What is sustainable?
We’ve only got one earth. Scholars across the University work at saving it piece-by-piece, discipline-by-discipline
BY MONIQUE BEELER
In the environmental ethics course she teaches at Cal State East Bay, Associate Professor Jennifer Eagan poses this question to students: How many planet Earths would it take to feed, clothe, and shelter each citizen of the world, if everyone lived like you?
It’s more than an abstract query.
Eagan, chair of the Department of Philosophy, helps students quantify their responses by assigning them to take an online survey called the “Consumer Consequences Game.” Participants answer questions about their daily habits and routines as accurately as possible. What percentage of their diet is made up of meat? Do they live in multi-family housing? How far do they drive to work or school each day? At the conclusion of the game, students learn approximately how many planets it would take to provide a similar lifestyle for everyone worldwide.
Eagan stuns each class of students by sharing her number: 3.2 earths.
Although she walks to work and buys locally-grown apples and lettuce, her daily cup of coffee and annual plane trips bump up the numbers for Eagan, a self-described environmentalist.
“They say, ‘Oh, 3.2 — that’s terrible!”’ Eagan says. “(But) most people in the U.S. blow a 6 or 7 on the test.”
“It’s a nifty quiz,” she adds. “It’s a great opportunity to reflect on what we would have to do to get down to one world.”
The exercise also exemplifies the creative strategies faculty members employ to help students relate to potentially overwhelming global concepts and challenges. “It’s difficult to do environmental education in such a way that makes people care,” Eagan says. “We even get into the discussion: Do we have to make people care?” Cal State East Bay faculty members and students in disciplines ranging from philosophy to business administration regularly tackle such questions as they ponder a 21st-century conundrum: What is sustainable?
Solving world problems
Scholars representing diverse disciplines, whether in the sciences or humanities, define sustainability based on the nuanced perspective of their field. Likewise, their proposed solutions to pieces of the global sustainability puzzle also reflect their areas of expertise.
As CSUEB professors and students consider a broad range of factors — from economic inequity to shortsighted political systems — stressing and stretching the planet’s resources and resilience, most agree that a collaborative, multidisciplinary effort is needed to restore and maintain the earth’s balance.
“To solve the world’s problems, (sustainability) has to be part of every discipline’s thinking,” says Professor Karina Garbesi of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies. “You need environmental biologists, physicists, engineers, and architects. That has to be the premise in order for sustainability to be achieved.”
Members of the University community are doing their part to contribute solutions. A political science lecturer, for instance, will publish a book in June examining loopholes in environmental law. An environmental studies professor is spending the next year working at a national lab exploring potential changes to household appliances that could jump-start cuts in nationwide energy use. And the recently revised graduate curriculum for the College of Business and Economics emphasizes sustainability as the program leads the way in educating business people for the region’s growing green economy.
“Since its inception in the early 1970s, environmental sustainability has been the foundational concept of environmental studies,” Garbesi says. “Only recently has the rest of academia, professional programs, and society as a whole begun to focus seriously on the issue, which is indeed a good sign, but long overdue.”
In April 2007, Cal State East Bay’s Academic Senate passed a resolution expressing support for making climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experiences for students, including treating campus facilities and grounds as learning laboratories. The Senate resolution also supported the expansion of research and other efforts necessary to achieve climate neutrality and sustainability.
While University community members agree on the importance of supporting sustainability in CSUEB coursework and research, particularly projects involving students, their starting point, or how they define the issue, is as varied as their areas of interest.
Defining and strategizing
Philosopher and ethicist Eagan, for instance, offers up an androcentric definition. The term refers to human beings and human practices and behavior, she explains.
“To define sustainability is to do these human practices forever and into the future,” she says. “It’s especially pertinent when you talk about resources.”
A sense of fairness — to people living on the planet now and those who will come after us — also comes into play in what’s known as intergenerational justice, a concept that is a fundamental principle in the field of environmental ethics, Eagan adds.
“If you think of sustainability, it should be whatever I’m using right now, to be fair, future people should be able to have what I have,” she says. “If you look at the science — agriculture, energy, land use — what (we’re) doing is not sustainable.”
Nailing down a precise meaning of sustainability also varies among related academic categories. Terri Swartz, dean of the College of Business and Economics, observes that faculty members within the college examine the subject from different vantage points, a fact that does not disturb her given the end-result: well-prepared students.
“Sustainability might mean one thing to someone in marketing; it might mean something else to someone in finance,” she says. “That’s fine. Our students, when they finish the program, they have an understanding of globalization, innovation, and sustainability and why a company needs economic, financial, and social viability.”
Garbesi points out that her field, environmental studies, embraces a definition incorporating the three interlinked E’s: environment, economy, and equity.
