• Getting to Green

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


Teaching sustainability in 21st Century America - #2

A second general criterion, applicable across disciplines.

July 15, 2013

Part of the reason it's so difficult to teach sustainability in colleges and universities is that by the time students arrive on campus they've already fully internalized a lot of unsustainable societal norms.  Ironically, one of those is that society, as an entity, doesn't exist.

The overarching theme that, as the unlamented Mrs. Thatcher once put it, "You know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families", is implicit in much modern discourse.  It's certainly prominent in American politics, neoliberal economics, much Protestant theology.  It's at the heart of consumerism, and of the increasingly common perspective that education (higher education for now, but just wait . . . ) is a private, rather than a public, good.

Of course, Mrs. Thatcher made her statement (as all of her other statements) in English.  And the very existence of English (or any other spoken language, for that matter) is proof positive of the existence of society.  Anyone who disagrees can prove me wrong by identifying, concisely and comprehensively, the individual men, women and families who created and evolved any given native tongue.

Radical individualism isn't consistent with sustainability.  Radical individualism centers on dog-eat-dog competition for a bigger piece of the pie, without regard to whether the pie is growing or shrinking.  Sustainability requires making sure there's enough pie for everybody -- not necessarily an equal amount for each person, but a general sufficiency.  Sustainability isn't about whether I have more than you do, or vice versa.

I'd think that the existence and the importance of society as an entity would be an amicable theme in a large number of disciplines.  Not physics or chemistry, perhaps.  But all the social sciences, most of the humanities, many pre-professional studies.  History didn't happen to individuals, it happened to all of us more or less at the same time.  The economy seems to work best not just when there's a rising tide, but when a large share of the populace actually has boats (at least metaphorically -- more on that one, later).  Morbidity rates go down more from improvements in public health than in individual therapy.  The arts are (I think) best supported when there's a general sense of social well-being.  Politics in a republic is supposedly about the good of the whole, not of specific individuals (although I have a hard time thinking of a specific case where that's been true, of late).  Et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.

As with guiding students to consider the long view -- counter to the siren song of immediate gratification -- focusing on the good of society has to be done explicitly and consistently.  At any given moment, in any given interaction, if we're not countering the tacit neoliberal individualist message, we're reinforcing it by acquiescing to it. 

At the end of the day, any particular society may or may not be sustainable.  But no individual ever is.


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top