• Getting to Green

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


Sustainability commandment #7

Obey speed limits, especially when you're not driving.

December 18, 2014

Don't use up any resource or capacity which has the ability to regenerate at a faster rate than regeneration occurs.

If you spend faster than you earn, financial trouble awaits.  If you eat faster than you burn calories, obesity and heart disease and diabetes and having to spend extra money for plus-sized clothing are all in your future.  An occasional instance of either behavior pattern doesn't spell disaster, but make a habit of either one and bad things happen.

As on a personal level, so it goes at global scale.  If, in aggregate, we use up the forests faster than they regrow, we'll experience lumber shortages -- look at what's happening to prices for tropical hardwoods, and why.  If, in aggregate, we discharge sewage into a stream or river at a rate higher than its natural cleansing processes can handle, we create a downstream opportunity for all sorts of nasty diseases.

The basic concept here is pretty simple: that there are definable limits beyond which any behavior, no matter how enjoyable or cost-efficient, becomes destructive.  It  used to be part of something known as "common sense", back when sense was much more common.  When I was  kid, my mother got catalogs from some sort of store that for  years sold replicas of an old poster depicting in the most dramatic terms the differing impacts of over- and under-spending one's personal income.  The whole idea of thrift was a commonplace before manufactured consensus, artificial consumption and easy debt paved the road to where we are now.

Living in moderation isn't something that need be taught in a context of sustainability, but it's something our students have to internalize if our society ever hopes to become sustainable.  Living immoderately (a term that clearly describes much of modern society, whether we consciously apply it or not) is, almost by definition, unsustainable.

If arts illuminate the human condition, then every art theory and history class offers a context for discussing moderation.  If the social sciences aim to improve human existence (not just our abstract understanding of it, but the experience itself), then every disciplinary introduction and history-of-thought class probably already touches on limits and tipping points.  Any quantitative modeling course will likely identify inflection points in behavior patterns, and thus provides an opportunity to discuss why and how those manifest themselves.  And so on.

Across the curriculum, we'll be doing our students a real-life favor if we help them to understand the nature of inherent limits and the costs -- to individuals, organizations, societies and the planet -- of consistently ignoring them.


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