May 9th, 2010

What Sustainability Education Is to Me

By Tina Evans

James Pittman’s “living definition of sustainability” forms the foundation for my definition of optimal sustainability education in that it offers an integrated vision for sustainability that focuses on the health and integrity of human/nature systems. Pittman defines living sustainability as “the long-term equilibrium of health and integrity maintained dynamically within any individual system (organism, organization, ecosystem, community, etc.) through a diversity of relationships with other systems.” Pittman’s definition of living sustainability describes what I call “socio-ecological living sustainability.” I use “socio-ecological” in addition to “living” because “ecology” — the study of the earth household — is inherently concerned with relationships — with systems views — and these views are central to exploring social power and exploitation. Using the term “ecology” highlights the fact that the systems referenced in the definition include both living and nonliving components of earth systems. This definition is “socio-ecological” because society is embedded within ecology, and the definition is “living” because, like all life, it is open to change driven by historical and natural forces. This openness to change points to an important aspect of the definition: it is place specific; what might be sustainable in a given context is not necessarily so in every context. The appropriateness of changes to and adaptations of the definition is therefore place-specific in the same way that the appropriateness of life adaptations is in many ways determined by the specific context. The definition, to remain viable, must take form and evolve in living situations. Sustainability, then, is a set of lifeways lived within specific, historical circumstances. Within these lifeways, considerations of the “long-term equilibrium of health and integrity” remain the central focus for communities.

My focus as a sustainability educator is in higher education as a critical pedagogical process that, at its best, is capable of engaging students, faculty members, and the community in sustainability praxis. The purposes and goals of this transformative praxis depart from those dominant in higher education today in that they involve students in the process of naming the world and defining desired action. This praxis seeks to (re)integrate our fractured identities and worldviews. It is counterhegemonic in orientation so that it directly confronts the political economy of late capitalism and its means of production as primary drivers in the sustainability crisis. It takes a transdisciplinary approach to integrating the academic disciplines and seeks to heal dichotomous and destructive fractures within the modern worldview such as those separating humans from nature and men from women. It seeks to authentically reconnect people with each other and with the land. It embodies sustainable forms of leadership and entails educational processes and content that encourage the kind of personal and community engagement that can foster sustainable living. In short, actualizing sustainability education would mean revolutionizing higher education. The need for this revolution is urgent. If it is diffused or delayed until the dire consequences of socio-ecological and/or economic collapse are upon us, opportunities for higher education to engage in a sustainability-oriented remaking of the world will have vastly diminished.

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