• Getting to Green

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


Social sustainability

Dave Newport has a really good (if really long) blog post here.  His underlying question, to over-simplify, is how we can make the campus sustainability more about people and less about the environment.

February 14, 2012

Dave Newport has a really good (if really long) blog post here.  His underlying question, to over-simplify, is how we can make the campus sustainability more about people and less about the environment.

On the way to asking that question, Dave notes that one of the weaknesses of the traditional (to date) eco-focus of campus sustainability efforts is that we have a great vision of the nightmare of unsustainability, but no explicit vision of the dream of sustainability itself.  No positive picture of what a sustainable society might look like.  And while in terms of recently articulated visions he's right, I do have an ancient and imperfect expression of such a vision to suggest.  William Morris's News from Nowhere is dated, a bit saccharine, and unabashedly utopian, but in broad terms I'd say it's pretty much on the mark.  It's dated-ness stems from the fact that it was written just as the industrial revolution was shifting into overdrive.  On the other hand, if we want to envision a world where that revolution has largely been reversed, a relatively easy starting point might be an imaginary society in which it never really took hold.

I doubt that Morris's book will ever become widely-assigned reading on campuses, however, because it's far from complimentary about higher education as we know it.  In that regard, it's similar to Jim Kunstler's more recent (if more dystopian) novel World Made by Hand.  On the other hand, if we really expect a society dominated by industrial (broadly defined) corporations to be able to consider eliminating the ill effects of industrial (broadly defined) corporations as we have known them, maybe we in higher ed should be willing openly to consider addressing the ill effects of higher ed as we have known it.

Beyond that, it strikes me that Dave's recognition that the sustainability movement needs to focus more on the social synchs with my own realization that "sustainability", in any practical human sense, applies only to social entities.  I've been thinking about how best to go forward based on that realization, and I have to admit that courses of action in a strictly campus context seem pretty limited.  Some opportunities exist around the identity of Greenback U and its population of students/faculty/alumni/benefactors.  But, by and large, it appears to me that opportunities in the surrounding community far exceed those on campus, largely because people's involvement in the surrounding community tends to be of longer duration than people's (especially students', but also faculty's) active involvement on campus.

Which isn't to say that I'm going to shift my efforts from organizing and supporting sustainability-focused student groups to promoting sustainability-focused citizens' groups.  Trying to go out and sell sustainability in the Backboro area at large would take more resources and more energy than Greenback is willing to pay me to expend.  (Also, probably more than I have to expend.  A man's got to know his limitations.) 

Rather, it will probably be more productive to promote the formation and growth of local civic groups of a "mutual aid" flavor.  Groups which, once established, will tend to prosper and grow because their individual members clearly benefit by belonging to them.  Groups which will, simply by their self-interested operation, foster feelings and bonds of community.  Groups that will soften the corrosive culture of individualism -- at least for a few -- and, thus, set the stage for at least local consideration of longer-term impacts like sustainability.  Something along the lines of Saul Alinsky meets Peter Kropotkin.  (Although I'll probably leave my red and black flag furled and in the closet.)


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