Adrian Parr’s Hijacking Sustainability is a book deeply rooted in praxis at the same time that it is intelligently theoretical. Informed by the likes of Freud, Marx, Kristeva, Hegel, and Mary Douglas, to name a few, Parr is not content to simply shuffle and redefine abstract terms and instead offers illuminating practical insights into the current debates surrounding sustainability. The book takes a broad view of sustainability: this term is defined to include not just traditional green practices but also the ideologies necessary to create real, lasting, sustainable change. In other words, truly sustainable practices will be born from both mental and material change. Ultimately, the book asks how to “meet the needs of today without compromising the needs of future generations” (1).
To answer this question, Parr takes two approaches. First, she addresses the “The Popularization of Sustainability Culture,” providing detailed case studies of multi-national corporations to demonstrate the tangled nature of power structures underlying the rising trendiness of green culture. Within this first half of the book, the most thought-provoking discussion is Parr’s eerily prescient analysis of BP’s track record of failed environmental stewardship in chapter 2. Although the book was published a year before the Deepwater Horizon disaster, her thoughtfully researched case study makes the oil spill appear maddeningly easy to predict.
The second half of the book addresses “Challenges to Sustainability Culture,” which ultimately translates into a provocative discussion of poverty since, as Parr argues, the poor bear the brunt of unsustainable culture. Within this framework, Parr covers an admirably wide range of topics—trash, disaster relief and urban design to name a few. The breadth of issues effectively demonstrates the broad impact sustainability culture can and does have. Each chapter asks the difficult question of how best to negotiate inevitable power relations in such a way that will provide sustainable aid without marginalizing, victimizing, or otherwise negating the subjectivity of the poor. Parr’s discussion of the international garbage market—rich countries paying poor ones to absorb their trash—is an apt example. Parr argues that this trash-shuffling is ultimately ethical: it is “a practice that determines whether a subject will count within the norms of a given society; this is the only way to explain why a company may use certain ethical standards on its home turf but have no difficulty in suspending these when entering, for example, China or India” (102). Parr does not only focus on how such trade involves relations between First and Third World nations, but also explains it as producing cultures of poverty within the U.S. In this way, Parr reveals the underlying class issues at stake in systems of waste disposal. Because this discussion illuminates the political implications of an activity everyone engages in every day—throwing something away—scholars working in postcolonial studies, globalization studies, quotidian studies, sociology, and feminism are likely to find this chapter especially provocative and fruitful.
According to Parr, the root of this and other challenges to sustainability is the abjection of the poor. In arguing that the poor are abject, Parr is certainly not making a new claim. Nevertheless, her discussion introduces an insightful analysis of the ways architecture, especially urban space, reinforces the abjection of the poor. For instance, Parr draws on Judith Butler’s theories of intelligible bodies to uncover the ways slums construct the subjectivities of its denizens. Parr maps the physical as well as intellectual spaces that construct boundaries between “normal/indecent, honest/criminal, and neighborly/threatening” (135). In context of a detailed analysis of the Favela- Bairro project (a large-scale reconstruction of Rio de Janeiro’s Favela slum area), Parr argues that consideration of the power inherent in naming—slumdweller or favelador, for instance—is key to enacting sustainable change. “The abject position the squatter occupies,” states Parr, “is reiterated through the authority the formal city holds” (131). Truly sustainable change will address more than just the material, spatial realities of slums: design that reworks only buildings, sidewalks, and infrastructure will never be truly sustainable because it fails to address the ideological definitions of people living within that space. Thus, because many urban design projects address only material and...