This is the first in a series of essays that will examine the politics of sustainability. Sustainability, as a term to define a particular kind of nature-society relation, has become the leitmotif of the contemporary environmental movement. In this series we ask what sustainability means in theory and practice. This seems an important question to ask because of the various and seemingly contradictory ways in which sustainability is defined and used in environmental discourse.
As the geographer Eric Swyngedouw has written “A cursory glance at both popular and academic publications will quickly assemble a whole array of ‘sustainabilities’: sustainable environments, sustainable development, sustainable growth, sustainable wetlands, sustainable bodies, sustainable companies, sustainable processes, sustainable incomes, sustainable cities, sustainable technologies, sustainable water provision, even sustainable poverty, sustainable accumulation, sustainable markets, and sustainable loss. I have not been able to find a single source that is against ‘sustainability’. Greenpeace is in favour, George Bush Jr. and Sr. are, the World Bank and its chairman (a prime war monger in Iraq) are, the pope is, my son Arno is, the rubber tappers in the Brazilian Amazon are, Bill Gates is, the labour unions are.”
What then does sustainable mean? Is it a radially new way to define the ethical and moral obligations of humans in the myriad ways we use (and abuse) nature? Has it become the empty rhetoric—greenwashing— used by corporations to cloak nasty practices in a veneer of environmental care? Is “sustainability” new wave environmentalism defined as an environmental ethic expressed through consumption choices—buy a Prius and demonstrate your care for the environment; the selling-nature-to-save-it logic of green capitalism?
In this series we intend to examine these various versions of sustainability. And we begin by examining what we consider the clearest sign of the mainstreaming of sustainability—the recent effort by Wal-Mart Corporation to rebrand itself as an environmentally sustainable company.
Wal-Mart announced in October of 2010 a plan to “focus on sustainable agriculture” and according to a New York Times report at the time, “expand its efforts to improve environmental efficiency among its suppliers.” The massive retailer, and now largest grocer in the US, intends to sell locally grown food in their US stores and invest in “training and infrastructure for small and medium-size farmers, particularly in emerging markets” The retailer heralded the change as part of its “sustainability goals,” announced in 2005 in which it pledged to double the fuel efficiency of their massive fleet of trucks, reduce energy consumption in stores and minimize packaging.
What does this actually mean? First, it’s a part of ongoing efforts by corporate actors like Wal-Mart to brand “sustainability” as a corporate-friendly term synonymous with productivity, efficiency and maximization. Sustainable means, in other words, whatever Wal-Mart says it means. And in this announcement, sustainable agricultural products mean one thing and one thing only: local. This is smart, of course, because the locavore movement is the bourgeois obsession du jour. And local, in Wal-Martease, means simply anything grown in the same state as the store selling the product. It’s that simple.
So, for example, conventionally grown agribusiness-sourced grapes picked in southern California by migrant farmworkers shipped thousands of miles to other California stores via the Wal-Mart fleet of trucks is now “sustainable.”
And since few others will ask what this means, particularly the New York Times in its gushing article of October 14 reporting on the announcement, perhaps we should. What does this announcement really mean and what social and environmental cost does Wal-Mart’s new definition of sustainability promise?
First, as Cesar Chavez reminded us, the agricultural products we buy from large grocery retailers “come from the work of men and women and children who have been exploited for generations.” According to the California Research Bureau (CRB), “80 percent of U.S. farm workers earn less than $10,000 per year; half earn less than $5,000… wages for entry-level seasonal farm workers averaged $5.22 per hour.” And it’s not just the workers at Wal-Mart suppliers. According to a 2006 study of Wal-Mart labor practices, an average Wal-Mart retail worker averages 34 hours per week and earns, on average, $17,874 per year. That’s a pay rate nearly twenty percent less than the average retail worker, according to some estimates.
The Income insecurity of immiseration wages paid to farmworkers means, among other things, widespread housing insecurity. Nearly one million farm workers nationwide lack adequate housing. Many live in shacks on the private property of the farms where they work. And it has become commonplace for California growers to bulldoze farmworker labor camps while at the same enriching themselves from farmworker labor. The CRB found that in California many are forced to live in tool sheds, abandoned automobiles and even under porches. These workers are so exploited, their lives so invisible, their status usually undocumented that they rarely access what social services and health care are available to them. As a result, farmworkers, who work in the second most dangerous occupation in the US, have the lowest rates of health insurance coverage among California workers. According to the CRB, “around 40 California farmworkers die on the job” each year from accidents and heat stroke. But Wal-Mart would have you forget about farm work as brutal and deadly. No, just stamp the bag of grapes “sustainable.”
