Students everywhere are seeing dramatic changes in Earth—and they’re demanding that their educations be made relevant to the world they see emerging around them.
They are asking about sustainability and looking for sustainability, and increasingly seeking their answers not just in the sciences, but in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.
They want to be able to read and interpret as well as observe and examine these changes in the Earth, and they’re looking for the skills to do so in all of the disciplines.
They are looking for systemic alternatives and transformational solutions. And they believe these are both possible and necessary.
In this introduction, we will help provide teachers with the basic approaches in Sustainability Studies, and materials for taking their work to the next level in a progression of approaches leading to what we will term “Critical Sustainabilities,” below.
“Sustainability” and “Sustainable Development”
“Sustainability” and “sustainable development” are terms that point to new paths for societies in contrast to business-as-usual. The global discourse using these terms dates to 1972, when Donella Meadows and other MIT researchers first discussed sustainability in relation to human development in their book Limits to Growth.
In 1987 the report of a United Nations-sponsored commission, chaired by former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, produced the best-known definition of sustainable development: “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
However, this definition is not perfect, since it is anthropocentric (what about other species and ecosystems?) and raises the difficult-to-define concept of “needs.” Other definitions, none perfect either, are here [stay tuned for a link to definitions].
Despite its inherent vagueness and the lack of a universally agreed-upon definition, the ubiquity of the sustainability concept points to powerful underlying themes that speak to the needs of our time. These include:
- A long-term perspective
- A holistic approach to problem-solving
- Proactive strategies that can actually meet needs such as for carbon neutrality
Although its long-term connotation is important, the notion of “sustaining” human societies is somewhat misleading. After all, we want not just to sustain a very flawed status quo, but to actively bring about a better world. People want “sustenance” in all the main aspects of their lives, and in this sense there are also echoes of nurturance and cultivation embodied in the discourse as well.
Since its birth in the 1970s, writers have approached the concept of sustainability from a number of different perspectives:
- Environmentalists have emphasized ecological threats and environmental restoration
- Economists have emphasized the need to reform economics and reconsider systems such as capitalism
- Social justice advocates have argued that environmental protection is impossible without greater social equity and the centering of climate and environmental justice
- Activists in the global South have pointed to problems of First World over-consumption and exploitation of other societies historically, through colonialism, conquest, and extraction
- Indigenous peoples and their allies have emphasized the need to learn from traditional environmental knowledge
- Feminists have pointed out that the exploitation of nature is closely parallel to the exploitation of women within patriarchal systems
- Ethicists have called for a new Earth Ethics that goes beyond traditional conceptions of moral behavior
- Spiritual and religious leaders have stressed the importance of changes in spiritual awareness and values
In the end, each of us must develop our own understanding of sustainability. One or more of the above perspectives may speak to us in useful ways. On a day-to-day level, we can practice the skill of viewing situations in a long-term, holistic, and proactive manner, and can seek to implement sustainability strategies in our professional and personal lives.
At NXTerra, we see the genius of sustainability studies and the term “sustainable development,” and we credit the work this term has done and the work that is still being done in its name with so much ingenuity and so many helpful responses to the unfolding climate crisis.
But with climate science now telling us with increasing urgency that development today is not meeting this definition of sustainability, despite decades of sustainability efforts at every scale, it follows that sustainability, as a concept institutionalized in university discourse as well as in corporate practices and governmental policies, must now be subjected to additional constructive criticism.
For an informal proof of this assertion, try finding a single extractive multinational corporation engaged in the most harmful carbon extractive industries whose web site mission statement does not proclaim a guiding sustainability doctrine.
We now urgently need fresh approaches that go further toward confronting the climate crisis in ways both global, national, and local, with an even more numerous and diverse set of actors (what conventional sustainability studies calls “stakeholders”) in all fields of human endeavor.
We must answer our students’ questions and take sustainability in to the critical, theoretical domain of the humanities and social sciences.
Critical race, class, and gender analysis will be required, as will be critical environmental justice and climate justice studies [see also David Naguib Pellow 2016 and 2017].
One place to observe these dynamic questions being asked is in the almost daily mass media coverage of the global student uprising for climate action of 2019.
Greta Thunberg, for example, the 16-year-old Swedish high school student and founder of School Strike for Climate, always leads with the science of climate change, its near universal consensus, and with the common sense understanding that this consensus means that nations and institutions should be taking action now.
Greta in particular, and students everywhere in general, are teaching us that the concept, the questions, and the practices of sustainability can be and in fact must be understood in terms of intergenerational climate justice.
Yes, sustainability means energy efficiency, building codes, and carbon emissions—but it also means empathy and love for the children of today and the unborn of future human generations and all living beings whose fate is to struggle to live with the sustainability decisions and policies we are making today.
Students and youth are demanding systemic changes in society and culture, in production and consumption, changes to ensure that something remains for the future Earth, the next Earth that they and all of us are building right now: “Use resources,” they say, “but don’t use them up, don’t damage the planet’s ability to provide for future generations.” Save something for our children and their children—something of the natural world, and something of and for the species that we all rely on for so much in every way, from the plants that produce the oxygen we breath to the animals that nourish our experience and befriend us.
Critical sustainability is a concept uniquely appropriate to our current predicament, in which any chance of success in solving the climate crisis demands that everyone, including universities, educators, corporations, and governments quickly begin adopting deeper and more urgent understandings of sustainability ethics as guiding axioms and transformational sustainability practices as standard procedures.
For this, we will need to learn to teach and work in new ways with our students.
NXTerra aims to renew and advance our common discussions, teaching tools, and community practices of sustainability throughout our pages, and we invite you to contact us and get involved.