Has “sustainability” run its course? Is it time for the Next Big Thing?
By Dave Newport
The transition from an exploitive business plan for the planet to a sustainable one has gone through a few iterations—and we are definitely not there yet—but we keep trying.
In the 1950s public health concerns on the heels of the Donora, PA et al air pollution incidents aroused enough angst to pass the first federal laws protective of air quality. The 1960s were marked by Rachel Carson-induced endangered species protections. The 1970s spawned “past sins” Superfund legislation to begin cleaning up/preventing the Love Canals of the world. In the 1980s we fixed the ozone hole. And in the 1990s, “sustainability” began creeping into our lexicon.
Along the way we chased trends and words like Kyoto, Agenda 21, Corporate Social Responsibility, Triple Bottom Line, Eco Efficiency, Socially Responsible Investing, Biomimicry, Industrial Ecology, Renewable Portfolio Standards, Transition, Permaculture, Adaptation, etcetera… and lately: Resilience.
The history lesson is meant to remind us that it is normal to morph our approaches as we get smarter. So the idea of moving past sustainability isn’t radical or anti-environment. On the contrary, we have a need for “new and improved.”
So now what? Is it time for the Next Big Thing? Has “sustainability” run its course? Before we think about that, what has sustainability accomplished?
Well, on campuses at least, there are more courses, majors, schools, colleges and certificates in sustainability than ever; fairly rapid growth because many students want to learn about it. More campuses are offering sustainability curricula. More students are signing up for these classes. This is no small feat and a very hopeful sign.
Likewise, campus carbon emissions are moderating or even going down. Green buildings are going up. Zero waste efforts are also on the rise. Local food programs/campus gardens are taking root. Renewable energy is up. And we are getting better at measuring all these impacts (STARS!). Great environmental improvements.
Yet missing from the list of sustainability’s accomplishments are two important categories: fiscal equity and social justice.
In terms of finance, sustainability programs are still woefully underinvested. More importantly, campuses are still investing in exploitive enterprises. The recent fossil fuel divestment campaign makes this point very clear. While Unity College is leading the divestment effort, they are a lone voice so far. Indeed, the Chronicle last year reported socially responsible investing on campuses was decreasing despite a growth in that industry and demonstrably more favorable returns on investment.
As for social justice, only a little progress targeting sustainability’s benefits towards those in the most need is reported. And while I don’t have any data, I am going to bet that even the rapid expansion of sustainability curriculum nationwide has disproportionately targeted richer, white students. For instance, despite a couple notable exceptions, there has been disappointing growth of sustainability coursework in the HBCUs. There is a reason: sustainability’s unifying theme and beneficial impacts don’t default to the breadth of society—only the privileged classes.
Sustainability has yet to put Humpty Dumpty back together again...
I published The Death of Campus Sustainability about a year ago. Re-reading it the other day, one change from last year is that public concern has turned up a notch or two on the heels of Hurricane Sandy and the warmest, driest, most flammable year ever. Also, unlike previous conferences, last fall’s AASHE conference in LA saw record numbers of social equity presentations; truly a heart warming sign that our colleagues get that we need to be more effective in that arena. Otherwise, the ideas and facts offered in the ‘Death’ blog are still pretty much intact.
Indeed, sustainability has yet to put Humpty Dumpty back together again because, as you recall, “all the Kings horses and all the King’s men…” So now the proponents of “resilience” are increasingly making the case for a new approach that concedes that our eggs are broken.
Writing in the New York Times last fall, author Andrew Zolli presents “resilience” as an alternative to the sustainability agenda. “Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world,” he writes.
“For example, “resilience thinking” is starting to shape how urban planners in big cities think about updating antiquated infrastructure, much of which is robust in the face of normal threats like equipment failures but — as was just demonstrated in the New York region — fragile in the face of unanticipated shocks like flooding, pandemics, terrorism or energy shortages,” Zolli continues.
Zolli’s piece goes on the offer numerous approaches for dealing with the impacts of climate disruption in a people-first holistic approach—everything from building flood dikes to counseling services. He uses Hurricane Sandy as an example of the need to prepare tangible on-the-ground responses that help “a vulnerable community contend with the shocks that, especially at the margins of a society, can be devastating. In lieu of master plans, these approaches offer diverse tools and platforms that enable greater self-reliance, cooperation and creativity before, during and after a crisis” [underlining added].
So far, so good...
So far, so good...
Nobody gets out of bed inspired by "damage control." We dream of Camelot.
Remembering the first rule of campus sustainability—listen to the students—I recall Scott Carlson’s coverage in the Chronicle of the emerging student demand for skills-based training that complements their academic learning. As I reported in the ‘Death’ blog, Carlson wrote of “hands-on people-oriented education experiences ranging from beekeeping to shop to gardening to carpentry to cooking.”
“At the soul of this renaissance of interest in life skills is a sense that today’s students want to build self-reliance and self-determination capacity because the road ahead looks steep—and they know it. Resilience and practical skills are becoming critical attributes to live well and prosper going forward. Integration of people-facing education with community-centered initiatives underpin this trend—and are expositive of sustainability’s finest tradition: the nexus of people-primacy, eco-resiliency, and local economic focus.”
Once again, the students have signaled the Next Big Thing. It is not—as Zolli writes in the close of his article—an either/or proposition. In the end, Zolli sees sustainability as a “holy war against boogeymen [that] hasn’t worked and isn’t likely to anytime soon. In its place, we need approaches that are both more pragmatic and more politically inclusive.”
Ah, disagree. Resilience is not the successor of sustainability; it is a sustainability synergizer. It can make sustainability work better.
How? First, resilience is people-facing. Perfect. That is sustainability’s soft spot. Allying with people-focused efforts heals sustainability’s historic hurt: a paucity of explicit social justice mechanisms. Thus by folding in resilience techniques we make sustainability better. By focusing our campuses on adapting to the new climate realities, we make our campuses better. This means we work on adaptation plans that include disaster planning not just low flow toilets. It means we talk to our leadership about investments in durable assets like renewables that are immune from impending resource shortages—and pay better anyway. It means integrating skills-based content into sustainability curriculum such as learning to weatherize low-income homes in local neighborhoods to build resilience-- and sustainability--in our communities.
Resilience is not the antidote to sustainability; it’s an additive. Instead of Zolli’s existential, damage-control approach to life on Earth, sustainability has the advantage of casting an inspiring “I have a dream” vision. Human beings are dreamers—that’s who we are. That’s why we discover things. Nobody gets out of bed inspired by damage control; we dream of Camelot.
"Some men see things as they are and say why.
I dream things that never were and say why not."
So, one year later I am more hopeful that campus sustainability can right its wrongs, learn from experience, and integrate new strategies and tactics so as to dodge the capital punishment foreseen in “The Death of Campus Sustainability.” We haven’t done that yet; however, let’s not get sidetracked by a fake fight with resilience proponents. Instead, let’s synergize their valuable lessons into our ongoing efforts.
Let’s resolve to make 2013 the year of a more mature and resilient “sustainability-plus” approach.
Happy New Year.