It’s All Connected; Thoughts and Reflections on Sustainability

Sustainability is much talked about these days, but does anyone really know what it means? Or what it might mean for a UNR student? One of the mostly widely used definitions of sustainability goes something like: “Meeting the needs of today’s generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.” Well enough, perhaps, but what does that really mean? What is a “need”? Food, water and shelter come to mind, but what about my iPhone? Or for that matter what about your education?

 The word sustainability itself has some troubling implications. To paraphrase Bill McDonough, if I asked you how your relationship with your boyfriend was and you answered “sustainable,” I might be tempted to say, “Gee, I’m sorry to hear that.” Is sustainability really what we want or do we want something filled with a bit more fire, vigor and passion? A lot of people see immediate connections to the sciences and engineering in sustainability disciplines but where do music, art, dance, and literature fit in?

 I’m not sure I can answer all of that in a short essay, but I know I want to live and work in a way that is exciting, active, and one in which we ask these questions and try to search for answers. Really, isn’t that what a University is all about? Engineers can find better ways to live, but philosophers are needed to understand why we need to live and artists can help us express the way we feel about how we live. Often reading a story about a fictional society that reflects some element of ours is a better way to point out issues than is a technical paper that details the calculations about why.

 As I think should be clear, I am one who sees the connections among all these elements and disciplines (and dozens of others I didn’t mention) and sees the importance of all of them. Would it surprise you to find out that my Ph.D. is in chemistry and that I spent 15 years as an air pollution researcher? Or that my undergraduate major was environmental toxicology and my minor was English literature?

 That being said what does it say if a University teaches sustainability in the classroom but continues to operate as if there was no tomorrow? Does this describe UNR? Do you know?

 I’d like to try and answer some of that with a series of blog posts and give us all some things to think about and perhaps even to do. Nevada is facing some pretty critical issues the next few months and years and the lens through which we view these can inform how we choose to move forward. Sustainability can help us decide where we want to go by looking at the broader costs and benefits of our choices. I would like to start by writing a bit about what is going on at UNR, how you can get involved and what it might mean.

 UNR has been doing quite a lot to improve our sustainability efforts and this was reflected last year in our receiving a B+ score by the College Sustainability Report Card, an independent rating group. This score was based on a lot of efforts by a lot of people throughout campus and is a good indication of the breadth of the commitment of the people who work and study here. A lot of good information about campus sustainability efforts can be found on our website: www.unr.edu/sustainability including two recently completed reports.

 Much of what is described in UNR’s sustainability efforts has come from the operations side of things, but this has been driven by both upper administrative commitment and student involvement. It was the students at UNR who led the drive to make your new student union, the Joe, a “green” building – the first explicitly such building built by NSHE. The Joe is also the first building on the UNR campus to have a solar electricity generating system on its roof. Hard to see, but you can see the energy it has produced by looking at the sustainability website. The path blazed by building the Joe has been followed by other actions. And those were followed by more. All these small steps add up to

 Perhaps that’s really the most important point. Sustainability is not some single act. It is the sum of thousands of acts that move in a better direction – better for us all.

Add comment March 8th, 2010

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Learn more about sustainability efforts at the University of Nevada, Reno: environment.unr.edu/sustainability