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who is able to discern knowledge from propaganda,
is competent to choose among conflicting claims and programs,
and is capable of actively participating in the affairs of the polity."—Aronowitz

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Dec. 17, 2012

Assuming Sustainability


Five years ago, the URI President's Council on Sustainability was formed.

"In 2007, the University of Rhode Island signed onto the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, which requires the university to develop a comprehensive plan to reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions and eventually achieve carbon neutrality. To provide strategic guidance and oversight of the University's commitment the president established a Council on Sustainability, comprised of URI students, staff and faculty and led by Vice President for Administration & Finance Robert Weygand."


The Presidentís Council on Sustainability will provide guidance and oversight of the University of Rhode Islandís commitment to sustainable practices in the day-to-day life of the University. The Council will review plans, provide advice on best practices, support initiatives and imagine solutions for the greening of URI, ranging from reduction of its carbon footprint to the inculcation of sustainable values in all aspects of the university community.

In May, 2011, after serving for a year in an interim capacity, Marsha Garcia became URI's first Sustainability Officer, charged with carrying out several facets of the URI Sustainability program, beginning with translating aspects of URI's oceanographic and environmental research agenda "into programs and actions that engage the entire campus community."

"Itís a matter of changing the culture on campus,Ē said Garcia. ďA lot of other universities have focused on sustainability longer than we have, so we have some catching up to do. And given the small size of Rhode Island, changing the culture at URI almost involves changing the mindset of the entire state.Ē

One component of this has been to encourage teaching faculty to include elements of sustainability into URI courses, many of which have been identified and listed under a sustainability minor.

Teaching Sustainability

This week, I was invited to meet with the teaching group for the first time, at an annual evening dinner meeting of several faculty (of 36 contacted about the meeting, at least two dozen attended). The meeting theme was a sharing of approaches to introducing sustainability into the classroom. A partial list:

I had been told something of the gist of the meeting in advance and had brought a shortened version of the syllabus for my freshman Grand Challenges course, "Communications and Science in a Century of Limits." I also wanted to list five things that I thought should be understood by all URI graduates ("Can We Teach This? Five Lessons All URI Graduates Need to Master," a blog post, Mar. 24, 2012):

  1. We will exhaust fossil fuels within this century, with significant decline in world production beginning now and declining at an accelerating pace through mid-century.
  2. The human impact on the climate from burning oil and natural gas (probably unstoppable) will be major and largely irreversible for at least 1000 years. The impact from burning coal (stoppable) will be disastrous and last longer.
  3. The human population of the earth exceeds the carrying capacity of the planet and must be reduced (through lowered birth rates) if we are to have adequate food, water, shelter, and basic needs met in a post-fossil fuel era.
  4. Americans must come to understand the threats to traditions of democracy, fairness, and equity [and to our ability to do anything to avert future global catastrophe] posed by our current imbalance in wealth and political control.
  5. Graduates need to develop pragmatic domestic skill sets for purposes of increasing individual and community resiliency in a time of post-peak transition.

I ended up not saying a word.

Why not?

The Sustainability Assumption

As I listened to the ways faculty are working sustainability into their classrooms, too many thoughts were going through my head. First, I recalled my own experience in setting up a course designed to make a general audience of students aware of problems with the environment. In 1971, I organized (structured content, arranged two dozen guest speakers, set up recitation sections, etc.) Michigan State's "Man: The Endangered Species," and taught it to an initial class of some 600 students. The course shared the concerns of the URI faculty in that it was largely an attempt to create awareness of problems. Forty years ago the focus was on pollution (Mercury and Minamata Disease, DDT and thinning of bird egg shells, agricultural fertilizers and eutrophication of streams and ponds) and limits to growth (the conflict between land and water resources and human population growth, featured in the 1971 MIT book Limits to Growth, updated in 2004), etc. Global climate change was still a few years in the future (I mark its public debut as Hansen's 1988 Congressional presentation), and the world had half as many people, etc., but the flavor and focus was similar.

Problem statements are an essential part of a process leading from dawning awareness to political action, but as a primary focus they are frustrating. Al Gore was questioned for his focus on problems statements in An Inconvenient Truth (2006), where an appendix of actions listed such relatively trivial individual life-style changes as changing light bulbs, buying hybrid cars, recycling, etc. These were not of adequate scope or scale to avert climate change disaster, it was pointed out, to which Gore replied that it was premature to seek high level federal and state action until such a time as government representatives (and their constituents, presumably) had increased the sophistication of the science and vulnerabilities of climate change. Most of what I heard from the URI teachers is in accord with that view. Actions, when listed, are the kinds of yuppie bulb-swapping exercises characteristic of the shallow No Impact Man, the URI common reading book in 2011 that I hated so much.

To be clear and fair, there is nothing wrong with building awareness of issues associated with the term sustainability. It has to begin somewhere. And there is nothing wrong with cultivating an ethos of individual responsibility nor with prescribing individual behaviors that reduce consumption of energy and materials and lower individual environmental footprints, to use the conventional metaphor.

