(Video produced by SEED Scholars Thea Angeli, Addy Goodrich, Matthew Peterson, and Jordan Everett, with thanks to all who took the time to talk with us. For best results, watch the video first, then read on.)
The word is old, but as a term that represents a social movement, sustainability’s been around since the mid-1980s. It was part of an effort to draw attention to the human dimensions of what had been thought of as primarily “environmental” issues.
While environmental concerns are central to the concept of sustainability, so are social and economic ones. The big shift was in realizing that healthy economies depend on healthy societies, which depend on healthy environments. We can picture the nested nature of their relationship like this:
That’s why the UN sustainability goals include a variety of social and economic targets, like reducing inequalities, improving health, and expanding access to education, along with things like clean water and climate action.
The idea caught on. Since that time, national and city governments around the world have embraced sustainable development planning. Sustainability is “a thing” at most colleges and universities. And businesses proclaim their commitment to it, largely in response to consumer demand.
According to a recent report cited in Forbes, for example, 75% of consumers take “corporate sustainability responsibility” (CSR) into account when making purchases. And seven in 10 young U.S. adults consider themselves to be social activists, with CSR as a top priority.
But our understanding of sustainability here on campus is spotty. A survey of Hiram First Year students in 2016 showed that 75% of respondents were totally unfamiliar with the term, while a quarter of them had a partial understanding, associating it with “environmental,” “renewable,” or “green.” Things look a little different when we talk to others on campus, but as the SEEDS’ conversations show (see video above), our understanding of sustainability at Hiram ranges from none at all, to some, to right on. Why the inconsistency?
There are lots of reasons why we don’t all know more about sustainability. While we can’t delve into all that right now, we can get clear, for ourselves, on its meaning.
When we do that, we see why it matters, how our activities can support it, and that, in so many ways, sustainability is a Hiram thing!
To help us out, some have developed clever alliterative aids reminding us of the three-part nature of sustainability, like planet, people, profit and environment, ethics, economy. These are helpful, but they’re a bit abstract.
I can’t really engage with the whole planet at once. And, though I can easily declare my concern for people, translating that into action is much less straightforward. Finally, while I get the need for a healthy economy, what that really means and how to achieve it is not so clear.
I like to think of sustainability as taking care of nature, neighbors, and our needs in ways that support others’ abilities to do that, now and in the future.
The meaning of nature is vast enough to include blizzards, beech-maple forests, butterflies, bacteria in my gut, and much more of what I can relate to and experience in everyday life. Neighbors are the people next door, the church across the street, and the counties, states, and nations with whom we share this terrestrial home. At whatever scale, the word neighbors reminds me that we’re talking about real flesh-and-blood people, who have real needs. And meeting our needs for water, food, shelter, energy, friendship, fun, and all the rest takes real resources—stuff from the world, the creativity and labor of actual humans, and the time and money to get things done.
The notion of “nature, neighbors, and needs” helps me remember that sustainability is about the things we do (and don’t do) to make sure our community—and the human community writ large—not only lasts, but is healthy, productive, joyful, and just.
Thinking of it this way, we see that “campus sustainability” means so much more than recycling and saving water. And we can recognize ways that the College has aligned itself with sustainability long before the term (as it’s used today) existed.
A few examples can help illustrate how sustainability—as we now understand it—has long been a Hiram thing.
For one, global complex problems and triune sustainability goals demand that we draw on diverse knowledge and expertise. Today that approach is called “interdisciplinary,” but at Hiram, it’s just the way we’ve always done it. The College’s “eclectic” approach, seeking answers to life’s big questions wherever they could be found, was there from the start.
Also, living up to its egalitarian ideas about education, Hiram was ahead of its peers in welcoming women and other students from diverse backgrounds. In keeping with the goal of expanding educational opportunities, Hiram instituted the Weekend College in 1977 to help working adults earn college degrees.
In 1983, Bread and Soup was begun to raise awareness about local hunger and raise money for those in need. As a bonus, these simple weekly meals turned out to be a great way of getting to know people and building community. And they still are.
Finally, just over a year ago, in response to a depressing and ecologically denigrated part of campus, a determined group came together to transform the beds in Martin Commons. Gradually, mud and gravel became green plants, cheerful flowers, and food for pollinating insects. And it’ll only get better over time!
There are countless examples―ranging from civil rights activism, land conservation, community service, renewable energy, and so much more.
The point is, Hiram has long embraced the sustainability ethos of looking out for nature, neighbors, and needs.
I propose that we could accomplish even more if we went about our business of looking out for each other equipped with a sense of the bigger picture, and the conceptual tools for thinking about how what we do contributes (or could) to sustainability, near and far.
In that spirit, the SEEDS and I invite you to think more broadly about how your role on campus fits into Hiram’s bigger sustainability picture. You’ll have multiple opportunities to do that in October, Campus Sustainability Month, through a variety of events, activities, and contests.
In particular, if YOU have something to say about “Why Sustainability is a Hiram Thing,” (or could be more of one) please share by entering the Video Essay Contest, open to Students and Faculty/Staff. Go to the College’s Sustainability page and scroll down for details and prizes.