What does sustainability mean anyway?


Sustainability is no doubt a critical community value at DePauw.  Unfortunately, I do not think this campus knows what sustainability truly means.  For too long sustainability has been viewed as a movement to solely save the environment, but it is far more than this.  

In order to discuss sustainability around campus, we need to better define what exactly it is that we are talking about: what is sustainability?

Just last week, the DePauw community got a glimpse of what sustainability truly means through a talk given by Julian Agyeman, the chair of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. Agyeman sees sustainability not just a matter of environmental protection, but rather an interdisciplinary topic called environmental justice.   

This concept still includes the traditional ideals of environmental protection, but meshes them with social justice ideals such as equal opportunity and human rights.  Sustainability is environmental justice, and in Agyeman's own words, "environmental justice is healthy human habitats." 

To get a better understanding of what exactly a healthy human habitat looks like, maybe it is best to give an example of what it is not.  In the opening pages of "The Green Collar Economy," the former White House Adviser for Green Jobs, Van Jones, uses one of America's great tragedies, Hurricane Katrina, to show the opposite of a healthy human habitat and environmental injustice. 

When Katrina made landfall in 2005, over 2,000 people died and hundreds of thousands of Americans, mainly poor and disadvantaged citizens of New Orleans, were left stranded in the flooded city.  The worst part is, this tragedy could have been avoided.   

Jones says it best; "To be clear, it wasn't Hurricane Katrina that brought on that catastrophe.  It was a ‘perfect storm' of a different kind: neglect of our national infrastructure combined with runaway global warming and blatant disregard for the poor." 

Hurricane Katrina was a Category 1 hurricane when it first grazed Florida, but over the unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the Gulf, it was supercharged to a Category 5.  In other words, Katrina was fueled by climate change.   

Additionally, the flooding that occurred was not due to heavy rains, but rather a weak levee system that gave way.  Money that should have been used to repair this critical infrastructure was instead allocated to two wars each costing trillions of dollars annually.   

Finally, the hundreds of thousands of mainly black and impoverished Americans trapped in the Gulf region did not choose to stay behind; they were left behind.  The evacuation plan was simply this: if you had a car and enough money for gas, you could leave; if not, too bad. 

Hurricane Katrina is an environmental disaster, no doubt.  It is an environmental injustice because it disproportionately affected the region's poor.  This country failed the people of the Gulf in two ways: one, with the nation's continued use of petroleum based energy and two, the complete neglect of impoverished and disadvantaged Americans.  This is the face of environmental injustice. 

Although the Office for Sustainability does define sustainability in a similar way to Agyeman proposed definition, I think that this campus can do a better job of incorporating environmental justice into its everyday practices.  There are numerous examples in our community of environmental injustice such as the battle between small farmers and agro-conglomerates.  Issues like these need to be brought to light and addressed if we are to obtain a sustainable DePauw. 

As shown by Agyeman and others, sustainability is a combination of a healthy environment, society and economy.  Sustainability is not just about polar bears anymore; it is about people. 

— Hesterberg is a sophomore biology major and Science Research Fellow from Cincinnati. opinion@thedepauw.com