Thursday, December 5, 2013



The following is an excerpt from a forthcoming article, "Sustainable Wasteland," scheduled to be published in 2014--but more importantly, it inaugurates a new series devoted to dismantling the concept of "sustainability" as the greenwashing masquerade of an industry that would convince us that "reclamation" means planting grass and laying down straw where 100 year old trees used to stand, that painting natural gas pipeline forest green is forest restoration. I have coined the phrase cadaver cosmetics to signal that what underlay the"landscape architecture" of the fracking industry's notion of "sustainability" is nothing but powder on the face of a corpse that was once an ecosystem.

Some refer to the effort to conceal a bad deal as if it were a good one as "lipstick on a pig." But in that case, we're at least invited to imagine a living porcine as opposed to an asphalt parking lot where a living and vibrant habitat for vegetation and wildlife used to be.

Not so with the dispersed industrialization of the natural gas industry. Painting pipeline green, planting shrubbery to conceal frack pads on state forest lands--this all may be the "new" "aesthetic" of sustainability. But fact is, a better image might be lipstick on a dead pig--or even better a dead planet.


A recent—an increasingly common—news story, “A new angle on cleaning up Passaic River: Swap your catch for a cleaner Fish,” illustrates neatly the extent to which “sustainability” is quite literally cadaver cosmetics:

In what critics call a desperate bid to avoid the most expensive toxic cleanup in New Jersey history, the companies responsible for polluting the Passaic River are promoting a plan they say will help keep people safe: swapping contaminated fish pulled from the river with healthy ones. The companies responsible for polluting the river want to clean up hot spots like this one, instead of fully dredging, while offering clean fish to anglers. Some of the highest levels of cancer-causing dioxin in the Passaic River have been found in mudflats in Lyndhurst. The plan would involve a less-extensive cleanup along with the establishment of an indoor fish farm so anglers along the Passaic — one of the most polluted rivers in the nation and a federal Superfund site — can exchange the fish they catch with fish that are safe to eat. (

The “sustainable remedy” proposed by industry to avoid paying up to 3.5 billion dollars for the actual restoration of the river ecosystem is to offer fisherman a trade of their toxic fish for “clean” fish redeemable at a local grocery. Besides the obvious absurdity of this “solution,” namely that it will achieve nothing with respect to restoring the river, it also makes a mockery of the very experience of fishing the Passaic. On this “remedy,” the possibility of meaningful experience is reduced to a cosmetic—shallowly decorative—pretense to the experience of actually fishing on the river. Imagine casting your line, waiting patiently, reeling it in, casting again, getting a tug, retrieving your fish—and then heading off to a grocery to exchange your toxic cadaver catch for something edible.

Few will find such a solution desirable because, besides gutting the fishing of the fun, few will be convinced that any such plan offers a future river with any of the value of the past. Nonetheless, such a remedy is perfectly sustainable given that the aesthetics of sustainability require nothing beyond mitigation, “beautification,” or, in this case, mercenary substitution.

The example of the Center for Sustainable Shale Development (CSSD) makes a similar point in a different way. Casting itself as a middle ground in the contentious debate over hydraulic fracturing (fracking) “whose mission is to support continuous improvement and innovative practices through performance standards and third-party certification,” CSSD claims to focus “on shale development in the Appalachian Basin,” and provide “a forum for a diverse group of stakeholders to share expertise with the common objective of developing solutions and serving as a center of excellence for shale gas development” (

Sounds good—except for that, given that there is no such thing as the sustainable development of a fossil fuel, CSSD can offer no more to the citizens of the Appalachian basin than its sister industries can offer to fishers of the Passaic River. However savvy the rhetoric, CSSD is just another version of cadaver cosmetics in that is simply exploits the language of “sustainability” in order to greenwash and thereby promote an industry—industrialized extraction—responsible for climate change. That Chevron, a corporation responsible for some of the world’s most egregious human rights abuses is included along with Shell and Consol (, on the CSSD list of “strategic partners” is at least troubling, but more important here it speaks to a “sustainability” not merely gutted with respect to usefulness in the effort to imagine a desirable future—but in fact wholly cop-opted by the institutionalized machinery whose actions will insure that future never materializes.

Here's the moral of this--and countless more stories:

We must abandon the vocabulary of sustainability.

We must do so not simply because it doesn’t get us enough to make fishing in the Passaic desirable, or because we recognize the inherent contradiction in “sustainable shale,” or even because we recognize the language as co-opted by an industry as wholly mercenary in its profiteering as it is transparent in its attempt to avoid responsibility for the damage it causes.

We must do so because “sustainability” is inconsistent with a radically re-valued human-centeredness, one through which we can articulate a future worth wanting, a centeredness that takes justice, human integrity, ecological stability, and biodiversity seriously enough to see that “desirable” does not mean “survivable,” but rather demands that the possibility of aesthetic experience be available to our children’s children.

We must do so because a future without the possibility of wonder at the staggering beauty of this planet and its immense diversity--its endless cornucopia of the beautiful and the awesome--is not a future worth the risk to realize it.

This future might well require a revolution to achieve—one that begins not only with stripping away the cosmetic cover of the cadavers that polluting industries leave in their wake, but with the creative labor only a creature epistemically situated with the wherewithal to imagine that future can undertake.

This is a fancy way of saying "It’s on us," and we can either suck up to “sustainability” and ignore the potential for ecological collapse courtesy of anthropogenic climate change, or we can begin the hard work of self-reflection that leads to the outraged laughter of the fisherman as he spits out the words “sustainable remedy” as if they were dirt in his teeth.

Bolts painted green on a pipeline hatch cover are "sustainable." But they're cosmetics on a cadaver. And the moment we are convinced that they're the "sustainable remedy" to replace, say, the wonder of witnessing uninterrupted forest in the quiet of a mountain dusk, we're dead already.

Sustainable? Get out the lipstick.

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