A week ago, a group of SUMA students walked into a bar. I promise, this isn’t a setup to a joke. In fact, the jokes made that night were exceptionally lacking in both setup and delivery. Unbeknownst to the group, a weekly comedy show was being held at that same bar. While trying to work the room, the opening comic and M.C. started asking members of the audience what they did. Seeing how 90+% of the room was SUMA students, he got the same answer: “I study sustainability”. This is where the setup starts to fail. The self–professed comic didn’t know what sustainability was. As a concept, as a profession, or as a practice, sustainability tends to confuse people. As a group of 20 or so Masters students who actually study sustainability, we couldn’t seem to explain it to him in a cohesive or concise manner. As Einstein said:
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
But, sustainability can be really hard to define. The concept of sustainability is something that we, as students and professionals, feel most comfortable talking about amongst ourselves. By keeping it so insular, we don’t have to explain it to outsiders, who may or may not be on the “same page” as us. Because, once you start to explain it, you also start to see the holes. The easiest method is to quote the famously cited Brundtland Commission report:
“Sustainable development is the kind of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.“
If we’re lucky, half of recipients will be satisfied with this answer. This leaves the other half still unsure about “what you do”. I maintain that to define sustainability as a job function or as a career choice, you are setting yourself up for a myriad of questions. I challenge anyone in the field to define their career goals without using the following words:
Currently, the world of sustainability is fragmented. You find sustainability professionals in corporate settings, in nonprofits, in manufacturing, in retail, the list goes on. Sustainability professionals perform the same, yet massively different function, in any job. We act as translators. In this role, we are expected to speak the languages of science, of policy, of economics, finance, engineering, writing… sometimes all at once. Furthermore, we are expected to keep up to date on all things both inside and out of the aforementioned fields.
To exemplify: Currently, as many know, Flint, Michigan is having a water crisis. The city’s water is contaminated with toxic levels of lead (I understand that this is a gross simplification of the issue at hand). This is causing massive issues for the city’s current residents (again, a gross oversimplification, but bear with me) with unknown future ramifications. I would argue that this is quintessentially a sustainability issue. Not only are we dealing with water, a limited and easily contaminated resource, we are dealing with an infrastructure issue. Flint has no current (read: digital and searchable) records of water delivery infrastructure or health coding. We are dealing with a policy issue. No one wants to “take the blame” for failures in the system. We are dealing with a public health issue. Flint residents have already seen their children fall ill due to lead exposure with yet unknown future consequences. We are dealing with an engineering issue. How is Flint supposed to fix this? All of these fields have their own specialists and experts, but to combine, synthesize and compartmentalize these problems takes a specific type of professional. Issues such as these necessitate individuals trained and well–versed in all of the previously noted fields, not as an expert, but as someone who possesses the language necessary to enable conversations amongst said groups. This is an issue discussing how we deal with specific resources now with great concern on how it will affect future generations.
I know that there is far more to sustainability than disaster management. Just as I know that there is more to sustainability than environmental preservation, recycling, carbon mitigation, renewable energy, resource conservation, corporate reporting, responsible finance, etc.
What I hope you’ve taken from this, is that Sustainability is complicated. As an industry, sustainability probably couldn’t exist solely on its own. Sustainability necessitates the modulation of existing industries to meet standards that provide universal benefit. I believe that once we stop treating sustainability as its own “thing” it becomes easier to define. Sustainability matters, and it’s got to be able to be explained simply.
-David Hugens M.S. Candidate
*Trendster is a voluntary, crowd-sourced initiative facilitated by SUMA Net Impact. It does not represent the collective views of Columbia University, the Earth Institute or Net Impact