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  • Getting to Green

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

Why societal sustainability is hard
April 4, 2013 - 4:02pm

If the root cause of our sustainability problem set (not just climate change, but neither excluding climate change) is societal behavior patterns and the habits of thought that facilitate them, then there's no institution better positioned than higher ed to address the problem.  Yet, for practical purposes, we seem not to be doing so in any significant manner.  Most of the sustainability-related research of which I'm aware focuses on metrics ("how bad is the problem this week?"), mechanics ("how do these two elements of the problem seem to interact?") or technology ("how can we continue to do -- as much as possible -- what we've been doing, while decreasing the negative unintended consequences?").  The researchers, almost without exception, consider themselves to be seriously engaging with the problems at hand.  And, within the conventional mindset, they are.  But it's the conventional mindset that got us into this mess.

When I say "conventional mindset", I mean all those things that you and I and everyone around us know without even thinking.  It's the basis for that series of Art-Linkletter-with-attitude commercials for the iPhone 5 on AT&T.  The knowledge that has been inculcated into small children in our society, even if their attempts to explain are comical.  "Bigger is better than smaller".  "Faster is better than slower."  "More is better than less."  That kind of mindset.

There's nothing in the concept of "center of higher learning" which necessarily aligns with this mindset -- after all, the earliest centers of higher learning in Christendom weren't universities, they were monasteries.  But the truth, of course, is that universities of the current generation (and Greenback is by no means an exception) have made a Faustian bargain with "more is better".  We subsist, in large part, by playing into young people's desire for more, bigger, faster.  Colleges and universities aren't in the consumer hard goods business, but if the average North American family (teenagers included) were suddenly to lose its taste for hard goods, I suspect that most of our enrollment numbers would drop by an order of magnitude.  After all, it's getting hard enough to justify the all-in cost of a four-year degree (call it $100K at a state school, maybe $250K at a private one, your mileage may vary) based on increased net present value of the lifetime personal earnings stream in a society where most folks seriously aspire to increased future earnings.  How hard would it be if the average citizen instinctively preferred less, smaller and slower?  And that's not even to mention the likely impact on our various corporate funding streams.

Yet one of the throw-away lines on today's Diane Rehm show, in a segment about the current oversupply of law school graduates, was that survey data shows the happiest lawyers in America to be the ones earning the least money.  That may or may not be slower (in the sense of less job pressure), but it sure sounds a lot like smaller and less.

Achieving high levels of citizen satisfaction is critical for any society which styles itself democratic (or, at least, republican) to survive.  North American society (and, increasingly, societies around the world) rely largely on providing citizen/consumers with stuff to achieve that satisfaction, yet study after study shows that it's not truly effective.  The ever-increasing trend towards higher production, utilization and disposal of stuff presents a plethora of known and very serious problems.  Yet, most of us at colleges and universities that engage with issues of sustainability at all, engage it as an efficiency problem.  Or, at most, a technology problem (with "technology" fairly narrowly defined).  And if out institution is seriously engaged, we put up a new LEED Platinum building in which to conduct our efficient-techology research and education, raising as much of the money as we can from corporate donors, further cementing ourselves into the behavioral system based on more-is-better, and (unless we simultaneously retire some older, less efficiently operated research space) consequently increasing our institutional contribution to climate change.


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