WIStainability
Forwarding sustainability and resilience in Wisconsin and beyond
Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.
-Gary Snyder
  • Casey Meehan, PhD

How do we get more voices at the sustainability table?

Updated: Mar 17, 2019



No doubt about it, humankind finds itself in an increasingly dangerous situation. Largely due to the energy-intense lifestyles, consumer culture, and assumption that humanity somehow stands apart from the ecosystems that support us, the global north is running amok and dragging the rest of the world with us.


The signs that, collectively, we are not well are everywhere. Growing income inequality is putting more economic and political power into the hands of fewer people. People worldwide are lonelier than they have been since polling on this began. The environmental systems that provide us clean water, air, and food, the same ones we have relied on since the very beginnings of human civilization, are approaching tipping points as we continue to use them up or pollute them. Add to all this the impact of global warming which is already causing human suffering and economic strife. Yikes.


We clearly have our work cut out for us if everyone is to have the opportunity to thrive. But for everyone to have the opportunity to thrive demands that all voices have an opportunity to be heard. So far, most discussions around sustainability and resilience limit the number of voices in the conversation. In so doing, we limit discussion of the diversity of responses to the myriad issues we face and consequently run the risk of creating policies, procedures, and norms that move us away, rather than toward, thriving. Moreover, limiting the seats at the table takes away agency, leaving the questions "How can we all thrive?" "What does it look like when we get there?" and "Who decides?" up to moneyed elite. My fear is that, given the state of the world, when it's the wealthy, (typically) white males (and I include myself here), answering these questions it hasn't worked out so well for everyone else.


Sustainability work is rightly criticized as steeped in privilege; this must change. However, in addition to making more seats at the table for different voices, I think we also need to make a larger table. We can do this by incorporating into the conversation all of the diverse, inter-related actions that contribute to a thriving community. I came to this conclusion in my work with faculty, business leaders, and community members who sometimes claim that their work has nothing to do with sustainability or climate change. Consequently, they often--and erroneously-- don’t feel like they have a role in the conversation.


To overcome this misconception, I use the UN Sustainable Development Goals, also called the Global Goals, as a framework to seat more people at the table. The goals focus on a number of pressing challenges facing the world today including alleviating hunger and poverty, reducing economic inequality, access to quality education, adopting patterns of sustainable consumption, responding to climate change. The usefulness of the framework is three fold. One, it demonstrates to people that they are indeed part of the conversation and likely already are contributing to the movement towards a more sustainable world. Two, it highlights interconnections between the 17 goals. In other words, work on one goal, if done mindfully and within ecological constraints, can help advance the other goals. For instance, reducing poverty (goal 1) can be done through offering accessible, quality education (goal 4) and providing work that pays liveable wages (goal 8). Those who don't live in poverty are much more likely to engage in climate action (goal 13) and have better health and well-being (goal 3). Coincidentally, taking climate action and attending to peoples' health and well-being positively impact those in poverty. Finally, the Global Goals give us a common language and direction thus decreasing the sense of alienation we may feel in doing this work.


At Western Technical College, we grounded our comprehensive sustainability plan in the Global Goals as a way to better show the breadth of our work, but also to demonstrate to the college community that by, virtue of our mission and programs we offer, we are already engaged in important sustainability work. I’ve noticed that it is easy for people to connect to at least one goal, though often people notice two or three that speak directly to them or to their line of work.


The Global Goals aren’t perfect and certainly not without their critics (for instance, see here, here, and here). These critiques are valid and worthy of their own posts. On the other hand, until something better comes about, the SDGs are the best framework we have so far to bring about a sustainable, thriving world.

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© 2020 Casey R. Meehan