…I wanted to provide a summary of the posts from the semester and the goals I had hoped to achieve. This project began as part of a required Sustainable Living internship for which I chose to work with the Sustainability academy on their upcoming initiative to create a program connecting sustainability with the humanities. I was very excited about this opportunity because I had been looking for a venue in which to study the relationship between culture and sustainability. Within the SustainabilityAcademyat UNH, part of the discussion is the de-desciplinizing of sustainability. I was particularly interested in exploring what this means.
Let me provide some background: Sustainable development is an idea that has been around for awhile. The report resulting from the 1987 Brundtland Commission provided the most commonly-cited definition ? development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This definition is both vague and limiting and has become a textbook definition students can rattle off on demand. This contributed to the term “sustainability” becoming a buzzword. It became an amorphous term thrown out in any conversation concerning the environment, and in this way, lost its true meaning.
More recently the focus has been on reconstructing the way people think of sustainability. It is necessary to incorporate other disciplines, or to quote Chief Sustainability Officer Tom Kelly, to de-disciplinize the concept of sustainability beyond its scientific implications. It must be expanded past ecology or environmental sciences, or any one department, in order to both make progress and convey the true gravity of the concept. This is where I find my place within the sustainability discussion.
To provide an anecdotal story that illustrates my point, when I was trying to choose a picture for my powerpoint presentation about this internship, I asked a friend of mine and she said “How about a picture of a person recycling? Or a big happy planet?” These are the things that everyone associates with sustainability. The picture that I chose is of an Abenaki basket (discussed in previous posts), which is a native American tribe from New Englandand parts of Canada. The baskets are an important part of Abenaki culture, but the sweetgrass and ash tree used to make them are both in jeopardy due to industrial development and climate change. In order for their culture to be sustained, their environmental resources must be protected.
My internship work consisted primarily of participating in campus events related to sustainability and disseminating information about those events through a weekly blog on theSustainabilityAcademy website. This was done in hopes of raising awareness of the ways in which sustainability is connected to our daily lives. When I was first given this assignment, I knew that my role would be to explore the interplay between culture and sustainability and spread the knowledge of this relationship. But now, as I reach the close of this project, I feel that it is my own perception of sustainability that has grown the most.
Some of the topics I blogged about were clearly related to sustainability but may not have appeared to have cultural implications on the surface. One such topic was sustainable initiatives in the area, for example the implementation of a biomass generator at theRockinghamCounty complex. I provided the data for cuts in carbon emissions and money saved. The cultural component comes into play when we consider the impact of a state institution leading by example and making socially responsible choices, (as well as supporting the local woodchip suppliers of New Hampshire). Another event was Greener Taste of Greater Durham, in which local and regional businesses, including restaurants and green technology companies, congregated on theUNH campus to share their unique initiatives to merge environmental consideration with economically sustainable choices. Again, at first glance this may appear to be purely science-driven, but because of the magnitude of the event, I could feel the energy and creation, not of a passing trend, but of a lifestyle that will hopefully become part of our culture.
Then there were blog topics in which the link between culture and sustainability was much easier to see. I focused on the annual Sidore Series: the theme of which was Sustainability Unbound this year. This was an event in which five speakers were invited to lecture at UNH in a three-day series open to the general public. They spoke about Plato, cultural commons, the sounds of nature, political ecology, and how we interact as humans with creatures in our environment.
I also discussed the courses being developed for the sustainability dual major. In the fall of 2011, three professors (Susan Curry, Courtney Marshall, and Joelle Ruby Ryan) were awarded funding to develop courses bridging sustainability and the liberal arts. I was able to interview them about these courses, which will focus on topics like ecology in theRoman empire, the global sex work industry and environmental justice. I asked each of them why they feel it is important to educate students in liberal arts and the humanities about sustainability. Each gave a different answer, but together they convey what I was searching for much more eloquently than I could have. From Professor Marshall, assistant professor of women’s studies and english, believes there needs to be more discussion about how cultural images interact with policy and shape how we feel about policy. The attention to the creative process that is fostered in the Humanities programs is needed, and humanities students will benefit from seeing there is a place for them in the discussion of sustainability. Professor Curry, lecturer in classics, answered that the humanities contribute stories and images to convey ideas. Such images make sustainability accessible to the general public, and also expand it beyond the hard sciences behind it. The humanities incorporate cross-cultural ideas. This allows us to consider the worldviews of other cultures, and how they play into their political systems and conceptualizations of the environment. Professor Ryan, lecturer in women’s studies, feels that human liberation and the natural environment are inherently connected, and that the understanding of the connectedness of life forms is important.
It was an amazing experience to participate in such a diverse selection of events and to be exposed to all of these ideas. Though some of the post topics may seem unrelated, one of the most poignant things I learned from this project is that sustainability is a theme threaded in some way in all of the things I wrote about. It is an underlying factor in all of the courses being developed, and all of the lectures of the Sidore series speakers. Prior to this internship I had only begun to expand my understanding of sustainability beyond the definition I first offered.
One of the most rewarding parts of doing this project was that sustainability began to come out of the woodwork in my regular course work. This semester I took a course called Globalization and Health. This course focuses on the ways in which the increasing degree of global integration affects human health. This is particularly a concern in developing countries where economic reform does not always meld with environmental responsibility and high occupational standards of health. Peoples and Cultures of Latin America was my second course, and a large part of the course looked at land rights of indigenous peoples, and how their cultures can be sustained when they are pressured to surrender their lands for industrialization. My Social and Political Philosophy might at first appear to be the least related to sustainability, but having this course this semester was very timely. I dedicated an entire post to the analysis of a chapter from Melissa Lane’s book The Ecorepublic, which uses allegories and concepts from Plato’s Republic to illustrate the emergence of sustainability in larger society. The course covered the philosophies of both Karl Marx and John Locke, which appeared in discussions and lectures on sustainability. We also read Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, which elaborates on the transition from humans in nature to reliance on material goods and human labor, ideas that are clearly related to sustainability. None of these courses mention sustainability in their descriptions or are recommended for students studying sustainability. This connection is natural, no pun intended, and it is my greatest hope that this project, in the context of the much greater work being done at UNH, will help others see sustainability emerge in their daily lives as well.Written by Megan.