“Environmental sustainability was the initial concept, meaning you sustain the biosphere; you don’t cause degradation,” she says. “Equity requires that subsequent generations and different peoples get equal access to environmental services.”
The term environmental services refers to “services” supplied by the natural environment such as providing raw materials and energy that people use to produce goods; absorbing waste from human activities; and supporting life and offering benefits, such as pollination and climate control.
Whys and hows
Each discipline’s unique way of defining the issue also is reflected in how faculty members educate students and the types of research projects they undertake. Put more simply, the humanities, such as philosophy, often consider the “why” of the problem. As Eagan says: “Why are we trying to do any of this?” While the scientific and technical side of the academic house, she says, focuses on the “how,” as in “How are we going to make things better?”
Garbesi, for one, has devoted much of her career to exploring “how” aspects of the equation. On a recent gray winter afternoon, Garbesi, who has worked on energy projects from San Francisco to Eritrea in eastern Africa, is busy boxing up books and wiping away dust from shelves in the second-floor Robinson Hall office where she has worked for about 10 years. In keeping with her refusal to needlessly use electricity, the lights are off.
“Come on in,” she calls to a colleague at her door. “The office is the cleanest it’s been in years.”
In February, Garbesi began a one-year project for the Department of Energy based at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. She’s been charged with improving U.S. energy efficiency through two assignments.
“It will be fun,” says Garbesi. “I’ll have a significant group of engineers and post-docs working under me.”
The first prong of her project involves identifying household appliances, such as refrigerators, that have potential for “rapid energy efficiency improvement.” Then, she’ll set her team to work developing technology to make the potential a reality. The ultimate goal, she explains, is to create a new Energy Superstar designation, which would be 15 percent more efficient than washing machines and dishwashers bearing the existing Energy Star label.
“Energy efficiency saves you so much money, (because) it pays for the cost of renewable energy generation, such as solar,” she explains.
The other focus of Garbesi’s work at the lab will be a program exploring the prospect of “dramatically increasing home energy efficiency” by using direct current, or DC, circuits rather than the alternating currents, or AC, circuits American homes now use. Since most household electronics run on DC, an inverter is needed to adapt to the AC flowing through wall outlets. The conversion process results in significant energy loss, she says. Renewable energy sources, such as solar cells, on the other hand, supply the DC circuits that lamps and laptops require, with no energy lost in the conversion process.
Programs promoting renewable energy use count among Garbesi’s career high points.
“There are two things I’m most proud of: getting one megawatt of solar (panels) on four buildings on campus — at the time, it was probably the biggest solar system at a university in the world — and working with the students on this (CSU) systemwide climate action strategy,” Garbesi says. [See: “Students Craft Climate Action Plans for University and CSU,” p. 17] “It was wonderful watching them rapidly get up to speed and work with professionals in the field and see their work come to fruition.”
The environmental studies program at Cal State East Bay has grown in recent years and boasts about 40 majors. Many go on to work for public agencies such as cities and park districts and in fields such as sustainable resource management, green transportation, and environmental education.
Green jobs ahead
“With a B.A., many of our students go into public agencies, particularly municipalities,” Garbesi says. “Every city is required to have a climate action plan. Who is going to be doing that kind of work? It’s our students who largely have been in the green energy field, which is where the green economy is really exploding.”
In recognition of the growing green economy, particularly in the East Bay, the College of Business and Economics has made significant changes to the focus of its master’s in business administration, Swartz says. Key among the changes is a requirement that all students take the Globalization, Innovation, and Sustainability course.
“We’re not doing it as a fringe, we’ve built (sustainability) into our core,” Swartz says. “That’s where we think it belongs. When we look at employment opportunities in the East Bay and job creation, I anticipate more of that’s going to be happening on the green side.”
In refashioning the MBA program, faculty members took into account the “challenges we must address if we want to live in a healthy biosphere, in healthy societies, as healthy people working in healthy companies,” according to guiding principles for the new program co-written by Gregory Theyel, an associate professor of management. “Sustainability means we don’t want to see things get worse, but it does not mean we have lost the desire to see things dramatically improve.”
Theyel, who teaches business courses about subjects ranging from global strategy to sustainable management, has spent the past 10 years focusing his research and community involvement on the up-and-coming clean technology industry in the Bay Area. Clean technology, or clean tech, he says, refers to renewable energy generation and storage, energy efficiency, and technology for the renewal of resources such as air, water, land, and materials.
His clean tech research and business connections brought him to the attention of scholars at the University of Cambridge, who have tapped him to lead the Emerging Industries Program run by the Cambridge Institute of Manufacturing. Project participants are charged with translating scientific ideas and opportunities into products and services, explains Theyel, who will serve as senior research associate on the project. He also expects the ongoing exchange of knowledge and learning between scholars in the United Kingdom and the Bay Area will expose his students to research and professional opportunities that will make use of their advanced levels of sustainability literacy.
