Learning to Create Sustainability

As part of the “Shaping Sustainability” Symposium, I attended a faculty panel discussion today entitled “Create”.

This panel focused on the idea that sustainability requires first truly understanding people and their cultural and political patterns.

The abstract for the panel is as follows:

“The panel will focus on social science methodologies that teach how to listen to voices that are marginalized by dominant social, economic, political, and corporate forces.  While many express interest in the idea of democratic participation, truly hearing, appreciating, and incorporating alternative perspectives is a time-consuming, challenging, engaged, and enduring process.  Despite these difficulties, it is essential.  Sustainability efforts often fail because the observations and ideas of certain groups are discounted or ignored.  The faculty on this panel will share their insights into committing to the task of listening in order to create sustainability solutions that work for all, and consider the structural inequalities that make this task difficult.”

Four faculty presented on very diverse topics:

Jennifer Thomson (Asst. Prof. of History) presented about the necessity for white society to own up to portraying history in a singular, biased manner, which is negatively influencing how we perceive current events, in order to take sustainable political action for the future.

While she was brief, I think she further opened my eyes to the idea that our history books convey certain activists groups more positively than others and strongly influence what judgements we carry with us into adulthood. For example, the story our society has chosen to tell about the 1960s is about Martin Luther King, not the Black Panther Party. She made convincing arguments about how we have gotten an accurate picture of neither group. Rather, one was portrayed as “good” or “peaceful” and the other as “bad” or “violent”.

Jennifer Silva (Asst. Prof. of Sociology and Anthropology) gave a talk that I could relate to and understand more than the others, considering she discussed the millennial generation. She argues the economically disadvantaged millennials are untrusting of institutions since they feel they have been repeatedly deceived (deceived into getting a college degree with the illusion that jobs will be readily available for good pay); in reality they have only been able to get poorly paying jobs, if a job at all, that never required a degree. Silva states a sustainable future will involve building institutions that foster solidarity, opportunity, and trust. I agree that the job prospects have not been as readily available as I would have assumed when entering college, and I can understand that millennials graduating from other schools might struggle after graduation.

Clare Sammells (Asst. Prof. of Anthropology) concluded from an anthropological investigation in Boliva that sustainability of a society requires that well-intended organizations truly understand the desires and institutions of a people before making changes. A NGO built kiosks in an attempt to improve the infrastructure of a local market, but actually caused the demise of this market, which had been functioning very well prior to the “improvement” by the NGO. By just the pictures she presented, I may have been swayed by the NGO’s plans myself, and the idea of kiosks would have seemed beneficial. But based on the information she gathered by speaking with the local entrepreneurs, I am convinced the kiosks were the wrong choice. Therefore, I agree with her main conclusion.

Finally, David Rojas (Visiting Asst. Prof. of International Relations) discussed proposals made at the UN summit dealing with climate change. Some propose policies that can revert our environment backwards, while others argue for maintaining the planet as it is currently. He made an excellent metaphor that best summarizes where the UN stands: In a car headed towards a cliff, environmentalists are the passengers and the politicians are the diver. The politicians at the UN are being told by environmentalists to hit the brakes, and the politicians see the cliff coming, but they still can’t decide if they should hit the brakes or not.

 As I mentioned, these were a diverse set of talks and I enjoyed learning from each one. Overall, the panel was very educational and insightful and I would definitely recommend students take classes by any of these faculty. While the overarching theme of the panel could be considered a proposed process towards a solution (ensuring we truly understand people and their cultural and political patterns in order to create sustainability), it is always somewhat dissatisfying to come away from talks like these. I suppose I am a pessimist, but I can never quite visualize how we will ever make actual change for so many problems.


Featured image: Sustainable Human (youtube)


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