• 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

The first of several general criteria for sustainability-promoting course materials.

July 9, 2013

Much of the work I do focuses on making Greenback U's campus operations less wasteful, more efficient, and thus ostensibly more (closer to) sustainable.  But like any college or university anywhere in the world, Greenback's ultimate contribution to the eventual fate of society will consist less in what we do than in what we teach.  Knowing that, many schools have encouraged -- by various mechanisms -- the development and presentation of specifically sustainability-focused or -related curricular materials.  And while explicitly teaching sustainability concepts and techniques is hard to object to, by itself that won't solve any problem.  

Two maxims on which I've relied for decades hold sway in the teaching of sustainability, as in the teaching of most anything.  The first is that as a teacher, a trainer, a parent, any sort of authority figure, you're always teaching; the only question is whether you're teaching something you want the student to learn.  The second (and it overlaps significantly with the first, especially in the realm of social challenges/paradigms) is that if you're not teaching/promoting/enforcing the solution, then you're teaching/enabling/reinforcing the problem.  

If those maxims truly apply to higher education as a process and sustainability as a challenge, then it seems likely that the vast majority of courses taught on Greenback's campus -- as everywhere else -- at least tacitly reinforce paradigms, norms, expectations that are contributing to the problem.  Not that most professors somehow want to do that, by any means.  But professors, like parents, teach what they've learned, and most of that learning has gone on in -- and thus tacitly assumes -- the precise social, political and economic environment that got us into this mess.

Even I'm not egotistical enough to think that I can lay out rules or requirements for sustainability-friendly course materials across the college curriculum; in many of the disciplines offered at Greenback, I've never taken a single course.  So the most I can hope to do is suggest broad general characteristics that sustainability-friendly course materials might exhibit, or perspectives they might enforce.  Counting the topics I just listed on the back of an envelope, there might be as many as ten of these.  Probably, by the time I finish, more like six or eight.

So, on that basis:


Reading some of Andy Schmookler's work recently led me to a piece by Paul Kennedy, published in the New York Review of Books on June 28, 1990.  It's titled Fin-de-Siécle America, and focuses on then-current publications by Henry Nau, Richard Rosencrance, John Chancellor and Joseph Nye.  Part of what attracted me to the piece was its broad cultural theme, combined with its appearance at more or less the time that climate change effectively became a political -- rather than a scientific -- issue in this country.  An extended quote appearing late in the review grabbed my attention; I think it provides the germ of a criterion for whether course materials across the curriculum (not just in science or engineering or management) are truly sustainability-related.

Getting the concept of sustainability into the broad curriculum -- not just selected disciplinary silos thereof -- is proving the most difficult part of most institutions' efforts to educate for sustainability.  Lots of schools have implemented initiatives to conserve energy and reduce wastes of various sorts, but with the exception of a few SLACs, none that I know of can truly claim to make sustainability part of every student's educational experience (one requirement of the American College and University President's Climate Commitment, and logically necessary if higher education has any hope of exerting a measurable positive influence in this area).

The passage in question comes from Jacques Attali, the first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (among many other accomplishments).  Writing only a couple of months before Kennedy's piece, Attali comments on the decline of the American role in the world economy; on the crumbling of US education, health care and physical infrastructure; and on this country's functional subservience to its principal economic rival (then Japan, now China).  While he doesn't ascribe these maladies to a singular cause, he does state that each of them is unlikely to be reversed (as, indeed, they haven't in over 20 years) due to the "fundamental cultural ethos which has come to dominate late 20th-century America: the cult of the immediate."

Combined with -- perhaps driven by -- neoliberal economic doctrine, a cultural emphasis on undeferred reward/enjoyment seems both pervasive and antithetical to any appreciation of the benefits of sustainability.  The willingness to defer gratification was once touted as a key characteristic of a rising middle class; perhaps a seeming reduction in that willingness (with the possible exception of college students embarking on a lifetime of debt servitude) correlates meaningfully with the current decline of that same middle class.  But willingness to defer gratification depends on an ability to take a long-term view of life, and of reality in general.  Much curricular material influences the development of this ability one way or another, although most of that influence is conveyed implicitly.

Business courses can emphasize first-to-market profits or long-term value.  Entrepreneurship programs might focus on creating the next web-based "killer app" or long-term customer relationships.  Political science departments may emphasize how to win an election or what the long-term social impacts of an electoral strategy might be.  Engineering courses can emphasize efficiency (even if it's short-lived) or robustness and resilience.  Humanities courses . . . I don't really know.  

What I do know is that whatever timeframe we as teachers implicitly endorse, we encourage in areas of thought extending beyond disciplinary boundaries.  In teaching our students how to think, we can't help but influence what they think on a broad range of subjects.

So a first general criterion for judging the sustainability-friendliness of a set of course material might be whether it somehow -- explicitly or (better) implicitly -- encourages students to take the long view of whatever topic the course centers on.  Assuming that current social, economic and political paradigms foreground the immediate, any syllabus that doesn't intentionally force students beyond a short-term perspective just reinforces the problem.  Of course, the good news is that any syllabus that does encourage students to take a long view thereby contributes to the solution.



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