The annual conference for campus sustainability came to a close. It was my first attendance at the national conference and it made quite an impression. On the positive side, there is tremendous energy that connects campuses around the issue of sustainability, and there are quite a few presentations and workshops that offer pragmatic approaches and application of projects. It was also a place to bounce ideas off those who have encountered many of the same issues. In many ways, it was a meeting of the minds that was insightful and useful for ideas and implementation of sustainable practices on our own campus. Finally, it was a great opportunity for the students to engage other students around these issues and to see how the larger profession is working to address them. In the future, I expect strong student participation in the event itself, particularly by presenting some of their own research and projects! In a word, the positive aspects of the conference can be summed as: HOPE.
However, there is also plenty of room for DESPAIR. I heard more about projects, points, credits, allowances, than I did about sustainability and the context for it. The assumption was that by complying with those aspects, we would naturally become sustainable. I object to this shallow reasoning. And naturally, this raised several concerns.
One, we need to develop clarity on precisely what is “sustainability”, what does a “sustainable community” look like, and what are the trajectories toward this vision of sustainability. It’s not only about about renewable energy and recycling–which for now represents the vast bulk of the discussion.
Second, I heard very little beyond the “low hanging fruit” discourse. Granted, this is a great start, but without a larger plan, I fear that many of these sustainability programs will reach administrative obstacles as the low-hanging fruit are picked over. If the groundwork hasn’t been sufficiently laid institutionally, this could be a MAJOR setback not only for the campus but, in its totality, for the entire movement. For me, this was an incisive insight.
Third, there was a paucity of dialogue around the specific problems that “sustainability” is designed to address. What specific problems are we trying to address through a sustainability paradigm? Climate Change is most often bandied about as the primary driver of the movement. However, even though my scholarly expertise is in social dimensions of climate change, I would aggressively argue that this cannot be a tangible pathway for change and sustainability. Climate change is merely an outcome of larger processes. Have we reached a point where we just want to start talking about points and credits for a sustainability plan without educating, inspiring, communicating and dialoguing on the contextual problems we are facing?
Fourth, the conference was replete with what I call “corporatization of sustainability”. It is being taken over, absorbed, and integrated into the larger corporate world at a pace I wasn’t expecting. Some have their hearts in it for the right entrepreneurial reasons; however, many are clearly in it for profit, and see this sector as a means to do so. Quite honestly, it has become a minefield, one that requires deft and careful consideration of the short and long-term institutional goals to consider how to navigate this field. Solid research and P2P inquires can resolve much of this, but I was left with the question of what this means for the larger field of sustainability? What does this corporatization of the issue mean for us as a community and society? You see, if sustainability is promoted as a “solution” to the problem, we need to know what the problems are that it seeks to address, AND how we get there (and through what mediums) is just as important as the solution itself.
Similarly, I was struck by the “expert” driven discourse and practice that sustainability is becoming. I am probably most concerned on this point than any other. As someone who has conducted research around the globe on climate change and climate adaptation, I am seeing this expert-driven practice taking a more prominent role in “regulating” biophysical problems. When we combine the domination of the field by “experts” and corporations, we are generating a non-democratic, disconnected version of sustainability that I am growing increasingly uncomfortable with. Let’s be clear, I don’t see this as simply a problem defined through a response to sustainability and climate adaptation. NO, there are larger societal dynamics at work in which this response is merely a reflection of how American society has chosen to address (or not) increasingly complex problems.
There’s much more to this story. Obviously. Painfully. But I think we need to begin to carefully reflect on what sustainability is for our campus and community. What does it look like? What should it look like? What problems are we trying to address? And most importantly, how can WE ALL get involved to address them? Because without engagement, we leave it to experts, governments, and corporations. And I just saw a glimpse of what that looks like.