like to work through something that struck me when reading an especially rich work of cognitive archaeology: Gary Tomlinson, A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity.

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Four Essential Questions on “Sustainability”

I have long chafed at the way people tend to use the word ‘sustainable’: it has become a term of general approval applied to something perceived – or something being sold – as “good for the environment” and/or good for people in some vaguely defined way.

The usual “three pillars” model of sustainable development only exacerbates the problem, with its way of distinguishing technological, economic and social sustainability. The markers of “social sustainability,” for example, really just look like ordinary concerns of human welfare and equity, and it is unclear whether they are among the conditions of sustainability or among its goals.

Partly as a consequence, the Sustainable Development Goals promulgated by the United Nations come across as a grab-bag of progressive values and initiatives which, taken together and regardless of their merits, don’t add up to a coherent account of the conditions under which “sustainability” might be possible.

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