Sustainability beyond stewardship

Sustainability, one may argue, is the mantra of both heritage and environmental discourse and constitutes the quintessence of management and conservation in both spheres (Albert 2015). What sustainability is is rarely discussed in much detail, however, and increasingly less as the concept’s all-embracing validity as good and honourable consolidates (Baptista 2014).

Sustainability first gained its popularity when adopted in the UN report Our Common Future in 1987 where it was explained as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (WCED 1987). It is safe to say that this understanding holds true also today and that its message is still of equal significance–and it is not the aim of this project to claim otherwise. What this first work package (WP) will undertake, however, is a critical scrutinizing of the concept of “sustainability”, both as generally used in heritage discourses and in the context of the case studies selected. Looking tentatively at how sustainability is discursively employed it often seems to appear in tandem with such concepts as development, management and conservation. As a preliminary hypothesis, this may suggest that it mostly pertains to human guidance/stewardship, whether direct or indirect, and that its aim, thus, is concerned mainly with human wellbeing, centred on what we see as aesthetically/culturally significant, desirable and fruitful. As such, sustainability may also be argued to rest on a (Western) post-enlightenment idea of human mastery over nature, where “mastery” is exchanged for more positively inflated terms such as management, development and stewardship. Without questioning the need for human action, one postulation of this WP is that such anthropocentric understandings may in fact constitute part of the current environmental problem rather than its solution (see Mathews 2003). Thus, drawing on the theoretical frameworks of post-humanities (Haraway 2016) and critical ecology (Morton 2010), an aim is here to critically rethink the notion of sustainability to explore how it may be pushed beyond its human centred pedigree, and to ask:

  • What is sustainability in the Anthropocene? Is it inevitably “pleasant”, favourable or even gainful for us?
  • If so, how can sustainable thinking and management constructively engage with processes that we associate with turmoil, loss and change? And, what other forms of involvement (than stewardship/management) may sustainability in the Anthropocene call for?


Albert, M-T. eds. 2015. Perceptions of Sustainability in Heritage Studies. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Baptista, J.A. 2014. The ideology of sustainability and the globalization of a future. Time & Society 23(3): 358-379.
Haraway, D. 2016. Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Durham: Duke University Press.
Mathews, F. 2003. For Love of Matter: A Contemporary Panpsychism. New York: SUNY.
Morton, T. 2010. The Ecological Thought. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
WCED. 1987. Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future. A/42/427.

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