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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.

Antidisciplinarianism
May 9, 2008 - 4:24pm

Related to the subject of Wednesday's post (Eliminate the what?), an interesting thread started up today on the Green School List (GRNSCH-L@listserv.brown.edu). Anne Mareck, who teaches at Michigan Tech on the subjects of rhetoric and technology (interesting combination, and directly relevant) commented that most of the sustainability coordinator positions posted to the list seemed to be looking for folks with a scientific background. Mareck commented that she found communications and leadership skills far more useful in sustainability work than would be any particular scientific expertise. Within an hour, a handful of other folks (an unusually rapid response for this particular list) had chimed in with agreement. Ability to be effective as an organizational change agent is more critical than any disciplinary credential.

In fact, I'd take that a step farther. Not only is disciplinary expertise not a requirement for campus sustainability work, it's almost a disadvantage. In my heart of hearts, I'm convinced that the disciplinary model -- the way Western civilization organizes knowledge -- is a large part of what got us into this mess in the first place. If the economists hadn't been teaching business folk to externalize every cost possible, we wouldn't be in this mess. If the engineering fields weren't split into so many different specialties, we wouldn't have buildings that consume so much energy. Put business and engineering together, and you get the US transportation 'system' with its attendant urban sprawl.

I think it was the operations research expert Russell Ackoff who said that "things are the way they are because they got that way," meaning that each step in the decision process which led us to our current situation was taken because, at the time and under the circumstances, it seemed to make sense. The problem is that "sense" is defined by our conceptual models; differing disciplines have differing conceptual models. Thinking across disciplines is a challenge, so most folks don't do it.

What's gotten us into this mess is the fact that we've been optimizing all our social and economic processes only locally -- within the bounds established by how we envision reality. Those bounds are what lead our elected officials (at least at the federal level) to value economic prosperity above ecological subsistence. What we've been doing is thinking largely within disciplinarily-defined conceptual models. If we keep doing what we've been doing, ...

In a sense, this is why higher education has a special responsibility to lead the way to sustainable processes, sustainable culture, sustainable societies. We're the industry which directly embodies (a very few small, classic, liberal arts colleges aside) the disciplinary model of knowledge. We passed this model on to our alumni, who have embedded it into the larger social paradigm. Sustainability requires multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary, almost counter-disciplinary thinking. We need to figure out how to be the change we know we need to see in the world.

 

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