My Perspective on Sustainability

My life’s work is committed to sustainability-- to integrating the core concepts of sustainability, the critical denominator to the future of us all, be we human, animal or plant, into my teaching, research, service and community life. I am trained as an ethnographer who has, for the last eighteen years, studied the complexities of change and the potentialities of sustainability in the local contexts of sub-arctic native communities. You are probably wondering what I mean by sustainability . . .

‘Sustainability’ is considered a slippery concept by those who seek a singular broad definition for it. Critiques of the sustainable development efforts spurred by the 1987 Bruntland report focus on attempts to manage systems globally by an undefined ‘we’ who knows what is best for the world as a whole. This, in turn, affirms a dominant western top-down economic world view that manages ecosystems based on generalized prescriptions rather than on specific contexts.

Researchers and practitioners have begun developing alternative approaches that defy conventional deductive reasoning and argue that sustainability and sustainable development are not static prescriptions but flexible discourses and meeting points for different ideas on how to achieve both human betterment and healthy, robust ecosystems. Anthropologists, those trained to understand the local, began these recent stirrings. Recent approaches to defining sustainability are expansive and include not only protecting the environment from irreversible damage so it can continue to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future but also seeking human well-being through social equity and democratic utilization of resources while preserving cultural distinctiveness.

If we move our focus to local contexts and reframe the objective of sustainability as a dialogue with those contexts, then the concept itself takes on a life and a power. My research does just that. From May 2003-May 2006, as Principal Investigator (PI) for Investigating the Economic and Environmental Resilience of Viliui Sakha Villages: Building Capacity, Assessing Sustainability, Gaining Knowledge,” a three-year $90,000 NSF project, I asked questions about the long-term sustainability of the cows-and-kin adaptation. The primary research objective of the project was the co-production of knowledge to gauge the local resilience of rural post-Soviet agropastoralist native communities in the face of economic and environmental change. To these ends, the project has three interdependent research areas, each of which investigates different questions: 1) How do local populations define “sustainability” based on community goals? 2) To what extent can locally-determined definitions of sustainability be operationalized for household and community-level adaptation to economic and environmental change? 3) What aspects of local indigenous knowledge support household and community-level adaptation by upholding locally-determined definitions of sustainability? For more on this project and publications, click HERE.

In the process of that 2003-2006 project, our consultants outspokenly expressed their concern about the local effects of global climate change (GCC). Given the increasing effect that GCC is having on local populations across the globe and the highly charged geopolitical arena in which action must be taken, I argue that GCC is one of the biggest international development issues we face. My new research focus is to contribute to a broader understanding of and response to GCC. I am investigating local adaptive strategies and also the ways local inhabitants are and potentially can enter the political realm (most notably Sheila Watt-Coultier and the Inuit Circumpolar Conference) and their concerns about the various international protocols and agreements on climate change (Montreal, Kyoto, etc.). I argue that global climate change is essentially a human rights issue and that we must approach it in that mindset and using the same international protocols. I explore these issues in an article I recently submitted entitled “Gone the Bull of Winter: Climate Change as the Loss of Culture and the Culture of Loss” (under review for Current Anthropology). I also plan to formally investigate this area with my new research project with field work to begin in the summer of 2007. For more on this project go to HERE

I am also involved in sustainability research locally. I am co-PI for a 3-year $130,000 project funded by a Chesapeake Watershed Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Unit/ National Park Service grant, “Development of a spatially explicit participatory model to explore anthropogenic on-site threats on rare aquatic resources of the Potomac Gorge." We are examining interactions between three key drivers: physical site characteristics such as soils, slope, elevation, and location in a watershed; the type of land-use development, such as high density vs. low density residential; and characteristics of local landowners, such as income, mobility, and valuation of community and local natural environments. My focus is the latter-- understanding the human dimensions of environmental change—how local actors perceive their environment and choose to act sustainably or not. I oversee survey development, implementation and analysis.

With a grounding in sustainability based in international research, for the last five years I have been exploring teaching, research, and service activities that foster sustainability in western culture. I am increasingly interested in the cognitive aspects of western consumer culture. I am interested in how we, in western societies can we reduce greenhouse gas emissions when our population is addicted to a nonrenewable resource dependent way of being, how we can reground our priorities to be based in the quality of our lives in community rather than in competitive consumptive modes, and how our country can realize its rich potential as a leader in alternative energy and environmental stewardship.

One example of my teaching in this area is my 300-level undergraduate course, “Environment and Society,” which focuses on building an in-depth knowledge of and a practical set of responses to the diverse issues of sustainability: the environmental, socio-cultural, economic, and political challenges we face in the early 21 st century. The course begins by analyzing, as a class, our individual understandings of human-environment interactions by exploring our own connection to and dependence on the earth ecosystem. This provides a personal basis for then investigating the state of the global environment by exploring key texts on contemporary sustainability including Jared Diamond’s Collapse, Thom Hartmann’s The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight, Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, and Amory Lovins, et al.’s Winning the Oil Endgame. To complement these key texts, we will have a series of guests and selected films. Students will be responsible for 1) reading, discussing and presenting on a broad range of sustainability issues on the local, regional, state, national and global levels, 2) critiquing and developing clear arguments about those diverse issues, and 3) applying analytical their skills in the context of case studies. Students will also be expected to keep a personal journal to track how their human-environment understanding is evolving during the course.

