Cannon Unpacks Sustainability Under Capitalism

By Maya Weeks – What is the Washington Consensus, and what is ‘overshoot’? On March 7, 2018, Assistant Professor of Human Ecology Clare Cannon defined these terms in the context of sustainability—which, she argued, can only go so far in a global capitalist system.

Cannon’s talk, co-sponsored by the Women’s Resources and Research Center and the Feminist Research Institute, was titled “Unpacking Sustainability: World System Position, the Washington Consensus, and Overshoot.” In it, she invited attendees to imagine alternatives to the colonial project, introducing recent research that opened up a broader conversation.

Cannon’s work has two main foci: personal-based violence, particularly in LGBTQ community, and environmental inequality. While her dissertation, Exposure to Environmental Hazards: Analyzing the Location and Distribution of Landfills across the contiguous United States focuses on the latter, one of Cannon’s primary interests is bringing feminist research and methods to bear on social and other problems. In the work she presented on March 7, the problem under scrutiny was that of sustainability in a global capitalist system—specifically, a system dominated by the so-called Washington Consensus. 

Fracturing and decoupling

The Washington Consensus, Cannon explained, is the set of neoliberal policies that led to the deregulation and opening of markets in the late twentieth century. Developed as a response to the 1980s debt crisis in the Global South and regarded as the standard reform package for developing countries in financial distress, the Washington Consensus has held sway in global macroeconomic policy ever since. But that might be changing. 

“In this current moment,” Cannon said, “we might well be seeing the fracturing of the Washington Consensus—a fracturing and decoupling of free trade policies with deregulation.” This moment coincides with one in which the demands being placed by humans on natural resources are more intense than ever, and when “overshoot” appears perilously close. Citing William R. Catton, Cannon explained overshoot as “the point at which collective human demands on nature exceed nature’s ability to replenish necessary resources.”

Linking overshoot and gender

Cannon’s study sought to find support for four hypotheses linking the Washington Consensus, overshoot, and gender. The first was that modernization will exacerbate overshoot. The second was that nations with the greatest biocapacity losses will perform poorly on Washington Consensus measures. The third was that women in those nations will experience lower status. The fourth was that women in positions of power will have ameliorating effects on environmental degradation.

In conducting the study, she drew on the literatures of environmental sociology, weak and strong sustainability, and gender and the environment. She found that the global system of capital is unsustainable, found support for ecofeminist theory, and did not find support for weak sustainability—the notion that sustainability is possible under capitalist economic systems.

Her research brought up crucial questions, such as the role of sustainability in preventing off-shore drilling and protecting coastal monuments. Her presentation, as well as her willingness to engage with other scholars from a range of disciplines, showed what research can look like: a willingness to dive in, to ask hard questions, and to work together. 

Learn more about Clare Cannon.