How to best teach sustainability?
There are many different definitions of sustainability used on a daily basis. Throughout my college career, I have become increasingly more wary of using the word because rarely is there a shared understanding of what it refers to (of what is being sustained). To explain. In the summer of 2010, I interviewed 200+ people in central park about their understanding of the concept. Each answer was different. This happens on campus as well. For those of us studying the subject, a common activity in our courses is to try to “define sustainability” ourselves. In the classroom, this group-oriented exercise usually results in a version of the brundtland report’s definition of sustainable development, with an idealistic, equal balance of economic-, environmentalist-, and social values.
However, one reading that I’ve found particularly helpful in advancing this critique of “sustainability” (to a point where students are evolving concrete development goals) has been “Supply-Side Sustainability”, by T. F. H. Allen, Joseph A. Tainter, T. W. Hoekstra. Rather than suggest a definition for the word, this book outlines a strong framework for thinking about the interplay of environmental and social systems. The authors stress that sustainability requires that our institutions of problem solving themselves be sustainable. It seems so obvious, but their attention to “monitoring and predicting” before “problem solving” for sustainable development is often one that get’s lost in the free-flying use of the word.
Establishing sustainability goals that specify the things to be sustained and the conditions in which they are desired is one of the main concepts this book emphasizes for creating explicit sustainability programs. The authors speak about how these goals should concern system contexts rather than outputs to eliminate management complexity.
Why the departure from the balanced economic- social- environmental- ideal definition? These Authors acknowledge that sustainability is a value-laden concept, constantly in flux. Society’s understanding of “Sustainability” changes as the contextual factors that are important for society’s survival develop and change. As the Authors bluntly put it:
“Sustainability is maintaining or fostering the development of systemic values, at an acceptable cost, for as long as they are needed.”
Understanding system contexts so that one can know what to monitor and how to do so reliably is perhaps the most honest acknowledgement of what sustainability means to societies today. Another great quote:
“Sustainability is not an ecological condition so much as it is an interplay between a continuously evolving state of nature and a continuously changing state of mind “
(Allen, Tainter, Hoekstra 2003)
Teaching how to Monitor and Predict
A focus on identifying the phenomena that are important to monitor, so that one may know whether the sustainability goal is being met, is the first lesson in problem solving that should be taught to students concerned with sustainability management. Predicting a trend of the contexts to be sustained based on data derived from monitoring and the knowledge of constraints are the next steps. Once they have been taken, a student will better be able to manage systemic contexts so that they stay within the state of range specified in the sustainability goals.
This approach is rooted in systems thinking – a way of approaching the world as a study of complex adaptive, social-ecological systems. Rather than focus on the outputs or objects that systems might produce, this approach includes a decidedly holistic thinking about relationships and the contexts that preserve them. Allen, Tainter and Hoekstra’s sustainability framework understands the problem of diminishing returns on the social-ecological systems in place as a problem with our fundamental problem solving to support them. Efficiently eliminating complexity, this framework allows students to identify what dysfunctional systems lack… and supply only that. Deploying ecological processes to subsidize management efforts rather than conversely is the backbone of this approach.