Saturday, April 2, 2011

OSU Grad Students Sustainability Summit

April 1, 2011: OSU Grad Students hosted their first (annual?) sustainability summit, to unveil a resolution to establish a set of sustainability goals--by 2015--for the university. After introductions, the event centered on a set of presentations--by James deFrance, Aparna Dial, Joseph Fiksel and Rattan Lal--covering some basics points about sustainability, including concepts like sources and sinks (Lal), natural capital, feedback loops and systems thinking (Fiksel) and the basics of OSU's planning process.

Rattan Lal spoke of the need to establish baselines for emissions and resource use, as the basis for establishing goals. Aparna noted the challenge of aging infrastructure, and the initiative to meter all the buildings, a $3.5 million project. Joseph talked in general terms about the limits of the traditional model of economic growth, and the overshoot generated by failure to take account of natural capital. One of the few moments of argument surfaced when someone asked whether capitalism needed to be reined in, and both Joseph and Aparna extolled market mechanisms as an efficient way of coordinating responses. Both of them have been trained as engineers.

The event was well-attended and promising, but had its limits as a learning opportunity, in part because it assumed a homogeneous audience, all starting from a common baseline. In future years, I hope the organizers consider how to better integrate the summit into the rhythm of the academic year, and to choreograph diverse stakeholding groups. Coordinating such an event with Earth Week activities, for one, would open out the process to a larger context. Similarly, it would be useful to have breakout sessions geared towards different constituencies (There was a stylistic microdrama in the division between the suit-and-tie reps of Student Government and the t-shirted insurgents from Free the Planet and the grass-roots types.). It was, for instance, testimony to the limitations of the political imagination that, when asked how we can make sure the goals are implemented, the primary response was to "pressure' the administration.

At an organizational level--because sustainability is an organizational problem--it would be helpful for those working on the various dimensions of the issue (operations, student life, curriculum, research, community engagement) to meet semi-regularly to share goals, questions and learnings from the year. We need to create a field--a community of practice--that can "hold" the question of sustainability and how to approach it on an ongoing basis. Holding the question, creating a container for conversation, differs from a hierarchical performance review, in that it establishes a supportive environment, one which aims to renew and deepen commitment by making room for reflection and appreciation. It should, as well, ease the burden of individualized action, which often leads to moralism and resentment.

Psychologically, the challenge of sustainability is the need for enthusiasm, the desire for "more life." How to invest what can seem like compulsory austerity and self-discipline with symbolic and affective satisfaction? From sacrifice to communion.

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