One example of my service in this area is my work with campus sustainability. In the last years I have begun to realize my long-held commitment to the greening of campuses through the organization of the first Earth Day celebration on the George Mason campus in spring 2005. Beginning in Fall 2004, I facilitated a campus-wide initiative, a week of university-wide Earth Day activities geared towards raising local awareness and local responses to global climate change. I began by sending out a campus-wide call to faculty to solicit their involvement in organizing Earth Day activities to raise on-campus consciousness of climate change. We met regularly and held a successful two weeks of activities, highlighted with a day of presentations by Dr David Orr. We also held a 2006 Earth Day celebration featuring Bill McKibben. We now have a growing environmental movement on campus and have formed sub-groups to work on foci such as greening of the curriculum, green building and landscaping, improving the existing waste generation through reducing, reusing and recycling, and greening of our campus stores and food service. Our 2007 Earth Day speaker is Janisse Ray. Our group established an Environmental Task Force in January 2006 in order to work on campus sustainability issues across university sectors. To see the text of a Fall ’06 article in the university newspaper, see below.

Text from Fall ’06 Article on ETF

George Mason University ’s Environmental Task Force wants to see the GMU community take its place among the ranks of those who are living, working and learning sustainably.

The task force, made up of representatives from facilities management, dining services, transportation, university relations, university life, faculty and students, was formed last fall to explore ways to establish environmental stewardship as a campus goal and instill a green sensibility in every facet of GMU’s activities.

Professor Susie Crate, a co-founder of the task force, says the most important objective of the task force is to hire a sustainability coordinator who will define the goals of the GMU effort and coordinate planning and projects to reach those goals. According to Brent Ingram, who represents the Provost’s office on the task force, there is support for such a position once the task force completes some necessary bureaucratic groundwork.

Introducing sustainability into the curriculum is another major goal of the task force. Crate and task force co-founder Professor Dave Kuebrich will be hosting a workshop for 20 faculty in January on how to include sustainability issues in their classes. They are also working to identify classes that already have sustainability content. “A big part of the work of the task force is changing the culture” to make sustainability a part of everyday life, says Crate. More classes with green content will further this goal.

In the meantime, the task force is working on several projects that will give it some much-needed exposure. Michael Galvin of Dining Services and Alyssa Karton of University Life soon will be introducing reusable mugs, emblazoned with the task force’s logo, to the Johnson Center. The mugs will be sold full of the purchaser’s choice of beverage, with refills available at a discount.

A native species planting project, headed by Professor Andrew Wingfield, Michael Galvin and Megan Draheim, a task force student representative, has been approved and a spot designated for it diagonally across from the facilities building. The plants will be supplied by Earth Sangha, a Buddhist environmental non-profit organization devoted to conserving native plants in their natural habitats.

Students are getting in on the sustainability action, too. Dickenson Hall has a green floor where some of the residents are part of a green living learning community. According to resident and task force member Kristen Culp, the members of the green floor have had their first meeting to plan on- and off-campus activities. They are working to bring in speakers and films to further illuminate the green lifestyle for the general campus population. These students are also involved in the native species garden project.

One obstacle to initiating any type of campus-wide program at Mason is the far-flung student population. It’s difficult to develop a sense of unity and cohesion among a group that includes a large number of non-traditional students, commuter students and students who work full time, have families and attend classes part-time. According to Crate, most successful university greening programs are at schools that have a more traditional student body. This point was echoed by Draheim. “Many students are on campus only one day a week” and aren’t always aware of the larger issues, she said.

However, Crate sees the role of the task force as a means to unite the campus community around the theme of sustainability through action in the areas of curriculum, facilities and services. Crucial to this effort is the need to make every member of the university population embrace their unique role in the sustainability of the planet. As Crate points out, “humans have a huge capacity to live lightly upon the earth.”

The Environmental Task Force evolved rather quickly as Crate and Kuebrich learned about sustainability efforts at other universities. In particular, Crate studied the program at State University of New York at Buffalo, which supports a highly effective Environmental Task Force that has been active since 1999. Crate realized that one key to effective campus programs was official support. She knew the GMU task force would need the same support to “gain recognition, develop momentum and make some tangible progress.” She made a presentation to a receptive group of deans and department directors at their monthly meeting in November 2005 and the task force was established.

George Mason’s destiny is to flourish, but according to Ingram, those advocating “sustainability at Mason in the coming few years [must] confront some problems that do not have easy solutions.” With vision, leadership and hard work, the Environmental Task Force will find solutions and lead GMU into a green future.