• Getting to Green

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


Sustainability's not a subject

Even students and faculty who promote sustainability may not understand what it is.

October 9, 2014

A correspondent recently drew my attention to an article from a venerable student-run newspaper.  We were having a conversation about how best to include issues of sustainability into university strategic planning processes.  My interlocutor intended the article to demonstrate the differing cultures between faculty and student bodies, and how those cultures could be expected to clash during strategic planning discussions.

What caught my wayward eye, however, was a comment attributed to a chemistry professor after, as I understand things, culture clash had already occurred.  In words I read to be both conciliatory and supportive (while, I'm sure, also in line with his personal priorities), this professor "said students could explore sustainability, as well as other academic interests, if the university established an office where undergraduates could apply for research grants and learn how to write proposals."

That comment was made by one professor, in one discussion, on one campus.  But to my mind it's emblematic of a basic misunderstanding of the concept of sustainability that's typical of academe at large.

Sustainability isn't a disciplinary subject like Eastern European Literature, or Biochemistry, or Journalism.  If it's a subject at all, it's more akin to Philosophy, or perhaps Theology.  Philosophy -- truth, and the study thereof -- must undergird academic work regardless of disciplinary focus.  That's (of course) why the terminal degree in so many disciplines is a PhD.  Until the middle of the 20th Century, American colleges and universities also attempted to inculcate virtue into their graduates; theology, for many schools, was as important as -- indeed, provided a grounding for --  philosophy in its various guises.

Sustainability resembles philosophy and theology in the sense that if you're not teaching it, you're teaching against it.  If teaching doesn't demonstrate truth, it enables/encourages/facilitates untruth.  If teaching doesn't demonstrate virtue, it paves the way for amorality, if not vice.  If teaching doesn't demonstrate sustainability, it tends (certainly, in our current socio-politico-economic environment) to encourage unsustainable behaviors.

Sustainability isn't a disciplinary subject.  It's a set of principles which can be addressed, interrogated, and taught or untaught within the context of virtually any disciplinary subject.  It can really only be researched and understood by following a trans-disciplinary approach.  It's this truth that I believe (and if I'm wrong, I'll certainly apologize) the chemistry professor failed to grasp when he made it one of a set of interests for potential future student research.

The difficulty with sets of guiding principles, of course, is that for them to be truly effective, they need to be deeply imbued with a society and its members.  One current set of guiding principles in this country is rarely spoken except by self-proclaimed Objectivists, and might (in the worst possible light) be boiled down to "get as much as you can, as fast as you can, and then make sure you hold onto it".  But a broader set, a more profound set, and historically a more deeply influential set can be said to exist within the (various versions of the) Ten Commandments.

Were it not for the Ten Commandments (and a lot of pages that followed and expanded on them), Theology certainly would not exist as we currently know it.  Perhaps Sustainability can't pervade education until its principles are expressed in something like ten commandments.  Without pretending to any godlike or Mosaic qualities at all (rather the opposite), I hope to pull together a deeply flawed first draft of what such a list might contain.  When it's more or less complete (at the Version 0.1 level), maybe it will help folks (chemistry and other disciplinary professors among them) to grok sustainability.


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