NSights Blog

What is Sustainability?

With some calling into question the word “sustainability” and even the concept, maybe it’s time to consider what it really means and how a university can demonstrate its values and assess its performance.

Sustainability, broadly defined, means a way of meeting our needs while not limiting the ability of future generations to meet their needs. So, what does this really mean, what are we really trying to sustain, and is sustainability the best word to convey the intention?

Sustainability is often associated with the environmental movement, but this limits its impact and importance. I'm happy to call myself an environmentalist, though often feel the need to clarify what that means. I am certain the earth and some kind of living ecosystems will be here for a long time, with or without humans. When I talk of the environment, I mean an ecosystem and planet-wide environment capable of supporting human habitation and advancement. Sustaining that kind of global system, therefore, becomes a necessary prerequisite to this end.

The word "sustainability" has challenges, as many writers on the subject have pointed out. The architect William McDonough has argued against the word sustainability on the basis of its blandness. He asks, "... shouldn't we really be looking for something that is actually fecund-you know that's full of blood and vigor and excitement?" A fair enough assessment and he offers suggestions, such as rather than talking about something having zero impact, why not reverse that expression and say we have something that is 100% positive impact? Who woke up this morning and wanted to achieve zero today? The historian William Cronon has written and spoken extensively on this history of the use of sustainability, and also criticizes the word for several reasons among them that it is often associated with further consumption, by being used to encourage people to consume more, but in a "sustainable" way. McDonough collaborated with the chemist Michael Braungart to write "Cradle-to-Cradle: Rethinking the Way We Make Things." The book's key idea is to eliminate the very concept of waste. Thus, they write, "waste equals food." In other words the endgame for everything we make is not that it becomes waste, but that it becomes food; either food in the way we normally think of it, like something that can be composted (food for microbes) or a "technical nutrient" - something that feeds into a manufacturing process with 100% recovery.

The writer Jeremy Butman argued last summer in the New York Times against the word and even the concept of sustainability, pointing out the word often is used in the context of "preserving" as in wanting to sustain a certain natural system. The bigger challenge with this, as my discussions with ecologists have shown me, is that we humans often seek to preserve or sustain what we think an ecosystem should look like, as opposed to how it really should function. Visual landscapes vs. functional landscapes is how it has been presented. We want to see a forest as a specific mix of tree species, but forget the functions of providing habitat, oxygen, and cleaning and infiltrating rainwater. This gets us back to the distinction between sustaining what we see as opposed to supporting the systems necessary to continue the full functionality of the system. Supporting what it is we seek allows us to speak in positive terms: we support clean air and clean water. It becomes a statement of a goal. Then we have to figure out how to make our systems work toward that goal. Still, the words seem to either come up short, or require too much explanation to be useful.

The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has a program called the Sustainability Tracking Assessment & Rating System (STARS), "... a transparent, self-reporting framework for colleges and universities to measure their sustainability performance." Essentially this is a point-based system to assess sustainability efforts, inform universities about how they are doing and identify what they might look to do in the future. The University of Nevada, Reno is currently undertaking an effort to complete a STARS rating. It is enlightening to look at the categories included in STARS because these show what current thinking really values in sustainability.

For example, Academics covers both teaching and research, and includes such metrics as what courses are taught and how much the institution makes its campus a living laboratory (sometimes called the Shadow Curriculum). The Research section includes a metric on open access to research; I think this is making the argument that the best outcome for research is for the knowledge to be widely available and applied. The second category is Engagement with sections for both Campus (internal) engagement and Public (external) engagement. The point here is that we need to be engaged with our community and ultimately our world in order to be sustainable. Building a wall around the campus, or anything else for that matter, doesn't help, no matter how well we are doing inside. These two sections get us through half the rating system and haven't even touched some of my favorite topics like energy and water. Those come in the third section, Operations. Here we see subsections you might expect like Air & Climate, Buildings, Energy, Transportation, Water, and Waste, but also sections on Food & Dining and Purchasing. Since we are a significant economic entity here in Northern Nevada, what we buy and how we can encourage our suppliers through those purchases can really matter. The last section is Planning & Administration and covers areas like Coordination & Planning, Diversity & Affordability, Investment, and Wellbeing & Work. Again, what I see just by reviewing these categories is that most of them have nothing to do with the ecological or climatological impacts of our campus; they have to do with our place in this community. What this rating system is saying is that we cannot just build an isolated campus, we have to be engaged at all levels. Maybe that's the word I'm looking for, after all, being engaged, with all the implications of that word, is what sustainability is about.

Talking about sustainability allows us to address our values, our hopes, our intentions, and our aspirations. When we talk about sustainability we are, in part, recognizing that many of our current systems are based on resource consumption more than they are on resource regeneration. Thus, a good starting point is striving to be more resource efficient; to look to and build for the long term; and to constantly evaluate how we operate. That must include both that internal and external engagement I have talked about. Sometimes, it might appear that there are inconsistencies by talking about sustainability while we burn non-renewable petroleum fuels to heat our buildings. To me, recognizing the inconsistencies is not about compromise or acceptance as much as it is about education and always looking for ways to improve.

Education, in the broadest sense, is where I'd like to end this essay. This is, in many ways, why we are here. As we educate in the classroom, so should we educate on the walkways around campus. The way we operate our campus - what I earlier called the shadow curriculum - informs our entire community about these issues, and at the same time lets everyone see some of these practices put into use. As I said earlier this is not about compromise, but about recognition and appreciation. I'd like to close with a quote from Wendell Berry from his essay, The Pleasures of Eating: "I mentioned earlier the politics, esthetics, and ethics of food. But to speak of the pleasure of eating is to go beyond those categories. Eating with the fullest pleasure - pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance - is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend."

Replacing the word "eating" with the word "living" we can get: "Living with a pleasure that does not depend upon ignorance is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world." That, to me, is what talking about sustainability really means - it means knowledge and understanding with the hope that this will lead us to changing how we act and moving toward a more sustainable path forward.

John Sagebiel, PhD, is assistant director for environmental programs in Environmental Health and Safety, part of Research & Innovation at the University of Nevada, Reno, and has an extensive background in air pollution and sustainability. Sagebiel is chair of the University's Sustainability Committee, lives in a zero-net energy home and drives an electric car.

John Sagebiel