One of the considerable number of campus sustainability wonks whose opinions I respect is Dave Newport at UC-Boulder. Dave's on AASHE's Board of Directors, and he publishes a generally insightful blog. His latest post sets forth the gravity of the situation facing sustainability in higher ed, thoroughly grounded in the gravity of the situation facing advanced society. On the whole, what he says makes good sense.
I say "on the whole", because there's one passage of which I'm unsure. Dave's a guy who's sometimes sardonic, and sometimes I can't tell when he's being sardonic, and when all I've got to go by is text the definition of "sometimes" verges on being synonymous with "frequently".
The passage that has me confused is in his paragraph on the challenge of getting sustainability to serve as a unifying theme. Dave states that it's, "[h]ard to imagine that anyone could be confused or uninspired by a doctrine with a squishy definition or heady vision—but here we are."
Is "sustainability" a heady vision? Probably. So many behaviors that modern (and by "modern", I mean the de facto norm in North America and Western Europe) society takes for granted are, when examined even moderately closely, readily determined to be unsustainable that any vision of real sustainability must exist, first and foremost, in the imagination.
Is the definition of sustainability squishy? Inherently, no. Effectively, yes. It's rendered squishy by our (that is, modern society's) unwillingness to take the concept literally. Radical thinkers such as The Natural Step seem to have little difficulty providing a definition which is at least qualitatively concise, but the implications of striving to achieve what that definition implies are seen as . . . well . . . inconvenient.
That formulation is appropriate to the formal balloting of elections. For the informal balloting of day-to-day life, it might better be expressed as "you can't beat something with nothing", or "you can't beat clear and immediate self-interest with nebulous and chronologically indeterminate aspirations to virtue". (OK, that last one needs work before it'll fit on a bumper sticker, but you get the idea.)
How easily the whole idea of sustainability can be co-opted by anyone promoting clear and immediate self-interest is evidenced by the "sustainability plan" of the city I referred to in my last post. The emphasis of that plan was on job creation; the planning horizon was on the order of ten years. In no meaningful sense was it what most of us would recognize as a sustainability plan, and yet . . .
And yet, its emphasis is entirely understandable The city in question has seen the vast majority of its major employment providers shut down within the past 10-20 years, and the few that remain have downsized significantly. Lots and lots of nice-looking homes are for sale, and that wasn't caused by mortgage malfeasance It's enough to remind me of John Maynard Keynes's statement that in the long run we are all dead. It's only human nature to value short-term survival over long-term sustainability and, on its face, the logic is impeccable.
But there's not really any question of whether the city will survive, only whether it will thrive in terms of its current conception of itself. The challenges that face that city are conceptually similar to the challenges that face higher education -- it's not about whether there will be a higher education sector in fifty years, because as knowledge and technology advance the demand for ever higher education will only grow. It's about whether the delivery mechanism for higher education, fifty years from now, will resemble in any significant way the loose-knit system of colleges and universities that keeps you and me gainfully employed. An inconvenient question, indeed.
An education system succeeds in economic terms when it advances knowledge and increases awareness, but more than that when it successfully replicates normed social behaviors and values. The cold, cruel truth of our current sustainability crisis is that normed social behaviors and -- even more -- values are what got us into this mess. Higher education can help lead modern society to a different equilibrium, but only if we're willing and able to make the benefits of, and the need for, valuing sustainability and acting on those values clear and immediate and imperative, at least in theory. Higher ed's (or, at least, much of higher ed's) reliance on concept before application can be turned to society's advantage. Reduction to practice can follow.
But before we can reshape values (much less behaviors), we need to get clear and honest and forthright about just what we need to be valuing, why we need to be valuing it, and what's destructive about what we've valued in the past. We need to make our definition of sustainabiity far less squishy, even if the specific vision of what we hope to achieve remains -- for now -- mostly in our heads.