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

Why "societal" matters
March 28, 2013 - 6:46pm

My previous post explained how a portion of the sustainability community is coming to view our challenge not primarily as an environmental issue but as a societal one.  The difference is far more significant than just its effect on the wording we use in our job descriptions and performance reviews -- it fundamentally reshapes the relationship between higher education and issues of sustainability, and vastly expands higher ed's capacity to address the problem.  Let me try to explain.

If sustainability were an environmental issue -- if some exogenous change were affecting the biosphere in a manner inimical to our ability to survive -- the best way for higher ed to address that problem would be to perform research, to share what we'd learned, to prepare more and better researchers to get involved, to analyze the results, to identify points of potential leverage in the malfunctioning (from a human perspective) systems, to posit and test possible intervention techniques which might move things back to a more comfortable equilibrium.  In broad terms, that's pretty much what we (and other institutions, of course) have done.  And while we've generated quite a volume of additional knowledge (just one more example here), our efforts have engendered remarkably little (damn near zero) in the way of problem reduction.

Were climate change truly an environmental problem, it might fall into one of four basic categories:

  • Something's going on, but we don't know what it is
  • We know what's going on, but we don't know how
  • We know what's going on and how, but we don't know why
  • We understand what's going on, how and why it's happening, but we don't know how to stop/affect it

The current issue of climate change falls into none of those characterizations.  We know what's going on, we know how and why it's happening, and we know how to stop it.  We know how to (at least) significantly reduce it without major negative impact on human quality of life, human quality of society, human culture (I'm not comfortable speaking of "quality of culture" -- that gets a little too universalistic in the most imperialist way).

The current issue of climate change is that we know all that stuff, and we (or, at least, enough of us to matter) refuse to act on it.  Predominantly in North America, we refuse to give credence to what we know.  The majority of our population -- of our society -- exhibits various forms and levels of denial.  We're even in denial about the fact that we're in denial (although, of course, that probably goes without saying.)

And maybe that's the good news.

If climate change -- not sustainability as a whole, just the climate change element of it -- were truly an environmental problem, the only colleges and universities which could significantly contribute to solving it would be the polytechnics and land grant schools with a strong emphasis on science.  There wouldn't be much to do for the schools whose strengths lie in classics or arts or humanities or social sciences or most professions.  But, since climate change is at its root a societal problem, all of a sudden there's grist for each and every one of those academic mills.  The question no longer has to do with how various gases behave at various concentrations and various altitudes in the presence of a particular mix of radiated energy, it now has to do with societal behaviors.  And the societal characteristics which allow, facilitate, even reinforce those behaviors.  And how and why those characteristics came to dominance.  And what alternative characteristics might be.  And how we (society, societies) might (semi-)consciously choose a preferable alternate set of characteristics.  And how to get there from here.

Clarifying the root cause of climate change as a societal, rather than an environmental, problem means that every institution of higher ed from the largest land grant university to the smallest liberal arts college (indeed, perhaps the small liberal arts colleges most of all) has a major stake in helping to address the issue.  Why is our society behaving in this eventually suicidal manner?  Why don't we take meaningful notice of the track we're on, and the destination to which we're headed with ever-increasing acceleration?  And what is it about North American society that makes these behaviors especially manifest on this continent?

An insightful critical analysis is a joy forever.  And, in this case, it might even be the determinant of how long "forever" lasts.


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