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    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 - #8b
November 21, 2013 - 8:08pm

In real life, significant problems that can be successfully addressed by knowledge falling within a single academic discipline rarely (never?) occur.  Indeed, a large part of the explanation behind the "law of unintended consequences" lies in our (Western society's) tendency to address problems from single-disciplinary perspectives.  Whenever we do that, the good results predicted by the knowledge base of the discipline we favor may well occur, and yet be offset (in part, in whole, or overwhelmed) by factors more in the realm of disciplines we failed to consider.

Problems of unsustainability are, almost by definition, outcomes of the law of unintended consequences.  We intended to power a vast industrial society, and unintentionally unbalanced the climate.  We intended to raise more food for more people by use of fertilizer, and unintentionally killed off many fisheries.  We intended to raise more crops by means of deep well irrigation, and unintentionally turned our arable land into desert.  Reality is what happened while we were making other plans.

If we're truly to educate students who will be able to consider, much less address, issues of unsustainability, we need to present them with opportunities to place multiple disciplines into some form of discourse.  The sustainability problems we face weren't created entirely because society favored the wrong discipline (although that was part of the root cause).  Sustainability problems have been created, in large part, because of our tendency to favor single-discipline decision processes, almost irrespective of what discipline was being favored at the moment.

So my current aspiration is to present large numbers of Greenback students (particularly our undergraduate students, for whom it's not yet too late) with opportunities to engage with representatives of multiple disciplines, each representing her/his own home department, and none of them able to offer a comprehensive (or otherwise clearly optimal) solution to any real world problem.  I don't know how to do that.  There seem to be a number of options, none of them a clear winner (which is a tad ironic, if you think about it).

  • Perhaps I could promote a variety of interdisciplinary courses, taught by professors from multiple (most often, two) departments, with title along the lines of "Economy and Ecology in Dialogue".  The downsides, of course, involve the facts that enrollments will be limited, multiple departments will need to approve syllabi and split enrollment dollars, courses will (typically) need to be a semester long, and it seems likely to be two years (at least) before the first such course can hit the ground.
  • Perhaps I could instigate a series of trans-disciplinary symposia, each focused on a particular set of sustainability challenges, inviting representatives of numerous relevant Greenback departments (or even professors from other institutions) to engage in public discourse.  The downside is that each such symposium requires significant effort and funding to organize, so it's probably not realistic to aspire to more than one symposium per semester.  Student attendance will be limited, public notice even more so, it seems an inefficient use of time and money.
  • Perhaps I could work with the Greenback Student Union to organize a series of debates, somewhat similar to the "King and Country debate" conducted by the Oxford Union in 1933, around issues of unsustainable behaviors but with representatives of various disciplines arguing for opposing sides of the question.  (In some cases, the same discipline might offer arguments both for and against.)  Such debates might be easier and less expensive to organize than symposia, attract more student attention (by being more entertaining and less academic), and also generate some attention from the Backboro public media.  The obvious disadvantage of such debates would be that, if a particular discipline appears too often on the losing side, I'll have made some long-term enemies on campus (something I've been actively avoiding, to date).  I suspect there are other downsides as well, but they're less obvious to me.
  • Or maybe I could organize something along the lines of the "Life Raft Debates" held annually by the University of Montevallo.  The life raft metaphor offers an opportunity to posit a wide range of post-apocalyptic scenarios triggered by a range of sustainability failures; the format of the debates (multiple departments/disciplines competing for a the sole remaining seat on a life raft) presupposes that almost all participants won't end up winning, so losing -- even repeated losing -- shouldn't trigger any significant degree of resentment.  It should be possible to generate a significant degree of student attention, and buzz, at a modest expenditure of time and treasure.  

I'm sure there are other ways to foment interdisciplinary discourse around issues of sustainability.  The debate formats seem to offer some practical advantages over courses and symposia, even if (or perhaps because) they're less traditionally academic in flavor.  After all, traditional academic flavoring (doesn't that sound zipless?) is a large part of what got us into this mess in the first place.

Other thoughts?


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