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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

A Different Model, At Least for Me
April 9, 2012 - 4:10pm

For a while now, I've been struggling with the concept of sustainability.  (That's not good, since moving the campus and the institution in a sustainable direction is what Greenback U is paying me to do.)  When I first got started in this job, I had a clear idea of what sustainability entailed.  The problem was global warming/climate change. The solution was greenhouse gas reduction.  The job was to move Greenback towards lower and lower GHG emissions, so that it (and hundreds of its closest friends) could serve as models for the rest of Western Civilization.  But over the past five years or so, I've qualified and modified that understanding to the point that, at present, it seems to me that GHG emissions are but one aspect of the sustainability mess we're in, and probably not the one to emphasize.

Which doesn't mean that tracking GHG emissions isn't still part of my job, nor that reducing GHG emissions has lost its importance.  But it does mean that focusing my energies, and trying to focus the energies of the campus community, into a direct frontal assault on greenhouse gases probably isn't a good strategy (with kudos to B.H. Liddell Hart).  Climate change is a problem, but it's not the whole problem, and it's a part of the problem which is hard to talk about except in a scientific frame that makes many folks (and certainly many American folks) feel threatened, possibly inadequate, certainly uncomfortable.  Trying to demonstrate the imminent impacts of global warming with pictures of polar bears puts folks in mind of nothing so much as a Coke commercial.  Trying to do it with horrific images of the climate to come puts them into the frame of a Michael Bay movie.  Neither is useful.  And (as I've been pondering for some time now) portraying an attractive social future which is climate-mitigating while also climate-resilient is a challenge -- a challenge in which GHG accounting provides no assistance.

So when Dave Newport's widely read blog post on the death of campus sustainability came out, I found it interesting but incomplete.  One of Dave's major points is that the campus sustainability movement has suffered from an emphasis on ecological sustainability alone; we need to ally ourselves with folks who focus on social sustainability (although they rarely call it by that name).  He's right as far as he goes, but I'm slowly beginning to understand that he (at least so far) doesn't go far enough.

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Northeast Campus Sustainability Consortium annual conference in Syracuse, NY.  NECSC is a pretty good little regional conference, and I've enjoyed each one I've attended.  Good presentations, good discussion, a relative absence of vendor presentations (I get enough sales material in my daily email, thanks very much), and a human scale (unlike AASHE conferences, for example).  A number of the presentations put new ideas in my mind, but the one that really struck me was given by Ezra Small, the new sustainability wonk at UMass-Amherst.  What stuck in my mind was a Venn diagram of four aspects of sustainability (cultural vitality, environmental responsibility, social equity and economic health), with "education" as the area in which they all overlapped.

Now, to my mind, "education" isn't a synonym for "sustainability."  Education might be an effective way to encourage sustainability or sustainable behaviors, but it's also been an effective way to foster and institutionalize a whole raft of unsustainable behaviors (on both Main Street and Wall Street).  Education isn't a means to any particular end, it's just a means.  An enabling technology.  So my mind immediately wanted to put "sustainability" back at the center.  Where it belonged.  Or so I thought.

I've been pondering that Venn diagram for some time now, and I think it's been particularly helpful.  I've come up with my own set of overlapping bubbles, perhaps somewhat over-simplified.  The word "sustainability" doesn't appear anywhere on my new chart but, in a very real way, the values and the message of sustainability permeate it.

First bubble -- Environmental wealth.  Call it ecological balance.  Call it respect for Mother Earth.  Call it ecosystem services.  Call it living within the constraint of having only a single planet.  The point is that true wealth is based in the world around us and how we interact with that world.  "Wealth," not "responsibility".  Responsibility is something you do because you're supposed to do it.  Wealth is something you maintain because you enjoy it and don't want it to go away.

Second bubble -- Material comfort.  "Material", not "economic".  Economics has gotten wrapped around the axle of money-in-motion.  And while a lack of money in a marketized society can certainly cause discomfort, study after study has shown that money truly doesn't buy happiness -- certainly, not above a fairly modest level of income or resources.  See, it's really not about the economy.  It's certainly not about any particular form or level of economic activity.  It's about what the economy is supposed to provide (even though it too often fails miserably).  It's about the material needs of life.  Food.  Shelter.  Clothing.  Health care.  A few other things, but those are the big ones.  And we don't need riches, we need a sufficiency of comfort.

Third bubble -- Social justice.  A well-functioning society which serves the needs of all its citizens.  Equity.  Engagement.  Cohesion.  Participation.  Joy.

Those are the bubbles around the edges.  They're arranged such that their centers from an equilateral triangle, they're all of the same size, and there's a significant area which all three overlap.  For now, that area is labeled "cultural vitality."  It represents collective well-being, creativity, diversity, innovation, resilience, mutual interdependency, mutual support.  It encompasses all the aspects of sustainability that I (at least) can get my mind around.  And it feels good.

Our previous conceptual models of sustainability, at least as we've presented them at Greenback, have too often made folks feel bad.  Or, have too often created a sort of "holier than thou" 'good' feeling that, in itself, makes others resentful.  (Reduce this.  Recycle that.  Feel guilty if you don't.)  This model, I hope, will elicit nothing but good feelings.  Wealth, comfort, justice and vitality -- what's to feel bad about?  It's an aspirational model, with all motivation by carrot and none by stick.  Which isn't to say that real-world constraints, and the "sticks" they inevitably create, aren't present in it.  But they're not featured in it.  Neither, of course, is any set of presuppositions about just how wealth, comfort and justice are to be attained. 

Of course, most of the bubble that's labeled "material comfort" lies outside the zone of overlap with social justice and environmental wealth -- but doesn't that reflect reality?  Many (weighted by dollar volume, most) of the ways of providing material comfort fail to provide social justice or environmental wealth.  Many of them actively destroy social justice or environmental wealth.  The most egregious are premised (albeit quietly) on destroying both.  Similar statements could be made about the activities represented by the other two bubbles.  But it's the no-holds-barred search for means within that central area of overlap that will allow us to build a vital culture.

And "cultural vitality" is, to my mind, the only way that real sustainability can be achieved.  The Venn diagram (as all Venn diagrams) oversimplifies the picture -- the reality represented.  But that picture, if I can find an effective way to communicate it to students, faculty and staff, seems to present a more comprehensive, more radical, potentially more profound vision of sustainability than any inventory or any documentary about greenhouse gases and global warming could ever hope to.

And a more attractive one.  Thanks, in large part, to Dave and Ezra.



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