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  • Getting to Green

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

I really wish I'd said that
January 17, 2013 - 6:01pm

I'm still struggling with whether (how) the teaching power of stories can be used to change people's beliefs and expectations about sustainability.  However, in the process of the research which is part of pretty much any struggle I undertake, I came upon a two-sentence passage that's simply too close to perfect not to share.  In a heartbeat, it conveys the essence of what a successful story-telling strategem must accomplish -- not how to do it by any means, but how to tell if it's been successful.

The sentences begin the afterword of Thomas Prugh's Natural Capital and Human Economic Survival (2E).  And here they are:

Our culture holds several beliefs that are probably unsustainable.  To one degree or another, most of us accept that fulfillment lies in acquiring things, that perpetual economic growth is both normal and the answer to all social problems, that other species and natural capital in general are simply ours for the taking rather than elements of a shared ecology, and that technology will save us from the need to make moral choices about wealth and poverty.

I said that the passage was "close to perfect", not that it's perfect.  For example, I'd quibble with the work "probably" in the first sentence.  In its place, I'd substitute something to the effect that these beliefs enable us to indulge in a whole series of behaviors -- individual and collective -- the unintended consequences of which render our current practices unsustainable.  (To split a hair, I've met too many people who truly believe too much absolute craziness to ever say that any belief -- in and of itself -- can't be sustained by someone, apparently forever.)

Quibbles aside, though, I'd say that Prugh's list pretty much nails the key elements of the social narrative which has gotten us into our current mess.  Which is to say that these are the elements of the dominant paradigm which must be engaged if education is to address sustainability in practical terms.

Prugh's book is heavily based on earlier (and more traditionally academic) writings in ecological economics -- the work of folks like Robert Costanza and Herman Daly, particularly.  While I find their arguments personally convincing, I'm not ready to say that any sustainability educational experience which doesn't totally agree with their conclusions is a failure.  And I'll be the first one to acknowledge that these are tenets of our civil religion that colleges and universities -- particularly institutions dependent for their survival on government or corporate funding (direct or indirect), or on tuition from folks desirous of earning a livelihood in the things-acquisition-fulfillment arena -- will find it uncomfortable to challenge.

Still, I'm confident in drawing this line in the sand: any post-secondary educational undertaking which purports to be about sustainability yet fails to engage the cultural beliefs on Prugh's list is incapable of success.


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