Sustainability on the Campus

lecturer Last week, I traveled to Monterrey, Mexico to deliver a lecture about sustainability, I was very impressed with the degree that sustainability has spread on the Campus. They have an active program to green the campus, and many degree paths involving sustainability. That’s the good news. The downside is that, like virtually everybody doing sustainability, they are focused on reducing unsustainability. As a technological university, the underlying approach is to use technology to lighten our load on the Earth. At the same time the underlying causes for all the aspects of unsustainability—environmental damage and social distress—are mostly unexamined.

My lecture pointed to this and urged the University to augment its disciplinary structure, based on normal science (in Thomas Kuhn’s way of description) with a strong dose of complexity thinking. Here’s part of the concluding section.

But, now back to the main theme. Let me note, in closing, that technical universities like Monterrey have a very important role to play in creating a flourishing world. One way is to replace the overriding objective, deterministic mindset with complexity as the principal worldview. Of course, this would create serious impacts to the way universities are organized, educate, and perform research. There is no reason, however, not to take some baby steps in that direction. My experience at MIT taught me that the best way to proceed is through patient, continuing conversations among faculty and students around a common set of concerns. Before disciplinary barriers can be breached, they must become visible to all involved.

The fundamental principle in normal science is to isolate the part of the world to be examined from its context. This method has been extraordinarily successful in gaining knowledge about such parts, but fails to create understanding about the whole system. Exceptions to this shortcoming are systems that are minimally interconnected and lack delays along some of the connecting pathways. The systems that are most important to us do not fit this description; they are complex and not amenable to such normal scientific processes. Any system involving humans is complex, although this factor is assumed away in the social sciences.

Sustainability-as-flourishing depends on accepting the world as complex. This requires a different framework for understanding and governance in addition to the application of normal science to get to know some of the parts better. Unfortunately, the framing of complex system problems doesn’t fit the traditional disciplinary structure of universities and the way labor is parsed out in virtually all institutions. As a result, so far in the short history of “unsustainability,” thinking about its origins and ways to escape it have been force fitted to those disciplinary structures with the obvious, but ignored, result of failure to make a dent. We are now captured in a Procrustean bed of our own making.

My lecture sets this conclusion in a fabric I hope makes its important clear. For those interested in reading further, here is the whole lecture .