Radical sustainability

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The Oberlin Project aims to make downtown Oberlin a place of "green" buildings and renewable energy. It is already bicycle-friendly.

The Oberlin Project aims to make downtown Oberlin a place of "green" buildings and renewable energy. It is already bicycle-friendly.

I did not know what to expect at the “Sustainability Across the Curriculum Leadership Workshop” I attended last week at San Diego State University, put on by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). I had my doubts when I previewed an agenda that included “two-legged exercises” and moments for “reflection.” Was this leadership work? Would we be staring at the trees? Each other? I admit to being the kind of environmentalist who does not want to be misconstrued as a “tree hugger.” I simply want the planet to remain a livable place for my children’s generation, and I am upset about the economic motives that are destroying it.

The leadership workshop brought together an interesting group of participants — full-time professors as well as former architects, lawyers, city government workers–all of whom now find themselves in academia assisting with sustainability goals and integrating these themes across the curriculum. Many universities have created new degrees by bringing together courses that are connected to the environment and sustainability—from Nature in Literature to Sustainability Management. But do these courses really add up to identifiable outcomes? Are students or faculty making interconnections between them? Are schools of Business Administration really taking these ideas seriously? I was hoping to find some answers in San Diego.

One of the early conversations I had at the workshop was with a university sustainability director (a former lawyer) who emphasized the importance of separating the terms “green” or “environmental” from “sustainable.” If I had been more attentive to G. Rendell’s column, Getting to Green, I would have already learned that green is a “subjective” term that tends to describe “using slightly less energy, consuming slightly fewer resources, emitting slightly less greenhouse gas, polluting slightly less water or air or earth.” Sustainability, however, “means just what it says. Something’s sustainable if it can continue. Forever.” Green is more of an adjective. Sustain is an active verb.

Oberlin professor David Orr — required reading for the workshop — writes: “A world of ever increasing economic, financial and technological complexity cannot be sustained because sooner or later it will overwhelm our capacity to manage.” Boy, do I agree with that statement. Just looking at my unread email list makes me cry… Orr defines “sustainable growth” as an “oxymoron”; growth demands constant and vigil maintenance. College tuition hikes, for instance, may support new buildings on campus, but are not endlessly sustainable.

Orr’s writing is both apocryphal and prophetic, the kind that inspires change. Constant growth is no longer an option, he asserts, but “sustainable development” will help us to find other solutions to expansion. Orr is doing just that in his hometown.

It is difficult to articulate sustainable philosophy without appearing — says Rendell — like a “pie-eyed socialist.” As Orr is demonstrating in Oberlin, Ohio, though, capitalism with a touch of socialist, university investment may develop a different set of profit margin paradigms. Orr’s plans for sustainable agriculture, architecture and beer brewing between Oberlin College and the local Ohio community have been so successful that high ranking military and national security officials are now considering his model. Check it out…

I left the workshop in San Diego with a renewed sense of directness for how I want to speak to my students, my colleagues, and particularly my family in order to shift our ways of thinking about our current economic values. We need everyone to work on problem-solving transformations during this seemingly slow-moving, but undeniable crisis. I plan to transform my classroom accordingly.

I would love to hear about any interesting sustainable classrooms ideas.

Elizabeth Coffman is a documentary filmmaker and film scholar. She’s published work in Camera Obscura, Journal of Film & Video and other places. Her film work has been broadcast and screened at festivals in Europe and the U.S. Elizabeth maintains messy homes in Chicago and in Tampa, where her two children live with their father during the week, and stay with her on the weekends. Elizabeth and her filmmaking partner have a media production company — Long Distance Productions.

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