Initial Publication Date: June 26, 2012

Demonstrating why sustainability is complex

Cailin Huyck Orr, School of the Environment, Washington State University - Pullman

Promoting sustainability is complicated and I am not convinced that we always understand how to do it well. This makes teaching sustainability challenging, especially to first and second year students who might expect science to have the right answers to environmental problems. My approach has been to lay out the reasons achieving sustainability is so difficult and to give students some tools to begin to approach these problems. My hope is that the next generation of environmental scientists will take us closer to achieving sustainability because they understand why engineering, legal and disciplinary approaches have failed in the past and why interdisciplinary approaches may work better.

Students come into my class having finished an environmental science 101 course where they had an introduction to sustainability as one unit in a 15 week semester. Many of them have a misconception that if people would 'just' make better choices there would be no environmental problems and that people do not make 'good' choices basically because they are greedy or self interested. My challenge is to illustrate why sustainability is complex, how economics, history and legal issues impact peoples' decisions and why equity and fairness are important to sustainability. I have done this with a place-based case study approach, starting with cases students are familiar with and moving to less familiar locations.

I use water as a focus because it is universal, easy to understand why we need it, sustainability issues can be applied to any location, and it can be linked to energy and food security. It is also relatively easy to show students that they, themselves, are not making sustainable choices when it comes to water because they do not understand the implications of their actions on water resources. For example, the water in Pullman, WA where the WSU campus sits is from a sole source aquifer that is not recharging. Most students do not realize that any water use from this aquifer is essentially not sustainable. We also talk about the amount of water needed to produce a pound of beef or a pair of jeans and how this compares to the amount of water used in activities the students typically think about when considering conservation such as showering. Once we have established how hard it is to make sustainable choices, we can explore what is important to water sustainability and build from there.

It is important for students to understand there are ways to move forward, including methods for tackling difficult or 'wicked' problems, and they have the power to instigate change. I teach the basics of adaptive management and use of scenarios as possible approaches to environmental problem solving in situations where good solutions are not obvious. Adaptive management, or management designed as learning experiments, can sometimes provide information when regular science can not. Scenarios can both prepare communities for uncertain futures and also be used as a capacity building exercise for stakeholder groups that may not initially have common goals or common vision for the future. Students have been willing to be quite involved in the projects where they are asked to applying these ideas to specific problems. I hope that the ideas we discuss with water are transferred to other types of sustainability issues as the students encounter them later.

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