It all started when Dave Newport at UC-Boulder (I think it was Dave, but looking back I can't find the specifics) said good things about the book "Understanding the Social Dimension of Sustainability." It's a typical US academic edited volume incorporating fifteen separate articles and covering local/regional issues, the role of business, and the international (meaning, as it relates to the other 95% of humanity) perspective. Now three years old (not that social sustainability problems have much changed in that time), it puts forth a useful assemblage of knowledgeable voices. As focused as its editors could make it, it still comes off a bit scattered due, in part, to the extreme breadth of the subject matter. (If there's a broader "topic" than social sustainability, I don't know what it could be.)
Then Judy Walton at AASHE recommended David Harvey's recent monograph, "Rebel Cities". I didn't need a whole lot of encouragement -- I've been a David Harvey fan for a long time (not that I've read all of his works -- I don't see how anyone could read all of his books, much less write them). Harvey recounts the historic role cities have played in the development of corporate capitalism (both the economic elements and the social impacts). He then goes on to explain how (and why) cities are becoming sites of social awareness and resistance. If western society has hope to address issues of sustainability, much of that hope resides and takes physical form in cities.
Happenstantially, whilst locating the Harvey book I stumbled upon Benjamin Carp's "Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution", which reminded me that public discourse is most effective when it happens face-to-face in an atmosphere of mutual respect and interest. That atmosphere -- sometimes referred to as 'the bourgeois public sphere' -- was at its peak during the 18th century, as described by Habermas. The public sphere originated in the separation of state function from the households of rulers, the expanded use of intellectual function from the exclusive province of the church, the evolution of the press from commercial newsletter to include art and social criticism, and the sense of individuality which comes from economic independence inherent in early capitalism. On all fronts, the traditional hierarchical system had become dysfunctional, and public discourse evolved as a way for people to understand and cope with it.
All of which, by indirection, led me to perhaps the best book I've yet found on the topic of social sustainability: The Local Politics of Global Sustainability. Co-written by Thomas Prugh, Robert Costanza and Herman Daly, it's a discussion of the technical requirements for a sustainable global society, an analysis of how and why corporate capitalism can't (certainly, won't) meet those requirements, a presentation of the sort of democratic society and economy which could meet those requirements, a handful of reasons to think that the right sort of democratic society could exist, and a few initial suggestions about how we might get there from here. As in the 18th century, we've reached a point where traditional economic, political and social systems have taken us as far as they seem able; we need to reason together to form useful alternatives.
As a result of reading Prugh, et al., I'm now a member of the US Society for Ecological Economics. Previously, I'd never even heard of "ecological economics". To the best of my knowledge, Greenback doesn't offer a single course in ecological economics, nor employ a single faculty member who expresses an interest in it. But if there's a quasi-(sub?)-discipline that holds hope for marshaling the influence of higher education in the interests of achieving social sustainability, ecological economics seems to be it.
So I'm recommending that I do a whole lot more reading on the subject.
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