Emphasizing sustainability literacy in the revised graduate business administration program at Cal State East Bay, he says, has made the academic experience more relevant and useful to students and faculty, while ultimately benefiting the community.
“I believe what we do in life must offer positive outcomes for the world, and there are incredible opportunities to address the significant social, environmental, and economic challenges that define sustainability,” Theyel says. “On a personal and professional level, I want our students to offer positive solutions for restoring our earth, society, and economy through a range of opportunities from clean, renewable energy technology to community-based financing to the restoration of our air, water, and land.”
While Theyel and the MBA program help prepare future leaders of the green economy, the task of guiding students toward a deeper understanding of the politics behind sustainability — and how energy, environmental, and sustainability laws are made and changed — falls to others in the University community.
As part of the three-member team that teaches the “Thinking Globally” freshman learning community cluster, political scientist Craig Collins introduces first-time college students to how the political process succeeds and fails when it comes to issues of sustainability, such as protecting biodiversity and reducing fossil fuel dependence. Collins instructs the “Environmental Politics” course in the cluster; other classes in the learning community include environmental science and philosophy.
“My job is to teach them what kinds of policies are needed to deal with the problem and what are the barriers to making that happen,” he says.
Think globally, act collectively
Among the obstacles, he says, is that reversing or stopping some unsustainable practices — such as stripping forests of their trees or releasing pollutants from factories into the air — could disrupt or destroy the economic health of individual countries or, ultimately, the global economy.
In other words, Collins explains to his students, some solutions cost more than the problem itself. And while he doesn’t discourage the efforts of students who travel solely on public transportation or make a point of buying locally grown grapes and potatoes, he makes it clear that it will take collective political, social, and economic action to achieve major sustainability goals such as climate change.
“I would rather have them think of this as a systemic problem as opposed to an individual problem,” Collins says. “I want them to have a down-to-earth perspective on how serious the problem is and how hard it is to solve.”
To illustrate the point, over the years in his classes, Collins has discussed laws intended to protect the environment, such as the Clean Water and the Endangered Species acts. His students’ probing questions, however, soon poke holes in the laws’ effectiveness.
The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, for instance, called for all waters of the United States to be “fishable” and “swimmable” by 1983. Why, then, his students asked, was the San Francisco Bay still polluted? Collins found that the environmental law textbooks he used in the classroom spelled out the basics about the Clean Air and Energy Policy acts, but they didn’t delve into whether the laws fixed the problems as intended.
“There are so many loopholes that it’s not really working,” Collins says.
So, about four years ago, he started writing a book that took up where the environmental law textbooks left off. Titled Toxic Loopholes, it’s due out during the summer from Cambridge University Press.
“The first chapter is about the Environmental Protection Agency; is the EPA protecting the environment or protecting polluters?” he explains.
Another section focuses on the Endangered Species Act, which Collins says is probably the best law of its kind in the world, an impressive claim until one considers the details.
“They’ve brought back from extinction and guarded temporarily the health of 13 species, while 10,000 to 50,000 go extinct every year,” Collins’ research reveals. “That’s like putting a little band-aid on a gaping wound that’s gushing blood.”
Leading the long view
Despite the imposing obstacles to returning the planet to sustainability, Collins says change is possible, but he expects it to take a major crisis — on the scale of a Hurricane Katrina — to draw significant attention to the problem and generate the level of social support and political will needed.
“The problem with turning things around, is we live in this political system based on rapid economic growth and maximizing profit,” Collins says. “The environment is way down the list (of societal priorities).”
Boosting the environment higher up the list also may require overcoming basic human apathy.
“One of our limitations is we have trouble caring about things we can’t see in front of our faces,” Philosophy Professor Eagan says. “So one of the questions is: What do we do to spur our imaginations into doing these things we should be doing?”
Unlike politicians whose careers and ambitions are pegged to the next election cycle and business people who must focus on the next quarter’s earnings, Collins says, university scholars are in a position to take the long view and propose creative approaches others may not consider.
Theyel shares a similar perspective. “I see us offering society a dual focus — one, being a long-term, thoughtful perspective through our research and, two, a teaching and outreach focus for communicating our findings,” he says. “Through these two foci, we have the responsibility and opportunity to research and communicate the urgency and opportunities of sustainability.”
“Raising the questions is important,” Collins says. “Historically, universities have played somewhat of a role of being the conscience of society.
“By being able to step back and look at the universe we live in, it provides the time and space for reflection about where are we and where are we going.”