And of course Wal-Mart would consider the brutal exploitation of farmworkers sustainable, after all the exploitation of workers, the source of its enormous profits, is its specialty. In February of 2009 Wal-Mart reported quarterly sales of nearly $108 billion with earnings per share of 96 cents. At the same time it was embroiled in at least 73 class action lawsuits regarding working conditions and labor policies at Wal-Mart stores. The lawsuits included a host of allegations including that managers forced “employees to work unpaid off the clock, eras[ed] hours from time cards and prevent[ed] workers from taking lunch and other breaks that were promised by the company or guaranteed by state laws.” Hundreds of thousands of former Wal-Mart employees have joined class action lawsuits alleging that Wal-Mart forced them to work off the clock. In 2004, Michael Rodriguez, an overnight stocker in a Sam’s Club store, was locked in the store, a policy common at Wal-Mart, when he suffered a serious injury. ”My ankle was crushed” by an electronic cart driven by another employee, he told the New York Times. ”I was yelling and running around like a hurt dog that had been hit by a car. Another worker made some phone calls to reach a manager, and it took an hour for someone to get there and unlock the door.” He writhed in agony awaiting a manager to unlock the door so he could go to the hospital, a policy Wal-Mart said was necessary to kept people like Michael Rodriguez from stealing from them.
Second, Wal-Mart’s new green washing shell game ignores the health effects of large-scale pesticide use. Nearly 1,000 farmworkers in California are poisoned each year from the use of agricultural chemicals. Wal-Mart’s sustainability policies and their laughable “focus on sustainable agriculture” use the mark of sustainability as an attempt to protect the kind of low wage, race-to-the-bottom production that serves as the foundation of their success. So buy “sustainably-sourced” vegetables at any California Wal-Mart and feel good knowing that prolonged exposure to agricultural chemicals raises the risk for lung cancer and other illnesses. Throw a handful of Wal-Mart seedless grapes into your mouth without concern for the fact that, according to a 2003 study of Spanish farmworkers in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the offspring of agricultural workers suffer almost twice the risk of fetal death than offspring of non-agricultural workers.
Wal-Mart’s sustainability policies mask the real health and environmental costs of agribusiness and are designed not to transform patterns of production, distribution and consumption (that would only mean less profits after all and who wants that?). So instead its sustainability goals serve to obscure the human costs and environmental consequences of the rapacious pursuit of profits made on the backs of workers. The only thing Wal-Mart’s sustainability policies are sustaining is its continued access to low wage workers toiling in brutal conditions who are eventually, like Michael Rodriguez, sacrificed at the alter of its all important earnings per share.
Lastly, local, as described above, means anything sold in the same state where it was grown. It’s all a joke made at the expense of workers and the environment. A 2007 analysis of Wal-Mart’s sustainability scam by a coalition of labor, environmental and human rights organizations criticized the plan as nothing more than a corporate ruse. Even if every possible target goal were reached, the plan would not make any “real impact on global warming, employee health and welfare.” Their report, titled “Wal-Mart’s Sustainability Initiative: A Civil Society Critique” asked if Wal-Mart can “claim to be “sustainable” when it drives down wages [and] refuses wages to some 20,000 minors working in its Mexican stores.” But the report was particularly pointed on the environmental impact of Wal-Mart. The “focus on sustainable agriculture”, the report noted, is one more example of Wal-Mart’s attempt to recast itself as a green company, and in so doing protect a particularly unsustainable way of doing business. According to Wal-Mart’s own reports, total global operations in 2006 released 220 million tons of greenhouse gases. An amount that is more than 40 times greater than the emissions the company’s sustainability plan pledges to reduce. Does their “sustainable agriculture” policy resolve this? Consider their tricky term “local.” A 2004 Counterpunch article by Yoshie Furuhashi used a Teamster’s organizing map of Wal-Mart distribution points to demonstrate that most sates are already served by local Wal-Mart distribution centers. The term local, in other words, as a definition of “sustainable” doesn’t require any transformation to existing Wal-Mart distribution patterns. It’s green washing at its most sophisticated.
The Sustainability Office at University of Toronto is looking for a Project Coordinator!
If you have any difficulties access the job, the job ID is 1200207.
Description: With overall responsibility to the Director, Sustainability Office, and working under the supervision of one or both of the Sustainability Coordinators, the incumbent is responsible for providing critical support for energy and resource conservation projects. Duties include ensuring that projects are completed by tracking deadlines and ensuring that funding requirements are met. Acts as the liaison between the Sustainability Office and internal/external partners on order to report on the status of all active projects. Writes standard grant applications and performs related administrative duties. May organize and/or attend events related to sustainability initiatives or as related to partnerships. Assists with the preparation of research/project documents such as proposals, research papers, progress reports and presentation materials. Assists with input and analysis of data. Maintains various records, including activity reports, complex databases, and financial documentation. May participate in projects or lead as required and may document projects and describe office activities on the sustainability office website. May oversee work study students or others participating in office activities.
