You may recall that a few weeks ago, I passed along a query sent to me by a professor at a college in the Northeast U.S.:
I am teaching a college course this semester on Sustainable Science and Technology and was wondering if you had any suggestions for a one-hour activity that would engage students to learn and possibly apply some of the fundamentals of sustainability.
I offered up a free subscription to The Green Business Letter to whomever could come up with the best response.
Thanks to all of you who responded. The suggestions ranged from the rather simplistic . . .
Why don't you use the classic definition, which introduced the concept into our world? I think it suffices in depth and scope. Namely the definition used in the famous Brundtland Report (1987) which defines sustainability as "Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs."
. . . to the decidedly complex (and occasionally obtuse).
Which makes perfect sense. Sustainability is a rather simple concept -- I like to describe it as an Intergenerational Golden Rule -- that can be quite complicated to communicate. How do you covey the notion of a world in which we can celebrate abundance . . . forever? And do it in a way so that people get a systemic view of it all -- the interconnectedness of people with the natural world, across borders, cultures, and generations?
To be frank, I'm not sure that any of the entrants to my little competition achieved that lofty goal. But there were some worthy efforts. Several fell in the category of "life-cycle thinking." That is: You can convey the fundamentals of sustainability if you can help people understand and appreciate the total environmental impacts of everyday things -- where they come from, how they are made and brought to market, how they are used by the people who buy them, and what happens to them when they are no longer wanted or needed.
So, for example, Eric Corey Freed, a.k.a. the Organic Architect, offered up this exercise, which he says he uses with his students in Sustainable Design 101 at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. Says Eric:
1. Pick 10 common materials and walk the students through the lifecycle of each, asking: a. where does it come from? b. what are the by-products of it's production? c. how is it delivered/installed/maintained? d. how healthy is it? e. what do we do with it when we are done with it?
2. Have the students map their lives and include ALL of the inputs and outputs (this is food, waste, air, carbon dioxide, etc.). Then ask them to take RESPONSIBILITY for what goes in and what goes out. How do you manage the damaging outputs?
There were several contributors with lesson plans along these lines.
But my vote -- and the Green Business Letter subscription -- goes to Vinay Gupta, a self-described "eccentric thinker with a strong interest almost everything" who is working on a design "for a new series of very efficient microbuildings called Hexayurts which make 100% efficient use of sheet goods."
Here's Vinay's contribution:
I'd start with Easter Island - the clear example of a civilization, capable of creating complex artifacts, which collapses entirely because they neglected their limits and went right ahead and drove their trees to local extinction.
Really ram that one home. No trees means no wood, no fertility, barren, windswept waste. For these (picture of stone faces).
Then whip out some charts showing global biodiversity decline. Stay away from topics like Global Warming where there is *any* possible room for weaseling, and stick to what's charted without possibility of doubt.
Picture: Easter Island on one hand, Planet Earth on the other.
"Now, the timescales are a little longer, and the unknown are greater, but do you see the cause for concern? We may make the whole Earth into one great Easter Island within a couple of generations. Impossible?"
Picture: of American Suburban Home, two or three cars parked outside. In the front lawn, an Easter Island-style Stone Face.
"Perhaps not. The fact there is a risk is enough reason for our society to change course to avoid it."
"Now, let's talk about sustainability."
Switch focus to GDP vs. Energy/Resource Intensity: "we are actually doing more and more -- making more wealth, more stuff -- with less energy, less raw material."
Introduce the notion of sustainable harvest - what the earth can continue to generate indefinitely without degrading future productivity.
Graph into the future: GDP vs. Energy/Resource intensity, eventually crossing the line where the GDP is generated within the "Sustainable Harvest" numbers. This is obviously going to be a "Wild Ass Guess" chart, but the goal is to communicate "This is sustainability -- where the entire environmental impact of the Human Race falls below the Sustainable Harvest thresholds of the earth."
Now, at that point, give the kids a breather. Shellshock is not an improbable reaction to thinking on this scale, but without it, environmentalism is a meaningless optimization: reducing CO2 by 20% means nothing, at all, outside of the context of a *goal* which is zero emissions -- it has to be progress towards a climate-neutral state to be meaningful. Without a goal, it's just arbitrary action to sooth the conscience of the world, rather than fixing the problem, which is that we are destroying our ecological support structures.
So, give 'em a break. Play some Mahler or some Nirvana, hit the mental reset switches.
Then spend 20 minutes talking about success stories: hybrid car adoption, wind power and the like. Let them walk out with the feeling that there is good money to be made solving the problem.
Topics not to touch: India, China and growth of consumption in the developing world, toxic waste accumulation, etc. Just ... let it slide.
Those who are interested either know already or will find out soon enough. Those who aren't should walk away with one thing in their head: the GDP vs. Resource Intensity curve, and the idea that progress down that curve can be accelerated, at a profit, by intelligent business decision making. If *EVERYBODY* in that class walks out with the idea that "resource efficient business process are profitable and good for the planet," that's a success. Let the few motivated ones dig down to the next level, but get that basic message into every head.
I like this approach for a number of reasons. For starters, it looks at sustainability from a societal, even a planetary, perspective, without seeming abstract -- as opposed to looking at it from the standpoint of products or other "things." It also takes note of the fact that a lot of this stuff is just too damn complicated (global warming) or depressing (toxic waste accumulation) or overwhelming (the potential impacts of China or India) to deal with -- and, as a result, may not be worth touching on in this hourlong class. And I love the Mahler/Nirvana break to allow for some midcourse recovery time -- music to my ears!
Vinay's approach is also uplifting, which I think is critical. It communicates the notion that we can do better, and that profitable, resource-efficient businesses can lead the way. It leaves students with hope, maybe even excitement -- We can DO this!
And that may be the most important lesson of all.