• Getting to Green

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


What comes after sustainability?

Schools are beginning to feel like they've got sustainability down by this point.  They're wrong.  But perhaps inside the challenge lurks an opportunity.

September 25, 2014

There's been a bit of discussion on the Green School List <grnsch-l@listserv.brown.edu> about how faculty demand for guest sustainability lecturers seems to be ebbing.  Whether those guest presenters are staff or students or even other faculty members doesn't seem to matter much.  A lot of professors, regardless of discipline, seem to be forming the impression that anybody who cares already "gets it" -- already understands what sustainability is and what we all need to do.  So why devote precious class time to something everyone already knows?

The sad fact, of course, is that few if any faculty members fully understand the range of sustainability challenges facing modern society, much less the structural features of that society responsible for those challenges.  "Sustainability" has been equated with "climate change" on too many campuses.  As a result, the 'sustainability solution' has been perceived as reduced greenhouse gas emissions, resulting from decreased combustion of fossil fuels.  Most institutional sustainability strategies, thus, focus on energy efficiency uber alles​.  Some of the most ardent faculty sustainability advocates I know tell their students that, in the end, it all boils down to energy.  Which, I guess, is true in an abstract sense, but only if you get down to the entire universe consisting of only mass and energy and the human race really doing very little to create or destroy mass.  At a more Newtonian level, it's energy/physics, but it's also biology and chemistry and epidemiology and geology and hydrology and a bunch of other subjects, all as they're affected by economic, political and social systems.  Maybe there's a college or university out there that's telling the full story to all its students but, if so, I've yet to learn of it.

A couple of interesting side notes, however, came out of the discussion.  One is that an increasing number of junior faculty (you know, the ones who haven't yet been fully co-opted by their professional associations) are finding ways to engage in trans-disciplinary scholarship.  Trans-disciplinarity is key to understanding, educating on, dealing with sustainability challenges.  Conceptually, if you think of disciplines as silos (a common metaphor), then all those silos are grouped next to one another on any given campus.  Which means that the longitudinal axes of those silos (on real farms, it runs vertically) are all parallel.  Trans-disciplinary scholarship is work that addresses issues, asks questions, identifies causalities and (potentially) proposes solutions that cut across the silos -- that run orthogonal to disciplines.  Kind of like, you know, things that happen in the real world.  Not the kind of scholarship most tenure committees want to see, of course, but maybe that's changing a bit.

Another comment that piqued my interest had to do with educating medical students.  Until recently, at least according to one commenter, the term "climate change" was unwelcome in some respected med schools.  The attitude seemed to be that treatment of disease, be it infectious or chronic, was pretty much the same regardless of the climate or changes therein.  But recently, it sounds like there's a willingness to admit that shifts in climate -- be they changes in temperature or humidity or even wind speed -- can contribute to public health problems and personal health problems.  An unfamiliar mix of insults compounded by physical and emotional stresses.  A patient is what (s)he eats, but also what (s)he does and where (s)he lives, with all that each of those implies.

There's no generally accepted definition of sustainability within American higher education.  The closest thing to a consensus definition (meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs) comes from the Brundtland Commission, but that apparent consensus breaks down immediately if you just ask people what the words mean and what the obvious implications of those words are.  As a result, each campus which has attempted to address sustainability issues has ended up addressing a slightly different mix or flavor of sustainability.  Like chocolate or coffee or good Scotch whisky, all sustainability definitions have some features and elements in common.  But, like all the above, there are always subtle differences.

The good news, I guess, is that because each school has started from a slightly different perspective on sustainability, each can now adopt some aspect of what another institution has done as it undertakes to address whatever, for it, comes next.  Which isn't anything beyond the actual topic of what allows a society to sustain itself, but still allows some novelty to enter each conversation.  And which may help regenerate some demand for guest lecturers.  

Or, at least, one can hope.


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