Saturday, January 3, 2009

New Year, New Blog

It's 2009, and time to get serious with the commitment to --what should I call it? Environmental awareness? Ecological citizenship? Green culture? Whatever it's called, Greenworld is going to be a place to organize my thinking and invite discussion about the large-scale changes that are going to be necessary if we're to make any progress towards sustainability.

Connie Rice of the Environment and Natural Resources Scholars at OSU has asked me to be part of a panel on Tuesday evening, talking about sustainability at OSU. Here are the questions she offered:

Describe your involvement in environmental initiatives at OSU.

What does "sustainability" mean to you? In your mind, what would a sustainable campus look like?

President Gee has said that OSU will be the "Greenest Campus on Earth" and just a couple months ago Gee signed the Presidents' Climate Commitment. From your perspective, is this leading to changes in how OSU is run, and if so, in what way?

Do you know of any universities that are successfully "greening" their campuses? What can we learn from our peer institutions?

What are some of OSU's strengths that we can use to create a greener campus and what are some of OSU's weaknesses in accomplishing this? What can we do, if anything, to use these strengths for positive change and make these weaknesses less of a hindrance?

How do you see students fitting into this disccusion of sustainability at OSU and playing a role in campus initiatives? How can students get involved now?
These are great questions, and will take some thought.

The first think [sic] I want to say is is to consider the strangeness of making "sustainability" an explicit social goal. We don't usually think about whether or not our society, with its values and habits, will be able to exist indefinitely: the continuation of life--by which we mean, life as we know it--is something we tend to take for granted. To say, then, that we need now to "become" sustainable implies that we can't just keep going, that something has to change. But what? how? and who's going to decide?

The second point, then, that sustainability is--by definition--not an individual project. It has to be a social project, set in a global-ecological context. It makes no sense to think of one place, one institution, one country, becoming "sustainable," as if its destiny could be uncoupled from the rest of the earth. Sustainability is not survivalism.

A third point, then, is that sustainability is necessarily a long-range project, a multi-generational project. There's no finish-line, no end-zone: we won't know whether we're genuinely sustainable for decades to come. Science can provide us with certain parameters: so, for instance, NASA's Jim Hansen can tell us we need to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, or risk having a drastically different climate by the end of the century. But how we should do that--who's going to do it, at what cost--that's going to have to be a political decision. Or better, a series of tough political decisions that will reflect struggles over our values, our culture and our society--the way we put our life together together. The struggle over sustainability is going to be with us for the foreseeable future.

What would a sustainable campus look like under these circumstances? Given that it's neither an individual nor a single-generational goal, the question needs to be: how can the university--and Ohio State in particular--most effectively advance the general understanding of sustainability? That is, how are we going to reconstruct higher education in the face of the sustainability challenge?

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