On Monday, March 21st I had the pleasure of visiting the Green Meadow Waldorf School in Chestnut Ridge, New York to discuss the role that science plays in helping people to achieve the goal of a sustainable society. In a talk entitled “Pulling Humanity Back Inside the Boundaries: How Science Serves Sustainability“, I gave students some basic background on how sustainability is often defined, how scientists look at environmental sustainability, and how asking scientific questions can help inform our efforts to become more sustainable.
But what was definitely more exciting for me was to hear students’ ideas about sustainability. Before I presented my own conceptualization of sustainability, I asked students to define what sustainability means to them. After all, I had been invited to be the keynote speaker for a week that students had decided to theme around sustainability: if they wanted to explore sustainability during their “high school week”, what exactly did they expect to be exploring?
Students in the school — four classes from 9th through 12th grade, about 100 kids in total — broke into groups and each listed their ideas about how to define sustainability, producing a diversity of perspectives. Interestingly — and very appropriate to my presentation — a number of student groups listed a variety of different actions: things like composting, or organic farming, or recycling. These actions were valuable to our discussion because they came before we actually discussed the major challenges that our societies face as we strive to become sustainable. Were the actions that students associated with sustainability important, or were these just behaviors that seem sustainable or perhaps even have an exaggerated reputation for being sustainable?
Beyond defining sustainability as a set of behaviors, students also got to the conceptual basis of sustainability: many groups discussed the concept of balance, the property of cycling of materials, and the idea that sustainable systems can be maintained for long periods of time. There were also a lot of interesting — and insightful — word associations with sustainability. At least a couple of groups listed the word “love” as a motivator of sustainability, which nicely got us thinking about the values that underpin sustainable efforts. And while almost all of the groups focused exclusively on environmental sustainability, one group managed to round out the “three legs” usually associated with sustainability by recognizing that both economic and social stability are required to become truly sustainable.
After we had enjoyed the chance to explore the many possible facets of sustainability, I talked about the scientific approach to environmental sustainability, emphasizing how the quantitative nature of ecological cycling makes it possible for ecological systems to persist for long periods of time. I then discussed three examples of how current-day human civilization is not sustainable. First, I talked about agriculture. I began by explaining how for most of our history our ancestors had been hunter-gatherers, and that this kind of existence makes it very hard to over-exploit the local environment for very long. I then discussed the emergence of agriculture, eventually leading to the fertilizer-driven system of modern agriculture that today provides us with so much food (but also creates a variety of unsustainable impacts). In similar veins, I traced our historical roots as exploiters of the marine environment and users of energy, bringing us to modern over-fishing and an energy economy dependent of fossil fuels.
After a break I asked students to think about what comprises a scientific question. In a brief discussion students very insightfully recognized that some questions can be answered scientifically and that others depend on the values and norms that we have internalized. I particularly enjoyed when one student pointed out that the question of what the best color is could not be answered scientifically.
I then introduced students to a particular question — What unsustainable impacts are humans creating, and where is our impact greatest? — that would be focus of the remainder of our discussion. I answered this question by looking at the “planetary boundaries” (Rockström et al. 2009, Steffen et al. 2015) that have been suggested by scientific working groups supported by the Stockholm Resilience Centre. I reviewed the nature of each boundary and how much was known about where human civilization stands relative to that boundary before asking students to identify sustainable practices or technologies that might address one or more of these boundaries.
Once students had identified some practices and technologies, I asked them to consider what sorts of scientific questions need to be answered in order to support the implementation of their chosen practice/technology. This proved to be a difficult task for some groups, particularly those who might have had an incomplete understanding of the rationale behind their chosen practice/technology (a good reminder that many of the things that we consider “good practices” are not necessarily practices that we can defend as “good”). But most of the groups came up with some really important scientific questions that need to be addressed before we decide on particular sustainable strategies. These questions included:
- How much difference does this practice make over conventional practices? How much potential does this practice have to actually make us sustainable?
- Is this practice actually technologically feasible, or is it still in development?
- What would be the social and economic costs of implementing this practice?
The variety of practices that students considered were really broad. Unfortunately we did not have time to look at all the students’ practices and scientific questions, but a quick review of three groups — who chose wind power, organic farming, and nuclear fusion — allowed us to consider how answering these scientific questions might influence our decisions about which sustainable practices to prioritize.
Overall I was really pleased with how my visit unfolded. My biggest self-critique was the usual problem I encounter in any teaching situation: time management. It’s amazing how — even with two hours to work with — it takes a lot of time to really dig deeply into a meaningful discussion. As I consider how to refine this program, I definitely will be looking for places to expand the time for discussion and minimize the time I spend talking about the topic.
I am really grateful to the students of the Green Meadow Waldorf School for being such wonderful collaborators on this day of exploration. Teachers Maskit Ronen and Sandy Volpe were wonderful hosts, and I thank them heartily for their hospitality (and for arranging my visit in the first place). Ray Volpe and students named Emily and Zach provided technical support with my presentation. And I have Pratt industrial design student Elisia Langdon to thank for making the connection between me and this lovely little school.A Major Post, Belief, Biodiversity Loss, Climate Change, Closed Loop Systems, Community Ecology, Conservation Biology, Ecology Education, Economic sustainability, Economics, Ecosystem Services, Eutrophication, Food, Habitat Destruction, Hypothesis Testing, Methods, Philosophy, Pollution, Public Outreach, Public Policy, Quantitative Analysis, Resource Consumption, Science (General), Sustainability, Sustainable Agriculture, Sustainable Energy, Sustainable Harvesting, System Stability, Teaching, Water Supply, Wild Foods