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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.

Time and spaces
May 10, 2011 - 5:30pm

One of the patterns I noticed while investigating sustainability-related academic programs at various institutions was that many of them seem to be offered by, or at least in conjunction with, departments of geography. That is, when the institution happens to have a department of geography.

Now, I've always thought of geography as the study of (one or more elements of) space near the surface of the planet. But the more I learn about that discipline, the more I understand that one of its primary foci is the relationship between humanity and the environment. That being true, the offering of at least environmental sustainability education through geography departments began to seem logical.

But then, I made a mistake. I started reading "Open the Social Sciences; the report of the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences." And while geography is left pretty much to the side of its discussion, poring through that chapbook gave me a new way of thinking about how academic disciplines address various scales of time. At least in pencil, I started conceptualizing a five-part model:

  • Geologic time, measured in hundreds of (?) millions of years, relevant to formation of stone, and earth (small "e"), and continents
  • Biologic time, measured in millions (?) of years, relevant to evolution of life forms
  • Geographic time, measured in thousands of years, relevant to broad societal responses to continents, life forms, and other elements of the environment
  • Social time, measured in centuries and decades, relevant to the evolution of specific social, economic and political systems
  • Historic time, measured in years, relevant to individuals and events

Now I might well be missing a level (and its attendant discipline), but for the levels I've got, I think the orders of chronological magnitude are about right. And I'm starting to like a number of aspects of this model, even in its current rough-cut form:

  1. Implicitly, it puts history within society and society within geography, and geography within a geological and biological context.
  2. It helps point out that individuals and events operate within a broader context which shapes both the range of options available and the way in which all of us interpret things.
  3. It, thus, sets the stage for a discussion of "path determinacy", that is, the reasons it's very hard to go back to where you were once you aren't (or society isn't) there any more.
  4. It facilitates the framing of sustainability problems as the natural outcome of efforts within shorter timeframes to ignore constraints and effects which present themselves in longer timeframes.
  5. (More, I'm sure, to follow.)

I think it's a conceptual model which undergraduates can absorb, and which can be useful in comprehending social and economic sustainability problems (disconnects between the historic and social timeframes), environmental sustainability problems (disconnects between the historic and geographic timeframes), and even resource depletion problems like topsoil erosion, "peak oil", and ocean desertification (disconnects between historic and biological timeframes). I think it helps sustainability problems, in general, to be phrased in terms of conflicts between utilization and regeneration rates of all sorts of resources, at all scales of time.

Even if it becomes a permanent part of the way I think about and explain sustainability, it's not going to give me a clear, self-sufficient statement suitable for a bumper sticker, but it might be a step in that direction.

Or, of course, not.


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