Friday, November 14, 2008

Sustainability Forum at UIS 11/13/08

This week has been sustainability week at UIS, and because I work full time, I haven’t been able to participate in anything until last night’s Sustainability Forum.

I was expecting a few faculty speakers from the environmental studies department to lecture for a few hours, which would have been fine. Instead, we had what turned out to be a huge conversation, led by Drs. Ti-Fen Ting (Head of Environmental Studies), Amy McEwan (Biology), and Bill Carpenter (English). As it was one big dialogue between the professors and the students, I don’t have a lot of notes to go by as I write this, but it provoked some good thoughts.

The three professors first defined what sustainability means to them:

Ti-Fen: Three aspects must come together and be balanced for us to be sustainable – environmental well-being, social justice, and economic equity.
Amy: Any action that can be repeated over and over again in the future, from a scientific perspective, is sustainable
Bill challenged us with this Devil’s Advocate thought: What if all the commercials we see and hear about the environment and doing our part in recycling are just a front to get us to do small things that make us feel better, while getting us to ignore the larger political, social, and economic issues that are challenging people all over the world?

Dr. Carpenter’s questions prompted a great discussion, and I think it went hand in hand with the definitions Dr. Ting and Dr. McEwan gave as well. My own thoughts on this are probably pretty clear after reading through this blog, but I’ll put them out there anyway. I don’t necessarily think all the ads for being green are a front, but doing things like recycling and consuming less are sort of the easy things to do. And please don’t get me wrong – I don’t think any less of someone for doing only those things, because I think that doing those things alone saves resources and gets someone in the frame of mind to possibly make some bigger changes. If someone spends the rest of her life recycling everything she can, reducing the amount of resources she uses, and reusing other things, then she’s made a huge impact on the world in which she lives. We need to encourage people to do these things, however small they may seem, because if everyone were to do these small things, imagine how huge it would be!

But there are some people who are not content to leave it at the small things, those who want to move on to revolutionary things, like changing economic systems and the ways we think about social justice. As you can imagine, to me this is a huge stewardship issue, and I’ve written as much. Environmental health, social justice, and economic equity all feed into each other, and as such, according to Dr. Ting, we won’t have a sustainable planet until we have true balance in all areas.

This semester in my environmental ethics class, we’ve been studying the different arguments people make for saving the planet. I mention this because most of the arguments, no matter what lens one is looking at the issue through, have been about saving the environment for the environment’s sake. Last night, Dr. Ting mentioned that in one of her freshman seminars, the one thing she hears repeatedly from her students is that “we have to save the environment.” But last night, she asked us, “Why? The environment can take care of itself. The earth functions well enough on its own without humans around. So who are we really trying to save by saving the planet?”

Us. We’re trying to save our own butts. It’s all well and good to want to save the planet, but in the end, we have to realize that the beings who really, truly benefit from us trying to save the planet are the human beings. And for me, it was really good to hear professional academics say that we have to be concerned not only with the environment, but with other people in that environment, for us to be truly sustainable. It’s good to hear them say that our lack of sustainability is causing people all over the world to live in sub-human conditions, and that we need to fix those conditions while we fix the ecological issues.

I haven’t talked about the most recent election much at all, and I’m glad it’s past. One of the things that annoyed me about both of the candidates, and about politicians and the media in general, is how they say that clean coal is a great thing for our country’s energy future. Bullcrap. Coal is coal, and we don’t have the technology to sequester carbon yet. I live in Illinois. We are rich with coal mines here, and we use the coal for most of our electricity. Federal law mandates that power plants using coal have the right scrubbers to get as much of the sulfur and nitric oxides out of the emissions before we shoot them off into the air, but we don’t have anything that will allow us to sequester all the CO2 we’re releasing. Ergo, there’s no such thing as clean coal. Every time Obama or McCain brought up clean coal, I would rant about it, much to Jeff’s chagrin. But last night, Dr Ting said this: “Clean coal is an oxymoron.” Yes!

In closing, the three professors gave us their perspectives on what would change minds on the issue of sustainability. From the rhetoritician, language will change minds as we become more persuasive. From the biologist, we need to realize that we are all part of nature – we are not separate from the animals, because we ARE animals. And finally, from the environmental scientist, we need not only policy to change laws, but we need to not be so greedy and wasteful with our resources.

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