• Getting to Green

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


Sustainability Commandment #1

A truth often ignored or tacitly contradicted in higher ed curricula.

October 16, 2014

If there are sustainability commandments, this has to be the first.

This is your planet, your home.  It’s the only one you’re ever going to have, so if you want to continue having it, you’ve got to take care of it.  Its resources and capacities are finite.  Demand more in the way of resources than it can supply, or exceed any of its various capacities on a continuing basis, and it won’t be your home for long.  The planet will survive, but you won’t.  And the planet won't care.

Not only is some version of the above the most pervasive truth behind the sustainability challenges now staring us in the face (whether or not we choose to look), it’s also the truth most often ignored or tacitly contradicted in most higher ed curricula.

A minor qualification, up front.  The statement, “the planet will survive, but you won’t,” doesn’t address any specific reader, nor the human race as a whole.  It doesn’t speak to a specific reader because in the long run no specific reader will survive, period – the whole mortality thing.  And it doesn’t speak to the human race entire because, in truth, we don’t know whether some minor fraction of humanity will manage to hold on to some perilous form of existence under even the worst imaginable circumstances.  Rather, it speaks to the bulk of humanity, the average person, society as we know it or any reasonable facsimile thereof.

This fundamental truth of a single, finite planet is tacitly contradicted in most economics and management courses, the obvious exception being courses themed around risk.  That the fact of a finite environment in which all economic activity unavoidably occurs is treated as a risk lies at the heart of the problem.  Finite reality is not a risk.  Finite reality is a certainty. Whether taking a particular course of action will slam the active party into some specific system constraint or merely edge humanity as a whole nearer to some unseen precipice isn’t the issue.  Every intentional action, especially those intended to operate at a large scale, needs to be addressed with constant attention to the fact of a constrained physical and ecological environment.  Every action has consequences; large-scale actions have large-scale consequences; the reason negative unintended consequences are so common is because decision-makers never seriously ask themselves what results (beyond the desired increase in market share, etc.) are likely to occur; the reason decision-makers often don’t guard against unintended consequences is because the decision models they use (and which, at least in part, they were taught) don’t factor in constrained reality.

None of which, of course, is to say that decisions and actions taken in full awareness of environmental constraints necessarily go well for all affected.  Awareness of constraints is necessary, not inherently sufficient.  Still, it’s something that we should be teaching the next generation of business leaders about and, as a rule, we’re not.

I don’t mean to lay the entire blame for our current raft of sustainability crises at the doors of business schools.  Part of the reason businesses treat the planet as if it were infinite is that many people – in my experience, particularly economically comfortable people in cultures we categorize as “developed” or “Western” – tacitly assume infinitude.  If we want our business schools to teach, and our societal organs to operate on, any other assumption, we’ll need to teach it more or less across the curriculum.  Rather than replicating a social expectation of endless abundance, we as educators need to create an awareness of limits and a willingness to prioritize needs and wants.  To that end, a very incomplete list of disciplines in, and topics regarding, which ecological constraints should probably enter the general discourse:

  1. Religion, folklore and culture.  By what myths does any given society operate?  How and when did those particular myths take hold?  What other myths preceded (and lost out to) them?  Why?  How do currently operative myths shape society’s interaction with its biophysical environment?  Previously operative myths?  What have been some effects of the shift, and what does that tell us about ourselves?
  2. Society and history with a particular emphasis on war, conflict and colonialism.  What priorities do various societies pursue?  How has that changed over time?  Why?  What triggers conflicts between adjacent or competing societies?  Within societies?  What happens when societies encounter local resource constraints?  Capacity constraints?  What does modern society’s manifest willingness to engage in colonialism (military, political, cultural and economic) and all the evil it entails tell us about ourselves?
  3. Geography, regional studies, ethnic studies and the humanities.  What specific constraints affect people, both individually and collectively, in differing locations and situations?  To what extent are local customs, expectations and thought/language patterns rooted in local experiences and conditions?  For example, is American optimism rooted in a (long-lived, but still temporary) cultural experience of abundant land and other natural resources?  If not, in what?
  4. Biology, biochemistry and nutrition.  What are the relationships between organisms and their surrounding ecosystems?  How do those express themselves over centuries and eons?  How do they express themselves in the short term?  Individual organisms/entities are systems with constraints.  Ecosystems have constraints.  How do the two sets of constraints interact?  How much of a driver is that on an individual or a systemic level?
  5. Political science, sociology and political economy (the discipline that dare not speak its name on many campuses).  What do we want our social organs to accomplish for us?  Are they structured to be able to do that?  Are they operating based on a set of assumptions which facilitates or debilitates their doing that?  How do they change over time, and how is the rate/direction of change determined?  Are they responsive to biophysical reality?  To the aspirations of society as a whole (however that might be determined)?  To the wants of a social subset or elite?  What reward systems does society create for itself, and to what end?  To what extent are reward systems embedded in, and thus disguised by, social mechanics?  How did those mechanics come to be, and are they still functioning as intended?  As currently desired?  By whom?

It’s a radical agenda, I know.  Honestly, if it were complete it would probably appear even more radical than it currently does.  But the reason it’s radical is simple – our society, and the education system which constantly replicates it (while keeping us all employed) operates on the tacit assumption that ecological conditions like the availability of clean water, fertile soil, healthy fish, abundant crops, breathable air, amicable climate, controllable pathogens, etc., etc. can safely be assumed as continuing indefinitely unless and until some immediate crisis tells us otherwise.  We, as a society, are killing ourselves by our own arrogance.  We need to teach ourselves to walk humbly on the only planet we’ll ever have.


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G. Rendell

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