If your answer is “Yes” to all 3, you’re probably a good person. Good for you.
I’m not going to discuss #1 or #2, but I’d very much like to address #3 and try to explore this concept of sustainability with you. We can already agree that this word seems to be everywhere nowadays. For instance, just this week, I received an EUR-related email demanding “integration of sustainability in the teaching programmes but also measures that would enable more sustainable travelling for work.”
Every business in the world wants to be sustainable and if you’re not sustainable, you’re probably bad. Sustainability is the new trendy word, after diversity, a bit like disruptive being the magic word in business schools. In propaganda, these terms are called “virtue words”, positive concepts like independence or freedom that everyone perceives differently, but you’d better use them here and there to remain in the loop and show your goodness.
So what exactly is sustainability? In 2010, the Office of Sustainability at the University of Alberta provided a working definition of sustainability as “the process of living within the limits of available physical, natural and social resources in ways that allow the living systems in which humans are embedded to thrive in perpetuity”. Perpetuity means “to last forever”, unless you are sent to a Dutch prison, in which case you can get parole after 2 years. In other words, according to our Canadian colleagues, sustainability is making sure that we live forever with limited resources.
Is sustainability about conservatism?
‘Academics must make more conscious decisions regarding their work-related flights’
Twenty-two prominent academics working at Dutch universities sounded the alarm last week…
The concept of sustainability is very similar to the issue of stress. When someone is stressed, that person receives advice to deal with it such as: do yoga! Watch videos of kittens! Meditate! But then, get back to work ASAP. That way, you’re supposed to manage your stress better, as opposed to taking drastic measures to avoid it. Sustainable means we don’t want to change our lifestyle, we’re just willing to make a few adjustments so that we can continue living the same way with a few minor and harmless changes.
This is where the problem arises: sustainability means striving to keep on doing what we do for as long as we can, so that we don’t have to change too much. Yet, as was so eloquently said in The Leopard, the amazing Visconti film from 1963: “For things to remain the same, everything must change”. In this film, the Italian aristocracy wants to be sustainable, meaning it wants to conserve its privileges but is ready to make the necessary adjustments to its lifestyle to keep its prerogatives.
In the same way, most businesses, for profit or not-for profit like EUR, want to exist in the future and include sustainability through CSR, a wonderful acronym that means Corporate Social Responsibility. The idea is to appear to be a “good” business that looks after the community and doesn’t harm the environment (too much). Yet all businesses, imitating nations, aim to grow as much as they can. Is there one business in the world that would announce that it was going to stop growing because it is big enough? Do you know of any country that would decide to stop growing in order to be sustainable? There might be a slight contradiction here between being sustainable and growing continuously. The concept of growth is so embedded in our minds that we rarely question it. Growing is part of the equation to survive as a human species.
Academia is a wonderful place where we create and discuss knowledge. There can never be enough knowledge, yet the way we produce it should be questioned. The hypocrisy of academia has already been pointed out, with so-called sustainable policies such as recycling Starbucks plastic cups and providing meat-free borrels, while some scholars are living out of a suitcase since they have so many places in the world to be. Taking shorter showers and composting doesn’t compensate travelling to Cancun for a super important academic conference. “I’m ready to save the planet, unless it gets in the way of my career.”
Ultimately, we still bargain with morals, just as it was possible to pay for your sins in the Catholic Church. We take feel-good decisions, such as carrying an expensive sustainable bottle of water, but wouldn’t miss that conference where ‘so much is at stake’! I have a friend who flies continuously, but feels good because she gives to a company that will plant trees to compensate her carbon footprint. Did I mention that said friend works for an environmental IGO?
Is there a future for sustainability?
Instead of being sustainable, how about changing the structures of how we live? In a culture of “Publish or perish”, where quantity matters more than quality, isn’t it time for academia to think hard and better about the future? We don’t just have a choice between dying because of global warming or feeling constantly guilty for consuming meat/dairy products/gluten/out-of-season fruits/clothes/whatever makes you feel bad. We have options. Academia is a place where we make sense of knowledge. Mostly, we analyse the present and explain the past. It can also be a place where the future is invented.
“For things to remain the same, everything must change.” We have to reconsider our culture of growth, not apply band-aids to a cancer that is spreading. At what point can we say, “that’s it, we’ve reached our goals, we don’t need to grow anymore”. If EUR were to declare that it was going to stabilise its number of students over the 10 next years, there would be an outrage, because societies keep growing and demand an education for the next generations. Then, next question: which country will announce: “ok, we have enough people, we don’t need anymore”. Earth is finite; at some point we’ll need to stop growing. Unless we colonise the universe. And because the universe is theoretically infinite, that’s the problem solved.
Until then, I’d like to argue for a different approach. Instead of living in fear and guilt for the coming decades, maybe we can address some of the myths we’ve always lived with. The first one is growth. I’d love the EUR community to discuss some more. I’ll provide the non-organic but delicious French wine.
(NB: I haven’t flown to an academic conference in more than a decade, but confess it’s not to save the environment. I also don’t own a car but that’s because I can afford not to have one)