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Lecturer links posterity, sustainability and liberal arts

| Monday, September 28, 2015

John Sitter, Mary Lee Duda professor of literature, discussed the relationship between sustainability, posterity and liberal arts in his lecture Saturday, “What’s Posterity Ever Done for Us?: Literature and the Future.”

Sitter’s lecture, part of the Snite Museum of Art’s “Saturday Scholars Series,” highlighted specifically how the liberal arts can help us understand the role of sustainability, and how sustainability in turn, allows us to understand our place in the world and the responsibility we have towards future generations or “posterity”.

“Sustainability is about transmission of things of value to future generations,” Sitter said. “ … It invokes the idea of meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.”

Sitter discussed how posterity and the emphasis society places on it are indicative of our relationship to our environment and reveal our attitudes toward sustainability.

Posterity, defined as the future generations or descendant of mankind, was emphasized by historical figures such as the founding fathers and was used as a measure to discuss the impact of our actions in a historical context. Sitter said discussion and concern towards posterity has decreased since the latter half of the 20th century, and society places a lesser importance on posterity than previous generations. Additionally, Sitter said authors attribute this change in perspective to the rapid and abrupt changes and advancements in society and technology since post-war expansion.

“We need to learn to talk seriously about posterity, and that to do so, we begin to bring some of the most basic facts about our species into light of robust conversation,” Sitter said.

Sitter also discussed the role of sustainability, and how sustainability and the liberal arts are interconnected. He said while liberal arts and humanities do not initially appear to have any relationship to the study of sustainability and ecology, liberal arts can allow us to understand humanity’s interaction with our environment.

Sitter said the traditional distinction between the liberal arts and the sciences implies there is still a distinction between man-made creations and the natural world, when in fact this distinction no longer exists.

“The blurring or interpenetration of scientific and humanistic study now leads, whether we want to or not, to new ways of understanding where we are, ” Sitter said.

Sustainability studies, like the liberal arts, generally aims at a deeper understanding of ourselves in our world, Sitter said.

Sitter said literature remains an example of how the humanities can expand the conversation on sustainability. The prominence of post-apocalyptic and dystopian science fiction for example, is one of the ways writers examine our current relationship towards the natural environment, and how they can predict and bring to the surface the problems and practices that society proliferates on the natural world, he said.

“Literature alone cannot release us from our temporal claustrophobia, but it has done and what it can do is give us an engagement with the future that has less to do with its explicit content and more to do with its investment in sustainability, through its resistance to mere consumption and consumerism, its resistance to the marketplace of disposability,” Sitter said.

According to Sitter, humanities are also instrumental in contemplating why we value our environment and our relationship toward it. Sitter emphasized the need to include our relationship and treatment of the environment within ethics.

“An ethical system for our day has to be able to take into account the natural environment as seriously as traditional ethics have taken our relationship to each other,” Sitter said. “Sustainability is not just about getting the science right or the technology right. It’s about meanings and values.”

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