Inclusivity

The disruptive force of sustainability and why we need to be careful

A coal miner in Floyd County, Kentucky, 1947.
Coal miner in Floyd County, Kentucky, 1946. By U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17048858

Sustainability is a disruptive force. By fundamentally changing the way we think about interconnected social-ecological-technical systems, sustainability demands new models for governance, institutions, economies, technologies, and value systems. These are necessary changes. All of our students know that maintaining the status quo will be inadequate at best, dangerous at worst. We must find new ways, new interventions, to build a sustainable future.

However, change can bring hardship. In the 15th century, the advent of the printing press in Europe set in motion the spread of knowledge and literacy, but put thousands of scribes out of work. The Industrial Revolution in the 18th century spurned the growth of incomes, cities, life spans, and educational attainment, but undermined the way of life for small-scale artisans. The knowledge revolution and growth of computing and robotics is eliminating occupations and will do so in ways we don’t fully comprehend. Transitions can release people from drudgery or dangerous work, but also separate them from their livelihoods, their communities, what they know and how they define themselves.

We are now undergoing an energy transition, away from coal to natural gas and renewables. This should have positive effects for the planet by reducing emissions of carbon dioxide. But it can be devastating to coal mining communities. The planned closure of the Navajo Generating Station, one of the worst polluting coal-fired power plants in the United States (and also expensive to operate), will have positive environmental benefits but will put thousands of people out of work, many on the Navajo Reservation. As GIOS Director Dr. Dirks reminds us, one of the reasons that energy from solar panels is becoming inexpensive is that these systems, once installed, require very few workers.

It is important to remember that embedded in the term sustainability is the notion of human well-being. A key challenge for all of you is develop transition strategies that are just and fair, paying careful attention to people who are most vulnerable. The pace of change will continue to accelerate and change will happen in sudden, unanticipated ways. And change must happen. What I ask of all of you is to use your deep systems and normative perspectives to make sure that the transitions lead to ‘inclusive, inter-generational human well-being’ (Matson, Clark & Andersson 2016) while taking care of earth’s life systems on which we all depend.

Sustainability is a disruptive force, and should be. But I urge all of you to take on this awesome responsibility, and amazing sets of opportunities, with care. I am confident you will.

Congratulations Class of 2018!

Matson, Pamela, Clark, William C., and Krister Andersson. 2016. Pursuing Sustainability: A Guide to the Science and Practice. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Sustainability and the value of inclusion

Sustainability has often been described as a ‘normative science.’ This means that sustainability asks what we should do to make things better for present and future generations and the planetary systems that support life. Embedded in the notion of should and better is a sense of fairness, or equity.

Sustainability is a powerful idea because it starts with the principle of inter-generational equity, meaning that current generations need to think of the well-being of future generations, not just their own, as they make decisions.

It also includes the need for intra-generational equity, or fairness within present generations of people, both as a principle of fairness and for what is necessary to get us to a sustainable future (gross inequities can undermine the ability of societies to think and act in the interests of long term viability of people and the planet).

The sustainability principles of fairness and equity are best achieved through deliberate acts of inclusion. I use the term ‘deliberate’ deliberately because inclusion rarely happens on its own. This is not necessarily because of bad intentions, but because people will often seek out those who share the same values and experiences and even physical appearances.

But the pay-offs of deliberate inclusiveness are too important to ignore. We have ample evidence that demonstrates that innovation and group productivity is enhanced by greater diversity and inclusivity. To be clear, these pay-offs occur not simply from grouping diverse people together — there must be opportunity for all individuals in the group to participate, have a voice, or state an opinion. A key role of leaders is making sure that all–not only the loudest or the most senior–are deliberately invited to participate. It is also critical that people are treated with dignity and respect, and know they are valued.

In sustainability, we benefit from teaching in a field that requires inclusive approaches in order to succeed. In the School of Sustainability, inclusivity is built into our curricula, whether in methods (e.g. stakeholder engagement) or as core content (e.g. justice and ethics in sustainability).

Principles of equity, diversity, and inclusivity cannot be ‘add-ons’ or afterthoughts if they are going to be taken seriously. In my experience, the best way to engage meaningfully with these and other principles is to integrate them into the curriculum, which is something we have worked hard to do over the last dozen years in the School of Sustainability. This is not about imposing one’s set of morals on another — it is about recognizing what makes institutions effective and what motivates people so that they can continue to grow, learn, and be successful.

For sustainability to succeed, it must be an all-in endeavor.