Tuesday, August 9, 2011

My Summer of Sustainability, Part V

This is my fifth entry in a six-part blog series on sustainability.

Sometimes all roads seem to point in one direction. This summer I've been having that experience with the concept of sustainability: assessing where we are now, what will be possible in 30 years, and how do we get from here to there.

The basic premise I'm working with is that humans are rapidly exhausting our supply of accessible resources, such that something has to give. That is, it is not even remotely possible that we can continue for another generation the materialistic lifestyle we're become accustomed to in the US—unless we're willing to forcibly deny the
equitable distribution of what's left and to tolerate massive suffering elsewhere in service to the status quo. Rather than continuing the charade that underlies the bumper sticker "How did our oil get under their sand?", I've started looking at two questions: a) How to create a vibrant, satisfying lifestyle that uses only 10% of the resources that the average American is currently consuming; and b) How to peacefully navigate the social challenges that such a massive shift will require.

These questions affect me both on the personal level (how will I live, and what am I called to do to help society to a softer landing in the decades ahead) and on the professional level (what role should FIC play in education and preparation; what is my role as a process consultant to better prepare groups to handle what's coming).

When thinking about sustainability, I like the metaphor of a three-legged stool: there's a ecological leg, a social leg, and an economic leg—and you won't have a very stable piece of furniture unless you have three stout legs. I am interested in what it takes to develop strong legs, and also the integration of the whole, so that the stool will be a tool.

As this is a big, all-encompassing topic, I'm going to tackle it in a six-part series, roughly in the order in which I've been bumping into this conversation over the past two months. Here's the outline:

Proposal to build a working model of sustainability
II. The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World by Ted Trainer
III. Sustainability and Cohousing
IV. EDE Course at Dancing Rabbit in 2012
V. Increasing sustainability offerings on campus
VI. Transition Towns

• • •

Increasing Sustainability Offerings on Campus

It's my sense that societal awareness of ecological issues and the impact of lifestyle choices on the environment—which has been steadily gaining ground for decades—has mushroomed to the point where interest in sustainability is manifesting in many places. In fact, it is a hallmark of a growing movement that this happens.

No longer confined to the Green fringe, the seeds of sustainability have recently been finding fertile soil on university campuses. As almost anyone's definition of sustainability embraces community as a key component of the social aspects, this growing interest is naturally something that the FIC is keenly interested in following.

When the FIC's Oversight Committee meets Aug 17-18 in Virginia (for two days of mid-course corrections, midway between our semi-annual Board meetings), a major initiative will be discussing the Fellowship's response to this burgeoning interest on campus. What is our best role? In addition to cheerleader, should we suggest curricula; can we supply adjunct faculty; how about ideas for field trips?

One of the tricky parts here is making sure of the invitation before blessing others with "our wisdom." There is no advice so little regarded as that which was never asked for.

There will be at least two parts to the Oversight Committee's consideration: a) What do we think the FIC—and by extension, intentional communities—can bring to the party; and b) What is the best way to test the waters for potential collaborations? In the end, just like with communities themselves, it will boil down to relationships and points of entree. We will be looking for the connections we already have to explore for potential partnerships. We will be looking for the intersection of our interests and theirs.

Here's an example of what I mean. This topic first appeared on FIC's radar as a result of a conversation between long-time FIC Board member Harvey Baker and Don Janzen, who is a former director of the Communal Studies Association (CSA). It came out that Don knew of a fresh program at Oberlin focused on sustainability and this piqued Harvey's interest as an Oberlin alumnus. When Oversight discussed this briefly on a recent conference call (long enough to agree to set it aside for the Aug 17-18 face-to-face meeting, where there would be adequate breathing room for a thorough and thoughtful discussion), mention of this appeared in the conference call minutes. Communities magazine Editor Chris Roth read the minutes and informed us that he personally knows David Orr, who is heading up the sustainability initiative through Oberlin's Environmental Studies Department. It happens that Chris' parents retired to Oberlin and David has been a dinner guest when Chris was visiting. He offered to either be a go-between or to set up a conversation. Bingo!

In my experience, this is far and away to best way to proceed. While the response to FIC's suggestions will ultimately have to rest on their own merits (and our ability to build a solid bridge between what we're excited to offer and what people like David Orr are excited to receive), the chance for a serious consideration tends to rest far more on the strength of one's connections. All too often, cold calls tend to result in cold responses. Chris, happily, is willing to supply us with exactly the kind of "warm" introduction we covet.

What's more, we probably have other connections like this that we don't even know about yet—both because we have only a foggy notion of the academic linkages within our circle, and because we are only now starting to collect information about which campuses have sustainability programs.

There are four main pathways to academia:

o Places where FIC folks went to college, and still have ties. Harvey's continuing connections with Oberlin is a good example.

o Colleges and universities where friends have become professors, administrators, or trustees.

o Professors we have met through our work in the Fellowship, perhaps through bumping into one another at conferences, or in supplying resources for students to use in classes focused on community living. Our connections with the CSA are a rich vein in this regard.

o Connections established with professors who teach courses touching on community living and have set up field trips to visit our communities.

While this won't provide us a personal inroad to all the campuses out there where sustainability is being explored, it'll get us started and it will be enough to experiment with what our role might be. And that will be enough of a plan for now. It's fundamentally flawed to map out a partnership very far in advance of your would-be partner having arrived at the same table for the first time. Either this will be something we do together, or it won't have legs.

In the interest of symmetry, it's appealing to proceed with a sustainability initiative that itself has a decent chance of being sustainable. Kinda obvious when you think about it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Do not know much about the program but the Univ of Michigan has a center for sustainable systems.