Photo courtesy of google.com.
By Lauren Newman (C’18)
Sustainability Fellows Coordinator
In October, the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability (OESS) embarked on a journey to “The City of Bridges” to take part in the 2018 AASHE Conference in Pittsburgh, PA.
The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, more succinctly known as AASHE, hosts a conference each year, uniting staff, faculty, administrators, and students from colleges and universities across the U.S. to discuss various approaches to promote sustainability on their respective campuses.
As a new member of the OESS team, I was eager to attend the conference and be surrounded by so many like-minded people working to be active change makers at their institutions.
The theme of this year’s conference was “Global Goals: Rising to the Challenge,” calling attention to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recently established by the United Nations. The SDGs are a bold framework that requires sustainable solutions that address the world’s most pressing problems.
It was powerful for the UN to take this stance on sustainability, placing a clear emphasis on human rights issues, and I believe it was timely for AASHE to choose the SDGs as the backdrop for this year’s conference.
I say this for several reasons, but most importantly because (1) a social justice lens is imperative for an equitable response to climate change and (2) institutions of higher education have a critical role in shaping our future world leaders. But let me take some time to break this down.
Heather Hackman, a dynamic woman passionate about climate justice, held a series of workshops during the AASHE conference, two of which I had the opportunity to attend. During each of her sessions, she created a compelling argument for the roles that systemic oppression and privilege play in our current climate crisis.
In the instance of environmental degradation, nature is something to be dominated (at it is often described in the feminine form) and we shouldn’t feel any need to stop the unsustainable extraction of resources because the human race is the superior species and, therefore, our actions are justified.
There are clear winners and losers when this justification is used—the winners being the elite few and the losers being the rest of humanity. The almost exclusively white elite continue to profit from the use of fossil fuels, and the marginalized populations, most notably in developing countries, face the consequences of pollution and stagnated economic growth.
When we begin to understand these implications, it becomes clear that a social justice/equity framework is imperative to combat our current climate crisis. We need sustainable cities and communities, clean and affordable energy alternatives, innovative approaches to industry, and responsible methods of production—and we need these solutions (and their costs) to be distributed equitably.
So where do colleges and universities fit in, and what specifically can Sewanee do as a small liberal arts institution in the rural south to work toward such globally-minded goals?
Students are sponges, their minds ready to soak up information. They have the energy and passion required to spark change. We see evidence of this with movements ranging from those led by SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) during the civil rights era to the largely student-led March for Our Lives movement shedding light on the need for stricter gun control laws.
Sewanee has an obligation to support their students through supplying them with the knowledge and tools to address the world’s most pressing issues, but we must also see our current climate crisis as one of those issues.
Systemic problems call for systemic solutions, so we must all act together to work towards a more equitable, sustainable future. It is imperative for students, staff, faculty, administrators, and the greater Sewanee community to join forces and collaborate. We must create spaces where courageous conversations about class, gender, and white privilege take place, breaking down barriers of difference. Only then can we make the bold SDGs a reality.