MIT Seminar on Environmental and Agricultural History
“Earthsickness: Circumnavigation and the Terrestrial Human Body, 1520-1800”
Department of History, Harvard University
From the 1500s into the early 1800s, most of the mariners who tried to go around the world died, mostly of scurvy. Commentary on their suffering represented a meaningful event in the conceptualization of the human body as the planetary entity: circumnavigation offered their scorbutic bodies as evidence that humans were terrestrial creatures, physically suited to the earthly parts of a terraqueous globe.
Friday, March 23, 2012
2:30 – 4:30 PM
Corner of Amherst and Wadsworth Streets, Cambridge
Graeme Wynn and David Brownstein have been confirmed as the editors of the Canadian contribution to the World Forest History Series.
The volumes are intended to address inter alia the “rise of state and scientific forestry and the evolution of environmental land management practices, with a special focus on colonial forestry and its legacy,” and to ”feature a substantial section of primary sources related to the history of humans and forests.” Recognizing the scale and importance of forest history in Canada, the series editors, Gregory Barton and Brett Bennett have suggested two volumes on Canada, one of essays and the other of primary source documents. Wynn and Brownstein are developing outlines/ preferred emphases for the volumes, but would appreciate hearing from anyone interested in contributing at their earliest convenience.
This is also a formal call for proposed papers (of approximately 8-10000 words in length). Proposals (of 500 words or so) may be chronological, historiographical, thematic or regional in focus and should be sent to both firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com by 1 May 2012.
Please consider the following:
1- the volumes should be readable and coherent for all readers, not just geographers and historians. This means, among other things, writing in plain language and avoiding overly partisan language. We hope to make the volumes specialized enough to draw audiences from the scholarly community but broad enough to interest non-scholarly readers.
2- we would like to involve foresters and scientists in this project, especially with a view to offering some current perspectives on forestry.
3- There should be some historiographical analysis, such as an overview of shifting interpretations of forest history.
4- The series seeks to integrate national histories into both imperial and world histories. This implies that contributions should attend, as appropriate, to the relations between Canada and the British Empire and the world.
We would like to invite you to the 3rd annual Hunger Banquet!
WHAT IS IT? A semi-formal dinner which dramatizes the global food
system through the lenses of food security, gender and development.
Features speakers, silent auction, and musical performances. All
proceeds from the event will go to Oxfam Canada to support their GROW
WHEN IS IT? Friday, March 23, 2012 @ 6:30pm
WHERE IS IT? Beverley Halls (216 Beverley St)
HOW CAN I GET TICKETS? Tickets cost $15 for students (of any school,
not just UofT) and $30 for community members.
You can buy them online through our website at
Or come by our office in room 425 of 21 Sussex Avenue during the
-Mondays 3-4, 5-6, or 8-9pm
- Wednesdays 4-5 or 6-7pm
We are extremely excited to be presenting this event in conjunction
with Oxfam UofT Scarborough and Oxfam’s Ontario Regional Steering
Committee, and we would be overjoyed to see you there!
If you have any questions, please CONTACT US! There are so many ways:
Oxfam Canada: www.oxfam.ca/grow
Oxfam Canada – University of Toronto
21 Sussex Ave. Unit 425
Toronto, Ontario, M5S 1J6
ENDING GLOBAL POVERTY BEGINS WITH WOMEN’S RIGHTS
ESAC is proud of the upcoming conference that we are pulling together. It is our biggest and best yet – full of amazing and important presentations and panels that the ESAC board members are scheduling right now, thanks to our talented ESAC members.
We are thrilled to have author, educator, environmental activist Bill McKibben as keynote speaker for the ESAC Conference 2012– LIVE from Middlebury college in Vermont — and moderated by Alternatives’ “Power & the Glory” author Stephen Bede Scharper.
We are can confirm that the ESAC events will be housed at the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment with most of the activities taking place in the new EV3 building.
Conference attendees can participate in many other opportunities such as the Big Thinkers events with guest speakers such as Margaret Atwood and Thomas Homer-Dixon.
If you are coming from out of town, don’t miss out. Remember to book your rooms as space is limited and filling up quickly! Don’t forget to invite your environmentally minded friends, colleagues and peers – you do not want to miss out on this event. For a limited time, new members of ESAC will receive a free copy of Alternatives Journal with their subscription.
