Subscribers to the Green Schools Listserv recently got invited to participate in a sustainability survey. And while the opportunity to fill out yet another fool survey is not generally attractive, this one was from a grad student at Erasmus U in Rotterdam. I have a soft spot for Rotterday (Frau R says I have a lot of soft spots, mostly north of my neck), so I decided to give it a go. I'm glad I did.
The first 80% of the survey instrument was pretty humdrum. Not precisely the same old questions (has your school signed the Presidents Climate Commitment? What percentage of your solid waste stream gets diverted from landfills?), but nothing particularly interesting, either.
Then, toward the end, my ears began to perk up. Paraphrasing: "On what basis does your school make project decisions relating to environmental sustainability?" The options given were cultural, ecological and financial. For Greenback (as for a lot of other US colleges and universities), the only possible answer at the moment is 'financial'. But most surveys don't think to ask.
And then came the simple little question that got my mind to thinking (in spite of all inducements to the contrary): "Does your school's approach to environmental sustainability address it as a technological or a cultural problem?" (Again, I paraphrase. I took the English version of the survey, and English clearly wasn't the author's first language.)
Technological. Clearly, technological. Even though most of Greenback U's strongest academic departments focus more on culture than on technology, the vast majority of our campus community sees technology (fossil fuel consumption) as the root of the sustainability (meaning, climate change) problem, and technology (some other way of generating energy) as the solution. Similarly, if we expand the definition of "environmental sustainability problem" to include resource depletion, ocean acidification, species extinction, etc., we still tend to frame sustainability as a technological problem (how we do what we do) rather than as a cultural issue (why we do it that way, or why we do so much of it, or why we do it at all).
But maybe that means it's a cultural problem. Maybe we're culturally programmed to see all challenges and difficulties as technological problems on the basis that they can't possibly be anything else. If we can't ideate, much less appreciate, any significantly different culture, how can the problems of your world be anything but technological?
So while we're addressing environmental sustainability as a technological problem, I'm beginning to think that the reason we do that hinges on a cultural problem. And that's even before framing environmental unsustainability as a direct result of economic unsustainability which is a key element of socio-political unsustainability.
See what fun filling out surveys can be?