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-Gary Snyder
  • Casey Meehan, PhD

You're a sustainability coordinator. That's great. So...um...what do you do?

Updated: Aug 28, 2020

The other day my dad mentioned he and his friend came to the conclusion that neither of them actually know what their kids do for a living. I’m not surprised, not because my dad is out of touch (he isn’t), or because I haven’t explained what I do to him before (I have) but because my job — Sustainability Coordinator in higher education— never existed 15 years ago and remains ambiguously defined at best.

Like my dad, you, too, may now sheepishly be asking, “So....what do you do?” Don’t be embarrassed; I get this question weekly.

A college or university’s Sustainability Coordinator, Director of Sustainability, Chief Sustainability Officer, or any similarly titled position, might do all sorts of things depending on the specific position. Some are housed within the facilities department and directly help to reduce the organization’s environmental footprint by, for example, implementing renewable energy projects, advocating for energy efficient buildings, and reducing the garbage that goes to the landfill. Others reside on the academic and student affairs side of the house, working with faculty, staff, and students to embed sustainability concepts in curriculum, tie it to cutting-edge research, and build awareness for it within campus activities. Still others—myself included—are charged with bridging facilities and academics.

Though I find myself explaining what I do using some form of the description above, I have never felt that those descriptions encompass what this position is really about.

For my own sense of clarity I was fortunate to hear from Mathew Kamakani Lynch, the Director of Sustainability at the University of Hawaii, at a recent sustainability conference in Pittsburgh. Mathew has what I consider to be the most elegant answer to the "what do you do?" question: "[Sustainability professionals] build strong communities by rehumanizing the university."

Mathew's description resonated with me from the moment I heard it, and subsequently I've thought a lot about what it means to rehumanize an organization, whether it be a university, a business, or a community. I think part of the answer lies in reconnecting with the wholeness of the human experience, including acknowledging that we are inextricably part of the ecosystems that support life.

The global north, with a penchant towards analytical, either/or thinking, has cultivated a siloed approach to understanding and acting on the world. Indeed because of cultural norms and several hundred years of enlightenment thinking, we are masters of it. We are skilled at atomizing our behavior and parsing our thinking into categories: she is extroverted or introverted; they are right or wrong; he works with is head or hands; that is natural or human-made; our priority is the economy or environment; you study psychology or engineering or business or history or, or, or...

Educational philosopher Parker Palmer calls this "thinking the world apart." While there can be value in breaking down knowledge into ultra-specialized niches, thinking the world apart becomes an insufficient method to respond to any complex socio-political-environmental issue like the climate crisis or ecosystem decline. Instead, we need to feel comfortable with a return to more a more holistic perspective of the world. As Palmer writes:

How can we escape the grip of either-or thinking? What would it look like to "think the world together," not to abandon discriminatory logic where it serves us well but to develop a more capacious habit of mind that supports the capacity for connectedness...?

The role of a sustainability professional, at least the way I conceptualize it, is to help our organizations and communities writ large "think the world together."

Every day we help others connect the dots between the health of our ecosystems, our personal well-being, and the well-being of our communities. For instance, we make explicit the links between warmer average temperatures, the subsequent increase in respiratory illnesses, and the benefits of transitioning to renewable energy sources. We facilitate conversations about how the implications of climate change impact our attitudes and decisions about waste and how both of these affect local water and food quality. We demonstrate that addressing abject poverty, increasing access to quality education, and building sustainable communities are all in service of the same goal: helping all of us thrive, not just survive, the unprecedented predicament in which we find ourselves.

In thinking the world together, sustainability professionals go beyond providing the big picture of what our predicament is; we also contribute to the discussion about how and why to move forward by putting forth a compelling vision of what could be, a vision of the myriad abundances that come from a world once again in balance.

We ask what our organizations are doing to alleviate poverty and hunger. We encourage access to quality education, promote livable wages, and boost the use of renewable energy. We push people to think about how are our organizations are (re)building healthy ecosystems, what we are doing to be more efficient stewards of resources, and how we can partner with other organizations across sectors toward these ends.

I suspect nearly all people, regardless of the differences that set us apart, desire the same narrative: we all want for us and our communities to thrive. I help our college think critically about the things we do that move us toward the narrative of thriving and the things we do that move us away from it, and I open the space for creative action and dialogue to get us where we want to be.

So, Dad, that's what I do.

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