Leading Change is a Canada-wide movement started by young environmental and sustainability professionals working together to catalyze action and influence positive change locally, regionally and internationally. Leading Change will be kick-started during the 2012 Globe Conference with a week-long program, including a one-day Forum for Young Sustainability Leaders on March 13, 2012 in Vancouver. Leading Change is a volunteer partnership lead by The Delphi Group, Young Environmental Professionals (YEP) and Connecting Environmental Professionals (CEP).
The audience is 150 Emerging Leaders – youth and young professionals interested in the environment, clean energy and clean technology. The Forum complements the GLOBE Conference and is focused on building the next generation of corporate leaders, policy thinkers, entrepreneurs and community actors.
On March 13, 2012, the Forum will kick-off with a high energy day filled with motivational speakers, engaging dialogue with peers and mentors and hands-on learning around critical sustainability issues.
From March 14-16 participants will have the opportunity to participate in a variety of activities including mentoring workshops, focus groups, company tours, and the GLOBE Conference networking events, trade show and sessions.
The outcomes of the Forum include an expanded network of informed emerging leaders; established relationships between the emerging leaders and mentors; new employment opportunities for young leaders; and education and community project ideas for the emerging leaders to implement. At the end of the Forum the goal is for participants to
take professional action — such as making presentations to local government, implementing community sustainability projects, and/or starting up new businesses — when they return to their communities, post secondary institutions or workplaces.
Become a part of the movement, visit the webpage.
Highlights of the Funds for the Future Challenge
In this challenge, aspiring entrepreneurs have been selected from participants of Leading Change 2012 to develop and pitch proposals for sustainability-related projects to a panel of judges. The forum provides participants with an opportunity to learn from leading experts in the sustainability field, while connecting them with other highly-driven and successful entrepreneurs on issues that are important to them and their community.
In keeping with Leading Change’s theme of continued action, the Forum will serve as the launching point for the Funding Competition, as teams will continue to showcase their ideas online in interactive formats after the Forum, encouraging feedback and fostering collaboration. Solid, well thought through ideas will receive funding for implementation from a pool of sponsorship dollars.
For more information:
Elizabeth Watterworth, Event Manager
Jessica Ward, Marketing Director
Join the Toronto Sustainability Office in celebrating Environment Week 2012 – March 12-16!
They are holding an open house reception (with coffee, tea, and snacks!) on Thursday March 15th, 2-4pm. Come and chat about campus sustainability, discuss our programs, and voice your concerns with Sustainability Director Beth Savan and the rest of the staff!
Environment Week is organized by the University of Toronto Environmental Resource Network (UTERN).
Also, there is an upcoming discussion forum: Climate Change, Freshwater Management, and the Role of Science
Date and Time: Tuesday, March 13, 2012. Reception from 8:30am-9:30am.
Panel Discussion from 9:30am-11:30am.
Location: Vivian and David Campbell Conference Facility
Speakers: Scott Vaughan, Federal Environment Commissioner, Office of the Auditor General; Gord Miller, Provincial Environment Commissioner,Province of Ontario; David McLaughlin, President and CEO of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy
Moderated by Jeffrey Simpson, National Affairs Columnist of the Globe and Mail and co author Hot Air: Meeting Canada’s Climate Change Challenge
Registration Link: http://www.munk.utoronto.ca/EventDetails.aspx?eventid=11797
Webcast of the panel discussion will begin at 9:30 am (EST) at http://www.powi.ca
Description: This event will examine the impacts of climate change on Canada’s freshwater resources. The panelists will explore the importance of scientific research and monitoring in understanding the state of freshwater resources and in managing them sustainably, as well as the linkages between water use and the natural resource sectors in Canada.
The reception will begin at 8:30 am, followed by the panel discussion at 9:30 am
For more information, visit their website.
- Reconceptualizations of time in the context of globalization
- Changing relationships between local and global temporalities and between various local temporalities
- Contested globalization discourses and their temporal conceptualizations
- Interplays of spatial and temporal logics in the context of globalization
- The impact of global temporalities, for example acceleration or simultaneity, on democracy
- Representations of globalization and temporality in literature, film, and popular and digital cultures
- The relative importance of speed and space in global business and war
- Differential collective and individual experiences of global temporalities
- Rethinking the relationships between gender, sexualities, age, class, culture, ability, geography and global temporalities
- Tensions between personal, corporate, governmental and environmental temporalities
- The circulation and acceleration of new health risks and new public health challenges
- Global public policies and changing temporalities
- The role of activism in addressing the intersections of globalization and time, with regard to social justice, efficiency, productivity, speed, or sustainability