We experience an inflationary usage of the term “sustainability: Companies adopt sustainability policies, universities set-up sustainability Masters, and governments sign the Sustainable Development Goals.
Sustainability seems to be everywhere, especially because it can be defined in so many ways. A benefit of this vague meaning is that the word can be used as a rallying cry to get lots of different actors agree to an agenda. At the same time, the diluted meaning of the term can create false friends, misunderstandings and conflicts.
It is important for students and staff – as well as our team in rootAbility – to understand that a critical and reflective engagement with the term “sustainability” is an important part of the change process itself. Sustainability is not only about changing lightbulbs, but also about changing meanings.
But how do you do that? Dr Claudia Schmitt –Managing Director and Scientific Coordinator – and Sophie Palm –Coordinating Assistant – from the Center for a Sustainable University (KNU: Kompetenzzentrum Nachhaltige Universität) at the University of Hamburg shared two interesting approaches with which the center took to start a deeper, and more reflective discussion around sustainability at the university:
(1) Starting with a shared understanding of sustainability
Claudia explains that, as a first initiative, the KNU supported the development of a position paper (access it in German, here) in which university stakeholders agreed on a first definition of sustainability.
The definition – inspired by the Brundtland Definition – can be translated from German along the following lines: Sustainability is the idea to shape present societies to meet their interests, while at the same time securing and strengthening its future development potential.
Moreover, four dimensions were agreed upon in which this understanding of sustainability should be integrated within the institution: Research (contextual dimension), critical reflection on science (scientific dimension), didactic (educational dimension) and an institutional dimension
What I find interesting is that the dimension of “critical reflection on science” was added to the more ‘classical’ dimensions of research, education and governance.
Claudia explains in the interview that this dimension of critical reflection emphasises that science should not only critically reflect about politics, economics or culture, but also about itself. This critical reflexivity is necessary to better understand how science itself contributes or resolves (un)sustainability.
Teams were then formed to better understand what this meaning of sustainability implies for the dimensions of education, research, governance and critically reflexive science. For instance, the team on education and studies discussed this issue and then compiled a short working paper outlining what sustainability implies for the content and quality of education itself.
(2) A synonym barometer
The second initiative that Claudia and Sophie describe is a creative way to engage students, staff and faculty on the different meanings of sustainability. They have prepared a list of synonyms that can be used in discussions to describe different meanings associated to sustainability. The synonyms include concepts such as durability, intergenerational justice, eco-friendliness, long-term perspective, future viability, social responsibility, intergenerational equity, or conservation of resources.
Claudia explains that the list should encourage people to use more specific language in discussions: “People should be talking about durability instead of sustainability, when this is a much more precise word to explain a product or material that lasts much longer than others.”
Currently, this synonym barometer is not publicly available, but we hope that we can also soon make it available for Green Offices and other change makers (cf. Schmitt & Plam, paper in preparation).
So what does all this mean for you?
You might be thinking: Okay, so we just organise many workshops, have people talk and write papers, but nothing actually changes.
Of course it is important to get rolling to organise lectures on climate change, lobby for more organic food in the cafeteria and collect donations for charitable causes. But how can we be sure that action without reflection also leads to the long-term desired changes that we want to see?
If this end-state of sustainability is not really talked about, how can we be sure that our actions lead toward it? This is why aligning tangible actions with more discursive elements, such as discussion evenings, position papers, and synonym barometers, can be very powerful to instigate deeper discussions around what world we want to live in.
Text by Felix Spira. Many thanks to Claudia Schmitt and Sophie Palm for sharing their insights. Photo “Vuvuzela and some of its many meanings” by Jimmy Baikovicius, Flickr Creative Commons