Field Guide to Teaching Sustainability

Sustainability in the Anthropocene

   “Sustain what? Sustainability as a word is utterly vague until you apply it to a specific issue—sustainable ecosystem, sustainable energy system, sustainable transportation system, sustainable lifestyle. Then you can kind of get an answer.” ~Andrew Revkin

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We live in the Anthropocene, the age of humans. In the decades since the second World War, there’s been a great acceleration of human development that has reshaped the face of the planet. Our advanced technologies, rising affluence, and growing population combined use more material and energy faster than any population of organisms ever has. The scale and pace of this unsustainable development, easily visible from space at night, threatens to overshoot a number of planetary boundaries. Our energy, food, and water habits drive climate change, undermine global soil health, disrupt the nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, and pollute or overdraft fresh water. Too often seen as just “environmental problems,” we know that the knock-on effects of exceeding these planetary boundaries drive problems for human security, health, happiness, and inequality. These challenges demand we revise and reinvent our ethics, our behavior, our technologies, our stories and art, and our organization to create a “safe and just space for humanity.”

Pims Martens writes, “Whoever says he knows what ‘sustainability’ is, in all probability does not.” Like Martens and Revkin, we recognize that the term’s prevalence can water it down into “sustainababble.”

Penn State defines sustainability as the simultaneous pursuit of human health and happiness, environmental quality, and economic well-being for current and future generations. There are many others. A quick perusal of sustainability literature yields millions of hits on the internet and thousands of slight variations on the term sustainability. Versions in wide use in different circles include the World Commission on Environment and Development’s needs-based transgenerational “sustainable development,” the triple bottom line or three pillars of economy, society, and environment. The Penn State definition more or less a merges these two dominant definitions. But these are far from the end of the story.

People have developed rules, variations, and used alternative terms.Julian Agyeman calls for “just sustainabilities” requiring the improvement of our quality of life and well-being, intra- and inter- generational equity, justice and equity in terms of recognition while living within ecosystem limits. Richard Heinberg developed five axioms of sustainability which focus on “critical resources” while the Natural Step created four-pillared framework. David Orr has crafted a version by contrasting “ecological sustainability” opposed to “technological sustainability,” an approach that resonates with debates over “strong” and “weak” sustainability in economics. Some leaders and thinkers are moving onto the concept of resilience which entails the ability to not just sustain, but to bounce back. Others have prefer flourishing, like John Ehrenfeld who wrote that sustainability is “the possibility that humans and all life will flourish on Earth forever.” Others have used the Jain, Hindu, or Buddhist concept of ahimsa–nonviolence.Still others prefer the term conviviality, personal freedom realized in ecological interdependence.

Whichever version or term we use, they all have some things in common. We recognize that we have inherited a world influenced by our ancestors’ actions and beliefs and that our actions and beliefs will impact our descendants’ world. We also recognize that those actions take place across different scales from the microscopic to global and that everything is interconnected. Our economies, societies, and the natural environments in which we all live. This interconnection means that we have some kind of moral duty to justice, care, virtue, or utility. These moral obligations extend not just to our fellow human beings today, but to our descendants and to the living more-than-human world. Finally, because we live in a society formed by institutions of government, business, education, and more, we know that the health of our societies and economies means that we need people who can effectively work and interact within those institutions. So whether we think about anthropogenic climate change, energy, and community development or agricultural systems, soil health, and the availability of fresh water, sustainability concepts and practices will be relevant. [To learn more keep reading or consult our “Resources” section.]

For sustainability to be real, it needs traction by accomplished through goals. In 2015, over 190 nations agreed to pursue the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development though the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The Agenda is stated ” is a plan of action for people, planet and prosperity…[that] seeks to strengthen universal peace in larger freedom. Ambitious in their scope, the goals call for action on all aspects of human well-being from ending poverty to guaranteeing peace and protecting human rights while ensuring that our food-water-energy systems are abundant, clean, and in concert with our planet’s physical and ecological systems.

We hope that through exploring the assignments and resources we have set up in The Field Guide, that you will be find effective ways to conceive of sustainability for yourself, your peers, and most importantly your students. We hope you will be able to answer the question, “Sustain what?” with more resources and options.