There is, however, an underlying assumption being made in most of what I heard. If the gist of introducing sustainability into the classroom is to provide strategies for students to use (individually or socially) in the future, then the entire effort constitutes a form of strategic planning exercise. It is, accordingly, meaningful to ask what is the vision (set of goals) that drive the exercise, the perceived mission, etc. It is also appropriate to ask for a statement of assumptions under which the plan is operating. From my read of the many sustainability discussions I've heard, the common assumption is that we need to make changes such that we are able to sustain something. That is, I am afraid that for most students, the education assumes that life in the future will be much like the life they see today, except that a minor set of habits (recycling, light switching) and minimally disruptive swaps of technology (electric cars for internal combustion, buses or trains for cars) will be called for. The root, that is to sustain, implies keeping something on an existing course. To my mind, there is very little in the underpinnings of twentieth-century living that will be sustained through the end of the twenty-first. Instead, we must learn to transition, to constrain, to withdraw, etc., to a world vastly different from today's, sustaining virtually nothing of present modes of consumption, domesticity, production, recreation, or even procreation. In short, any plans for the future need to be based on anything but an assumption of sustainability.

Defenders of sustainability argue that what the word really means is that we must change from a set of habits and technologies of today to a different set more appropriate for the resource-constrained world of the future. I believe that what is being considered or offered in present URI sustainability modules (of the type talked about above) falls far short of making students aware of the real needs for changes for the future. That is, four decades after the first Earth Day, isn't it time for far deeper awareness and more meaningful society-wide action? I didn't hear that level of awareness in the teaching discussion.

The Transition Assumption

The present treatment of sustainability at URI is a slight improvement over the years of neglect of the subject that caused Garcia to politely suggest that URI needs to do a bit of catching up. For years, URI has resisted looking into the future: the Blue Ribbon Commission on the Future of URI, for example, resisted efforts to build awareness of mid- or late-21st century challenges and instead, hamstrung by a myopic management orientated charge from President Carothers, wasted time with an extremely short-term (3-5 years) planning horizon which made the exercise ludicrous. President Dooley has similarly shown virtually no interest (some suggest he is contemptuous of) strategic planning or visioning exercises. URI has thus far been incapable of taking a serious look at the impact of climate change or the end of the oil/automobile/suburban era; in general, the University lacks the capacity to look meaningfully into the future, and its leadership shows virtually no sign of awareness that this may be a major strategic mistake. URI's failed Board of Governors operated in a backward 20th century mode—as though the prime function of the University is to be a feeder system for American corporations—before being put out of business by legislative fiat this year. Despite its motto claiming Big thinking, and its academic plans calling for preparing students for relevancy in a future world, URI is not yet a progressive hotbed of future-aware thinking. It is not yet among the few contemporary universities capable of fomenting a national social movement worthy of humanity's 21st century plight.

We must all hope for a greater, pervasive institutional perspective that recognizes climate change, peak oil, and the perils of the planet as potential catastrophes. In the near future, all graduates should understand that their own futures are threatened; current efforts to bring sustainability into the classroom are weak because of poor understanding among URI's faculty, administrators, and governing bodies. URI is far from building an appropriate response to the looming perils to be encountered within the lifetimes of current students.

The Harrington Opportunity

URI's Harrington School of Communication and Media will be a significant help to the sustainability efforts at URI, if the URI community will let it. To too great an extent, the sustainability efforts are fractured and exclusive. The role of the Sustainability Officer reflects the University's acknowledgment that it must do more to create effective campus-wide communication and coordination. That spirit must also spread to the involved faculty. My own experience is that this may not be so easy. Even within academic units, awareness of mutual needs and opportunities is only slowly disseminated.

At the sustainability teaching discussion, there was mention made more than once about a sense of frustration in locating qualified speakers and credible material for use in the classroom. The search for examples and truth sounded to me like the search of undergraduate students, largely focused on "I looked on the internet but I don't know what to believe." For the most part, I blame this on the silo effect of more than a century of academic specialization, leading to fracture, competition, and suspicion. Academic communities share the same human barriers to communication as are common in any other human organization, plus a few stemming from the weirdness of virtually immutable academic structures that no longer serve the academy well.

The Harrington School is well positioned to serve as a catalyst and nurturing forum capable of overcoming some of the obstacles facing URI's sustainability efforts. The School's still evolving sense of vision and mission includes goals to do more in media, obviously, but also to take on the socially and academically rich scholarship of scientific communication (both in its narrow discourse sense and in its wider relation to the public sphere). Even more valuable may be the new Directors insistence (which I consider proper and even essential at a Land Grant institution) that the School seek ways to engage society beyond the walls of the University (i.e., to expand the land grant tradition of technology transfer through broad and deep engagements with social issues within a myriad set of communities within the state and region). This is a philosophy and orientation that can serve sustainability well.

In its evolving strategic planning, the Harrington School is now positioned to serve in several capacities. For purposes of discussion, let me suggest a few (disclaimer: these are my own offerings and are not to be attributed to the School, results of public discussions at Harrington School events or forums, etc.).

There are several ways in which the Harrington School can enrich the stock of media materials available for use by faculty seeking sustainability materials.

In the coming semester, I believe we should and will be seeing more formal efforts from the Harrington School to explore and lay the foundations for strong integration between the School and the URI sustainability efforts.

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