Initial Publication Date: June 20, 2012

The Sustainability Challenge in the Classroom

Tim Lutz, Geology & Astronomy, West Chester University of Pennsylvania

" suggest the possibility and the importance of the restoration of disturbed harmonies..."
George Perkins Marsh, Man and Nature (1865)

"Sustainability is the possibility that human and other life will flourish on the planet forever." Our current unsustainable existence is a result of a lost sense of connection in three critical realms: 1) our relationship to the natural world; 2) our sense of what it is to be human; and 3) our sense of responsibility to others."
Adapted from John Ehrenfeld's Sustainability by Design (2008)

"The decisions Americans make about sustainable development are not technical decisions about peripheral matters, and they are not simply decisions about the environment. They are decisions about who we are, what we value, what kind of world we want to live in, and how we want to be remembered."
John Dernbach quoted in Tom Freidman's Hot, Flat and Crowded 2.0 (2009)

"I'm always struck by how successful we have been at hitting the bulls-eye of the wrong target. We've become a culture of technicians. We're all into the 'how' of it, and nobody's stepping back and saying 'But, why?'"
Joel Salatin, Food, Inc. (2009) Sustainability is more than developing renewable energy technologies, finding ways to store our excess CO2, or even holistically integrating the environmental sciences. I adopt the view of Ehrenfeld and others that the BIG challenge of being sustainable is attuning our individual lives and human systems anew to nature and to the essential requirements of flourishing. It means paying attention to the connections, natural and human, that run through each of us. How do we bring this to our classroom?

Sustainability is all about sensing connections; the organization of learning into disciplines is all about parceling life out into many non-overlapping pieces. Interdisciplinarity, in the sense that this still involves disciplines, is not enough. I don't accept the concept behind "integrating discipline Y into" or "adding discipline Y focus": it implies that unsustainability, which originates from reducing life to fragments, can be fruitfully repaired by gluing a few pieces back together. Rather, when you see sustainability as understanding life's interconnections as completely and responsibly as possible, then you can't help but see the threads of every discipline running through everything. If you take as a worthy subject for an introductory course on sustainability the topic "How I got my lunch today, and what might be a better way to do that," then water, soils, climate, energy, carbon, earth history, and more topics from the contents of an intro geology book come into play. Substitute any other "X" for "lunch" in the above and you might come up with a somewhat different set but you won't miss geoscience.

I try to make disciplines disappear in my classroom. Nevertheless, interdisciplinary courses as defined by a university are a useful proving ground and possible platform for a sustainable pedagogy. Especially at the introductory level they give us the freedom to explore broad issues and connections. One of the fallacies of disciplinarity from a sustainability perspective is that each of us get to be (have to be!) an authority in something, and this tends to inhibit our movement into interdisciplinary, or better, non-disciplinary teaching. We should to set aside the idea that "adding another discipline" to our course means becoming an authority on yet more stuff.

Training, interests, abilities, colleagues and so forth all influence our perspective on what we need to know and what we are prepared to bring to a classroom. When I started teaching my sustainability course 18 years ago I didn't know much outside of geology. Teaching the course broadened my vision to the importance of history, ecology, economics, philosophy, communication, literature, pedagogy, design, psychology, management, and government. I don't "teach" these to my students per se—and yet without touching on them, how could we pursue a topic such as "How I got my lunch today, and what might be a better way to do that?"

My objective in the classroom is to be as much as possible the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage, and to facilitate this students sit around tables in discussion groups, and I circulate. I lecture and use slides as little as possible and avoid traditional textbooks. Experience and reflection, as a class and as individuals, are key. Outdoor activities and in-class readings and films (e.g., Food, Inc., Energy and Morality, Kilowatt Ours) provide a common experiential basis for everyone in the class. My students and I gather information about our own connections (e.g., consumer patterns, water and food footprints) that I aggregate for class consideration and discussion. This approach reduces my role as the authority and aims to achieve the state described by M. Perry Chapman in American Places (2006): "Active forms of learning engagement, collaborative and individual, blur the boundaries of responsibility and activity that previously separated teachers and learners. All parties are teaching and learning all of the time."

Trying to make the disciplines, the textbooks, and the professorial authority disappear leads some to ask, "Should this be a university course?" It's a good question. I believe that our universities and their curricula developed over time to serve important human needs. An unforeseen and unintended outcome of their success has been that people have forgotten to ask Dernbach's questions: who are we, what do we value, what kind of world do we want to live in, and how do we want to be remembered? We've become so wrapped up in the technology that we no longer stop to consider which target we're aiming at. How else can we explain the crisis our hydrosphere, atmosphere, ecosphere, and anthroposphere are in? Now we need to find a new direction, and we need to start changing our universities' course, big ships though they are.

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