Sustainability: Essential Research and Education

Published: 4:19 PM GMT on May 19, 2015

Sustainability: Essential Research and Education

My last blog was on universities divesting their endowments and pension funds from fossil fuel companies. One of the articles that I referred to was by George Will taking the position that divestment was sustainability gone wild. Will states that sustainability is like a religion with, for example, its premises “more assumed than demonstrated,” and “weighing the costs of obedience to sustainability’s commandments is considered unworthy.” Will is riffing off of the more than 250 page document by the National Association of Scholars entitled, Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.

The National Association of Scholars “is a network of scholars and citizens united by our commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education.” The National Association of Scholars was founded in 1987 by Stephen Balch, who is identified as an American conservative scholar. The National Association of Scholars should not be confused with National Academy of Sciences, which is the abbreviation I associate with “NAS.”

The material I reference above strongly links sustainability and climate change, and, ultimately, takes the position that universities are taking unfounded positions based on “unresolved scientific debates." There is suggestion that faculty are pressured “to imbed sustainability into the curricula of unrelated courses.” The document relies, sometimes deftly, on the rhetorical forms that are used to nurture doubt.

Enough – I am certain to get some grief for the amount of words I have devoted to the National Association of Scholars. It’s important to know where ideas and talking points come from, especially when there is the imprimatur of scholarship. There is the suggestion in these writings of a cultish march towards sustainability across the university community, and that divestment of fossil fuels is part of that cult.

As stated in my divestment blog, my faculty colleagues don’t all support divestment. In fact, I would conjecture that more universities have denied efforts to divest than have approved them. Similarly, there is a wide range of opinions on sustainability and the integration of sustainability into curriculum. In science departments, there is often the opinion that sustainability is notional, and it is not easily defined nor easily measured. Hence, it is not science. It is also true that sustainability has far broader reach than climate change.

I was first introduced to sustainability as a subject of research and education when I started my university career in 2005. At University of Michigan there is the Erb Institute, “Creating a Sustainable World Through the Power of Business,” the Center for Sustainable Systems, which supports “the design, assessment, and management of systems that meet societal needs in a more sustainable manner,” and the Graham Sustainability Institute, which fosters “sustainability at all scales by leading stakeholder-centric activities that systematically integrate talents across all U-M schools, colleges, and units.” All of these institutes have strong relationships with donors who have high success in business. These endowments paint the picture of individuals, families, and businesses, which recognize the importance of sustainability to assure future societal and business success. (Disclosure: I work closely with the Graham Sustainability Institute, and I am a Dow Sustainability Distinguished Faculty Fellow.)

Sustainability is a young and changing field of research and education. Sustainability is not as easy to define as, say, physics, chemistry, biology, economics, urban planning, etc. The Graham Sustainability Institute answers the question What is Sustainability? as, “Sustainability encompasses solutions-driven scholarship and practice that seeks to safeguard the planet's life-support systems and enhance quality of life for present and future generations. The field is defined by the problems it addresses rather than the disciplines it employs. It draws from multiple disciplines of the natural, social, engineering, design, and health sciences; from the professions and humanities; and from practical field experience in business, government, and civil society.”

Adding the concept of sustainability to problem solving requires thinking about where our resources come from and what happens to our waste. It brings into consideration the energy required with obtaining resources, manufacturing, disposal, and management of the waste products. The value of the environment and ecological systems is brought into the calculation of cost. There is nothing in that list which is an easy calculation, and there are many aspects of sustainability that are not uniquely and definitively quantified. There are value judgments made by individuals, governments, advocacy organizations, and corporations.

I recently attended a webinar, organized by Our Spheres of Influence on the emergence of sustainability as a course of study, with a special focus on The New School. The New School is at the forefront of issues such as sustainability which fits into the vision “where design and social research drive approaches to studying issues of our time, such as democracy, urbanization, technological change, economic empowerment, sustainability, migration, and globalization.” It is one of the schools that has divested (Figure 1). One of the points from the webinar is that sustainability is emerging and that standards and practices are evolving. For those interested in sustainability and its incorporation into education there is the resource, Sustainability Improves Student Learning, which is a group that includes associations of physics, chemistry, biology, and geosciences.

Since sustainability crosses many disciplines, it is, in fact, quite difficult to bring into the discipline-focused culture of universities. It brings a focus to problem solving and participatory, deliberative process. There is a high demand from students, who increasingly see the requirement to manage our resources and wastes in order to thrive. Sustainability is an essential topic of research and education.

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The discussion from the previous blog was fantastic, and I sent links to faculty and students. There was also a link in the comments to this article Map: Tracking Academia's Fossil Fuel Divestment. (See also GoFossilFree.org)



Figure 1: More than $50B in divestment pledges has come from 28 universities, 41 cities, 72 religious institutions, 30 foundations and hundreds of individuals. (Credit: Paul Horn/InsideClimate News)

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About The Author
I'm a professor at U Michigan and lead a course on climate change problem solving. These articles often come from and contribute to the course.

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