Last week, Richard Kahn called sustainability a "contested" term. Who uses it and how they use it will tell us what should be sustained, maybe even how, why, for whom, and maybe even for how long. Exxon using the term means something different from a small Pennsylvania farmer which is different from the U.N.'s definition from the famous Our Common Future publication defining sustainable development. The contest over defining sustainability means people can use it very differently. Deep ecologists can make it into some purist notion, so-called pragmatists can use it as a lens for understanding issues, and the corporate status quo can use it to "greenwash" their images.
All of this means sustainability is a slippery term. It's also very popular these days. I'll borrow from our compatriot Katherine Watt at Spring Creek Homesteading who posted this cartoon graph a few weeks ago:
It's all very simple and very complicated. Most people want sustainability. Most people want what they have. Most people would like to believe that they are doing good. Most people want what they have to be sustainability because they want to believe that they are doing good. Therefore, the term will be used to make everyone feel good. It might be something like that anyway.
Today we will talk about this issue for the whole show: What does sustainabilty mean? Andy Lau is a professor of engineering at Penn State and former assistant director of the Penn State Center for Sustainability. My first encounters with him were opinion pieces on sustainability in local papers and then a presentation at a forum with Don Brown, a previous guest on this show on the ethics of climate change. Lau, like Brown, sees sustainability as something that could transform not only education, but our entire way of living. He has incorporated sustainability into a lot of his teaching, in his professional work as an engineer, and into his personal life. It's fair to say he's a sustainability wonk, going so far as to write an article on the many dimensions of sustainability and sustainable design as a new paradigm for engineering education. Lau is a funky kind of engineer, known as much for his relaxed philosophizing as he is for his engineering chops.
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