• 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 - #8

It's not always about us.

October 31, 2013

A recent post to the Green Schools listserv asked whether sustainability folks at any other institution had good models for evaluating "triple bottom line" returns on investment.  The writer said his school wanted to consider environmental and social, as well as traditional economic, returns when evaluating projects.

But then he went on to list 8 or 10 different measures of economic return (ROI, IRR, net present value, simple payback, etc., etc., etc.) which proposed "triple bottom line" models had to address.  Which, to my mind indicated that while environmental and social factors might technically enter into decision processes, economic factors were still in first, second and third place.  In truth, I've never seen a purely economic project evaluation model which took into consideration all the various economic metrics this supposedly more-than-just-economic protocol seemed to be demanding.

All of which wouldn't be terribly interesting, except that it feels like a parallel to a more general pattern I've seen when folks talk about the sort of changes needed to achieve sustainability.  Even when the subject isn't expressed in economic terms, an underlying theme seems to be that the future is only of value if preserving it doesn't inconvenience us in the present.  And that the environment is only valuable to the extent that it provides resources and services which humans can utilize in the present.  And that society is only valuable if it doesn't impinge on almost-absolute individual freedom from responsibility in the present.  

I don't want to get all pop-psych about this, and I don't really believe it's a generational thing (although generational factors may aggravate it).  But I'm more and more convinced that one of the biggest challenges we face if American society is to become markedly less unsustainable is a pervasive sense of privilege.  Of being special.  Not in the politicized sense of "entitlement" (or, for that matter, "special"), but in the broader sense of humanity being the ultimate goal of biological evolution, and America being the ultimate goal of social evolution, and the current polarized income and power distributions being the ultimate goal of economic evolution.  It strikes me as Panglossianism gone wild.

There was another example of it on NPR today.  In the coverage of the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, several highly emotional minutes were spent covering the impact on Tangier Island, VA.  Not only was the town of Tangier evacuated, not only did it incur significant damage, but rising water levels and stronger tides are eroding the island away.  In places, fifteen feet of land is disappearing annually.  As things now stand, the island will have to be abandoned in a couple of decades, or even a couple of years.  The Tangier resident being interviewed told how the President and the Governor had promised funds for a sea wall to partially protect the island, and how appeals were being put together to fully encircle the island with a stormproof protective barrier.  At a cost of several billion dollars.  For a total population of fewer than 750 people.  So that the grandchildren of those people might have the opportunity to live "the Tangier lifestyle".  No sense of proportion.

I don't mean to pick on the residents of Tangier Island, particularly.  (In truth, I've enjoyed small doses of Eastern Shore life myself, and I understand the attachment.)  But a lack of sense of proportion pervades much of American society, and much of American higher education.  Universities teach lots of subject matter, covering lots of disciplines.  But what we don't seem to teach is a sense of proportion, or precedence, or priority.  Maslow's hierarchy (or any of its modern variants which you might prefer) is grist for introductory psychology classes, but its underlying truth isn't something we build into our curricula.  Each discipline is supreme within its own boundaries, and kneels before no other form of knowledge.  

We need to find a way to teach not Panglossianism, not triumphalism, not vainglory but humility.  I'm not sure how to do that in the classroom (personally, I picked up what little humility I exhibit in the woods and on the water -- if you think you're special, be aware that Mother Nature might have different ideas).  Maybe it's possible, if we rethink classroom instruction.  More likely, we need to get students out of the classroom for some significant portion of their undergraduate careers.  At a guess, half is too much.  On the other hand, a quarter might be too little.

There's wisdom in the old advice to walk humbly with your God.  Even, perhaps especially, if you spell it "Nature".


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