By Rachel Lee
With more and more students studying sustainability in school, a mutual sense of responsibility has emerged from the youth to advocate for a more sustainable future.
For this story, I had the opportunity to speak with three students who are studying sustainability at universities throughout the country. These individuals are exemplary of our generation’s disposition when facing these unprecedented challenges. As a result of their studies, they have recognized the importance of educating themselves on what is happening outside of their own realities, concluding that sustainability is relevant to every aspect of our lives. And now more than ever, it must be recognized as such if we hope to preserve what we love, as well as what we need to survive.
For educational purposes, this story has been divided up between the three parts of sustainability: environment, economy, and equity.
Kimberly Garcia is a junior at Cornell University, pursuing a B.S. in environment and sustainability, as well as minors in climate change, and law and society. Born and raised in Arizona, Garcia has always had a deep appreciation for our state’s beauty. As a student studying sustainability, she has come to recognize the importance of preserving the landscape she loves and hopes to evoke the same sentiment to those around her.
What about sustainability interests you?
Despite all the amazing disciplines, there are out there, none of them seem to have the balance that sustainability offers. Sustainability has a little bit of everything but balances them in such a graceful way—one that allows all life to truly coexist.
What is the environmental aspect of sustainability?
I like to think of the environmental aspect as the foundation of sustainability. It is this reason why most, if not all, sustainability projects are ultimately driven by the same reason: to protect our physical earth. That is not to say that the other disciplines’ sustainability is less important. It is to emphasize the interconnectedness of our natural environments. We cannot have a sustainable economy without protecting our natural resources, we cannot protect our cultures without the influence of our surroundings, we cannot maintain public health if we do not have a healthy Earth.
What immediate threats will Arizonans face due to climate change? How can we help to preserve our state?
If you thought Arizona was already too hot, it will only get worse if we do not mitigate climate change. But it goes way beyond just dealing with hotter temperatures. The more frequent and hotter temperatures will primarily lead to more droughts. Although it is obvious we already live in an arid area, we cannot risk an unnatural increase in drought frequency, especially with population growth and urban sprawl. That being said, there are many things each of us can do to help: from educating ourselves, to engaging in conversations, to contacting government officials, and demanding change—the list is endless.
“No matter how hard life may get, there is always hope. Everyone has the incredible potential to create change, especially in a field like sustainability. If you still do not think sustainability is worth it, then I encourage you to dig deeper and find out how vital it is in preserving what you love. I guarantee you there will always be at least one-way sustainability can enhance your life.”
Alexander Curry is a junior at Duke University, studying economics and history, with a concentration in civics and governance. Recognizing the effects of globalization, Curry emphasizes the importance of decision-making and its relationship to sustainability. With this in mind, he hopes to see tougher action being taken in future business endeavors for a more resilient economy.
What about sustainability interests you?
I am interested in sustainability because it deals with the consequences of our actions. No other discipline is directly intended to address how our decisions today will affect the time of tomorrow.
What is the economic aspect of sustainability?
Sustainability and economics have always been intertwined. At its core, economics is the study of decision-making and one of the most important facets of sustainability. So when looking towards a specific choice, decision-makers must weigh the economic benefits with the sustainability of the action.
Do you think there are any misconceptions between sustainability, profit, and our well-being? Is it more costly to be sustainable?
Sustainability and profit are usually at odds with one another, as a company can increase profits through unsustainable production. For example, in newly industrialized nations, many companies will use dangerous business practices that serve to put their workers and the environment at risk. However, it is not always the case that sustainability, profits, and our well-being are at odds. For example, many new businesses focus specifically on solutions to the many problems of modern-day, such as environmental degradation. In these cases, private companies are able to profit from pursuing environmentally friendly solutions that will additionally benefit our well-being.
“If I were to share one thing, it would be this: economics has always been the tale of incentives and how people weigh those incentives. Often, they will be misaligned with sustainability, as it is more affordable to avoid protecting workers and the environment. Protecting the world will not be simple, and it will not be cheap. But at the end of the day, it is integral that we do so. If we want to see human life continue on earth, we have to make these tough decisions. Many of them will not directly benefit us within the modern-day, but it will allow for future generations to inhabit this planet.”
Jackson Schiefelbein is a junior at Barrett, the Honors College at Arizona State University, working towards a concurrent degree in sustainability and global studies, as
well as a minor in Spanish and a certificate in cross-sector leadership. With the belief that we all have a responsibility to be advocates for the planet and its people, Schiefelbein is especially enthusiastic about promoting intercultural dialogue and action.
What about sustainability interests you?
I appreciate sustainability because it is solutions-oriented. While it is important to understand the process, I have always been driven by solving problems and feel that sustainability allows me to do that. Being able to solve problems that help people and the planet makes it even better!
What is the equity aspect of sustainability?
The equity aspect of sustainability connects human society to the natural environment. Social sustainability is based on the concept that everything humans do takes place within the larger environmental context, therefore the two cannot be separated. This is the sphere of sustainability that drives the importance for the entire field; all of the solutions that sustainability seeks to develop are needed because of a human need for them. This aspect of sustainability also broadens the field beyond environmental topics to include things such as human rights, development, marketing, and so on. In other words, the human element of social sustainability unites people to solve problems and make the world a better place.
Thinking on either a local or global scale, how do our actions affect the livelihoods of others? How can we educate ourselves about what others may be experiencing in regard to social injustice?
Everyone has probably heard this before, but I will say it again: everyone has the ability to create change. While this saying ends here, it is important to recognize why it holds true: everything in life is connected to other things. In sustainability, the way that things are connected is said to be through a “system,” and thinking of things as being connected in this way is referred to as “systems thinking.” In systems thinking, it is easy to understand how our actions can impact others—both locally and globally. For example, buying a certain product impacts everyone who is part of the supply chain for it, as well as those impacted by the environmental aspects of producing it. It may seem overwhelming to realize that everything is connected, but continue to educate yourself. Keep an open mind and be empathetic. Every system affects everyone differently; therefore, you must be considerate of things that might not impact you but could very well be a factor for others.
“If you have never thought about yourself in relation to sustainability, then I challenge you to do so. I believe that social change is an inclusive way of thinking about the different realms of the field. Everyone can work within it to have a positive impact. If you do not see sustainability in your workplace, life, studies, etc., make space for it! Sustainability belongs everywhere, and we have a responsibility to advocate for it.”
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