So, given my evolving understanding of issues of scale, have I lost sight of what Graham Cliff calls "the substance of sustainability"? I hope not. I don't think so. If I have, I'm hoping you'll help me correct that.
Cliff properly points out that climate change has been (and continues to be) caused by "profligate waste for very short term gain". He's absolutely right.
However, we live in a culture which focuses almost exclusively on "very short term gain", and at the individual (rather than societal, or community) level. My take on sustainability-as-an-issue-of-scale is that it will allow me (I hope) to present an attractive vision of a sustainable future -- a different type of gain in a different time scale, but still something to be aspired to.
What's become increasingly clear to me -- based on conversations, reactions to sustainability presentations to the campus community, and research -- is that I can't stimulate behavioral changes by telling people how much trouble they're in, and how much penance they need to do in order to get out of that trouble. The worst impacts of climate change are too far off for many folks to take seriously to heart, the impression many have is that the problem is simply too big to be tractable, the waters have been intentionally muddied by highly-paid public relations flacks, and the message has become one of economic (read standard-of-living) sacrifice if those anti-American treehuggers get their way.
More moderately, let's just say that the average Greenback employee has grown up in the USA since World War II. Most have no experience of any society other than America during its recent spate of suburbanization. (There are notable exceptions, but exceptions they remain.) A typical staff member can't really imagine any way that society could be organized (intentionally or otherwise) which is both different from and preferable to what (s)he experiences on a daily basis. If I'm going to get these folks to change their behaviors in any pervasive way, I need to be able to paint a picture of a future which is both sustainable (on a global basis) and desirable (on an individual one).
Focusing on scale lets me do that. Not that I'm expecting to address it in abstract, theoretical terms a whole lot. Rather that it will become a motif which frequently recurs in discussions of "what we want to do next". Images of moving Greenback in the direction of Mr. Jefferson's "academical village" (emphasis on "village"), or even a cross between that and Clark Kerr's "multiversity" (does "academical township" work?) can be very attractive. Bringing staff into the village (if, initially, on its outer edges) can present clear individual benefits (like the purchase of fewer $4.00+ gallons of gasoline). As we build it, they will come.
Not coincidentally, a society which operates, and focuses, on a largely local scale will be far more ecologically sustainable than the current model. Organizing supply of food, energy, and consumer goods less centrally will reduce all sorts of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, natural resource extraction, heating and cooling, and transportation of goods and people. The question isn't whether we need to reduce global warming, the question is what characteristics of our current society most aggravate global warming, and how could we (and folks in developing nations) do those things differently.
If I were full-time faculty, maybe "success" would consist in imbuing my students with an in-depth understanding of all the complexity of Earth's climate system, and just how human behavior has subverted the ability of that system to self-regulate. But I'm only adjunct faculty, teaching only narrow subject matter. My day job is administrative. Success, for me, consists in facilitating change within Greenback's administrative/operational dynamics. My hope is that higher ed can model what a sustainable operation looks like, to the end that American society adopts the new (sustainable) model even more pervasively than it adopted the old (industrial) one.
I can't force people to change, I can at best help them to understand that change is attractive. To do that, I need to paint them a pretty picture of an alternative to what they know, and then make the world in the picture imaginable on a personal level. Rising gas prices will make my job easier in that it makes "what they know" less comfortable, but I still need to have a carrot (OK, a picture of a carrot) to get people moving. Terrifying them with dystopian images, beating them with the stick of their own culpability, and screaming at them for being too stupid to know what's good for them is unlikely to succeed.
Sometimes, I'm a slow learner.