The “what” vs. the “why” of sustainability


I attended the AASHE conference a few weeks ago, which brought together over 2,000 faculty, students, and administrators, all passionate about sustainability in higher education.  On the menu were hundreds of concurrent sessions (I presented on \”sustainability in study abroad\” and \”ecovillages as campuses for sustainability education\”), wonderful keynote speakers and awards ceremonies, an expo with cutting edge products and services, and loads of networking events.  The organizers did a wonderful job and most of us were at the conference center from 7am til 10pm each of the three days, eating up all that was offered.

So why did I leave still hungry?  The feeling crystallized during a session titled, \”Core Competencies in Learning for Sustainability.\”  This was scheduled as an \”advanced-level\” dialogue among veterans in the field around what proficiencies and skills we should expect students studying sustainability to develop.  After an inspirational talk by Harold Glasser, each round table was asked to brainstorm a list of \”competencies\” that the session leaders would compile and share with participants to help us frame the big picture of what we should be teaching.

I started off my table discussion with an out-of-the-box statement.  I encouraged us to recognize that, while outlining core competencies for sustainability was surely a useful exercise, we were also limiting the discussion to \”what\” we should be teaching and ignoring the \”why.\”   If I had to boil down the whole conference — the whole field of sustainability — to one word, it would be \”interdependence\” — or, better yet, \”inter-being\”, a term coined by the Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh.  I shared Joanna Macy\’s belief that a \”Great Turning\” toward an ecological era is being fundamentally driven by the creation of new stories of relationship and that, if academia could recognize and re-orient itself around this core concept of interdependence, \”what\” we should be teaching would follow naturally.

When I finished, a gentleman across the table looked at me and said, \”Yeah, but  \’interdependence\’… I mean, that\’s your value.\”   A few minutes later, a professor to my left shared that she felt uncomfortable bringing her own stories into the classroom and that she saw her role as objectively imparting course materials to students and supporting them to come to their own conclusions.

Really?!  Interdependence is not a fact?  We can\’t bring our stories into the classroom?  It is; and we do, whether we like it or not.  From physics to chemistry; from biology, to psychology, if there is anything the past century has taught us, it\’s that John Muir was right.  \”When we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.\”  Yet, for some reason, academia stubbornly maintains a Cartesian \”story\” of the universe as an intricate machine that we can control, but are somehow separate from.  This myth of objectivity and reductionism has fueled the industrial era and enabled the juggernaut of destruction we have become as a species.  It’s time we recognize that humanity is inextricably embedded within and dependent upon a web of relationships that we are not “in control” of.

It is also time we recognize that academia and educators are central “storytellers” of our culture’s paradigms.  Yet our schools continue to perpetuate a hidden curriculum of competition, hierarchy, and fragmentation and educators continue to view themselves as apart from what they study and teach.  No research is value free. The problems we choose to explore, how we observe, extract and order information in the natural world, and how we present what we find are all reflections of who we are. As Rollo May put it, “We don’t study nature, we investigate the investigator’s relationship to nature.\”

This is not meant to imply that science is a futile endeavor – only that the researcher is an integral part of the scientific equation. This is true on at least two counts. First, the hard sciences have led the way in proving that whatever is observed is affected simply through the act of being observed. Second, whatever is observed is then filtered through the particular lens of the observer. Such filters are likely even more pervasive and profound in the social sciences where our “objective” measures are so easily colored by our cultural contexts and personal experiences.   As Gregory Bateson wrote, “The probe we stick into human material always has another end which sticks into us.”

Yes, we need to talk about core competencies for sustainability.  Yes, we need to dissect and learn about the inner workings of the universe.  But we also need to subsume these efforts within the deeper truth of our inter-beingness.  The sooner we get this, the sooner we can become the inspirational and transformative storytellers our world so desperately needs.  And through our storytelling, academia and educators can become the pivot points upon which our world turns toward a more sustainable future.