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Boise State Researchers Show Sustainability Isn’t Just for Tree Huggers

Bryan Talbot / The Arbiter

Define sustainability. Can you do it? Did your mind just go blank? Don’t feel ashamed if it did. Sustainability is a complex issue. It’s more than driving a fuel-efficient car or riding a bike to work or recycling waste. It is an issue that demands an understanding of many different vantage points to tackle. And there is an interdisciplinary research group at Boise State working toward that end.

On Friday, May 3, six professors presented on the topic of sustainability. The Interdisciplinary Research Community on “Translating Sustainability” invited professor Laura Lindenfeld of University of Maine to join in on talks about bridging the gap between university studies in sustainability and community.

The members of the interdisciplinary research group each presented on individual research or experiences that illustrated different approaches to understanding sustainability.

Paul Ziker, from the anthropology department, described the goal of sustainability as an attempt “to try and create human environmental systems that are lasting for the long term.” For him, it is about social sustainability in how material and intellectual resources are shared.

Katie Demps, also of the Anthropology department, gave this statement regarding sustainability, “When I talk about sustainability, I’m thinking about day to day interactions of people and their

Tony Marker, taking his perspective from Organizational Performance and Workplace Learning, spoke on the necessity of finding a balance between “people, profit and planet.” It is his belief that neuroscience is a viable path to developing more “wisdom” rather than “intellect.”

Professor Erin McClellan of the Communication Department spoke about how certain ways of designing public spaces and how people interact with those spaces are indicative of certain value sets. “I think sustainability is sort of a sense of being,” she said, “over time, in a way that reflects a variety of perspectives in a way that creates a collective good.” She made the argument that public spaces should reflect more than just the values of experts or the majority in order to be sustainable and good.

Community and Regional Planning Professor Amanda Johnson spoke on the experiences she had working on a joint project between two different classes. She was able to witness the students’ conversations as they developed a “common language” regarding sustainability.

“You saw this translation happening from these classes and these students,” Johnson stated. “You would hear these students say, ‘(Are you) talking about a sustainable downtown, or are you talking about a livable downtown? How can you determine what sustainability means?’… What we found is through this kind of collective learning process… there has to be this kind of common
language that you share.”

Johnson made the point that phrases like “green” and “sustainability” don’t mean anything unless there is enough discussion to translate the different vantage points on the matter into a more collective understanding. “Not a single field can accomplish this by itself,” she said. “And that’s why this interdisciplinary work that we’re doing is so important because we’re all thinking about it in different ways and have a very different set of inputs into this kind of systems thinking.”

Laura Lindenfeld was invited  to speak at this presentation based on the work she has been doing.

“They came across my work and I study how universities can leverage their capacities to solve sustainability problems,” she said. She works in a similar interdisciplinary group that involves around 100 faculty.

For Lindenfeld, sustainability is a collective effort, and one that doesn’t just occur in the universities.

“I think it is important that universities help their immediate communities. Especially as public universities, we have an obligation to deliver back to our immediate communities.” This is the foundation for her idea that research, teaching and service go hand in hand.

“We need to think more strategically about how those things inform each other and complement each other,” Lindenfeld said.

Sustainability is meaningless, Lindenfeld stated, unless we can leverage whole universities and think systematically about how we turn our attention to the communities in which we live. And this involves what she and the research cluster refer to as “translating sustainability.” Lindenfeld described it thus, “When I think about translation, I think about connecting, bridging, spanning… (It is) never a one-way street. It’s about reciprocity.”

However, the process of negotiating a collective understanding of sustainability and translating it into action is very difficult. During the panel discussion at the end of the presentation McClellan pointed out the challenge of communication. “We don’t have a central language… We all can agree that there’s something about sustainability that we should be talking about, but how we talk about it is not agreed upon.”

Marker complicated the matter further. “Sustainability is actually a whole set of really complex problems,” he said. “There’s not one answer for this.”

Director of Community and Regional Planning Jaap Vos added to the discussion. “The big question I have is are we actually asking the right questions?” But it is often the case that a lot of wrong questions must be asked before the right ones are found.

For senior environmental studies major Shaun Wheeler, it’s important to have malleable ideas.

“If you’re sailing, for example, sometimes you have to steer away from your destination in order to get there,” Wheeler said.

One of the important things he said he learned from this discussion was the need for more “collective energy” in finding the right direction.

“I have satisfaction with the concept of bridging the campus community with the Boise community.”

Fellow environmental studies major Russell Bridges was impressed with the idea of interdisciplinary programs.

“Because Environmental Studies is so broad… this concept of this program being interdisciplinary is my livelihood. More interdisciplinary programs should be developed.”

This presentation was the beginning of sharing ways to  understand sustainability as a community, and develop ways of motivating collective action. No one claimed to have the right definition of sustainability or even the best. The goal was to open dialogue and share research  in order to present different ways of looking at the issues and hopefully, develop a better plan to approach it.