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University and sustainability


An opportunity

As well as a necessity

For any university...


(A verse that blossomed when I was refining my Sustainable University proposal on 30 December 2010)

Photograph by Asitha Jayawardena

The universe is not required to be in perfect harmony with human ambition.  ~Carl Sagan


There is a sufficiency in the world for man's need but not for man's greed.  ~Mohandas K. Gandhi

We never know the worth of water till the well is dry.  ~Thomas Fuller


We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if mankind is to survive.  ~Albert Einstein


Economic advance is not the same thing as human progress.  ~John Clapham


When we heal the earth, we heal ourselves.  ~David Orr

We cannot command Nature except by obeying her.  ~Francis Bacon


We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.  ~Native American Proverb


When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.  ~John Muir


Man is a complex being:  he makes deserts bloom - and lakes die.  ~Gil Stern


The human race will be the cancer of the planet.  ~Julian Huxley, attributed


Humanity is on the march, earth itself is left behind.  ~David Ehrenfeld

What is sustainability?

I wrote this article for London Environmental Education Forum (LEEF) in November 2010. It is available from its website at http://www.leef.org.uk/articles/what-is-sustainability/


What is sustainability?


Ask this question from different people and you are sure to get different answers with different focuses – from unlimited economic growth to species conservation.


This is a tough question I faced with when I was writing my Education for Sustainability (EfS) dissertation. First I turned to the most famous definition of sustainable development, i.e. Brundtland Definition, which states, ‘Sustainable Development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’


Although it covered a number of aspects – e.g. human needs, inter-generational equity and nature’s physical limitations – it didn’t show how different systems, such as economic, social and environmental, interact.


So I tried to develop a definition by way a three-tiered story revolving around me. It’s simple but covers a broad scope. Here’s comes the story.


I started with survival itself. For mere survival, let alone sustainability, I need a planet with conditions that supports my life. For instance, a planet with an air temperature of 60C will be fatal to me and the rest of humankind as well as to most animal life. So ecosystem health, that is, a properly functioning web of ecosystems that ensures a set of conditions supportive of human life is the first requirement – not only for sustainability but also for survival of humanity.


Suppose we have conditions conducive to human life. That is, the ecosystem health requirement is satisfied. But mere survival wouldn’t be enough for me. I like to live a quality life. A life that satisfies the basic human needs, at least food, clothing and shelter. Although, economy plays a key role, there are other factors such as nature’s beauty and relaxation. The second requirement is therefore personal wellbeing.


So far, so good. I am enjoying wellbeing on a planet that supports human life. The question is, can I continue enjoying wellbeing without any regard to others’ wellbeing?


I was born alone and, most likely, will die alone, but I don’t live alone. Only hermits do so. But can I live a fulfilled life when most around me – family and friends, neighbours, work colleagues and even strangers thousands of kilometres away – live in misery? Can I be happy when I see miserable people most of the time – whether across the road or as television screen images from poor countries?


Yes, I can live in a posh neighbourhood and avoid watching world news so that misery is out of my ‘eyeshot’. But will this solution work in the long run?


Can I enjoy life amidst inequalities so unfair? Take food for example. In one country people die from lack of basic food while in another country people have so many varieties of desserts to select from and they can eat as much as they like.


An interesting set of photographs of families from different countries posing with the food they would consume within a week is available at http://blog.halbergphotographers.com/2007/12/11/average-weekly-food-consumption-of-families-around-the-world/. It’s from the book Hungry Planet: What the World Eats by Peter Menzel (www.menzelphoto.com) and Faith D'Aluisio. The food in the photographs represents the weekly food consumption for an average family of each country and the difference in the food – quality and quantity – is poles-apart. On average every week, a particular German family of four people eat food worth $500.07. On the other hand, in the same period, an Ecuadoran family of nine people eat food worth a mere $31.55 and even worse is the plight of a family of six in a camp in Chad, who eat in every week food worth just $1.23!

Like these photographs show, the picture of social injustice is bad – between developed and developing countries and then within countries, between the rich and the poor. And it’s getting worse and worse.


What does this mean? What will happen in the long run? Perhaps an every day example will shed some light.


When the air temperature of two places is different, air flows in the form of wind from the point of high pressure to that of low pressure. The larger the pressure difference is, the more violent the air movement will be – gales, storms, hurricanes, etc... The idea is to make the pressure of the two places equal.


Similarly, when the levels of wellbeing become too different to remain calm, winds of unrest will blow with the dream of levelling the differences of quality of life.


Again, if I live in self-reliance, that is, for example, growing my own food in the back garden, producing my own clothing from cotton cultivation, and generating my own energy, then I need not worry. But I live in an interconnected world which is fast becoming more and more interdependent. That is, we depend on people from other countries to maintain our day-to-day life. For example, because of a nation-wide strike in the West Indies, a child in West Kensington some 6000 km away may not find the usual banana in their lunch box.


So where ever I am, what happens some thousands of kilometres away could have a direct impact on the quality of my life. That is, social injustice will, sooner or later, threaten my wellbeing.


Besides, being a human being, I won’t be able to continue to be happy when fellow human beings suffer due to lack of basic needs. You have got to be exceptionally inhuman to do so.


So, in a nutshell, I won’t be able to enjoy wellbeing when other people – near and far away from me – suffer in misery. This makes social justice a key requirement for sustainability.


Thus sustainability has a three tiered requirements: personal wellbeing, social justice and ecosystem health.


So finally, returning to where we started, what is sustainability? What I came up for my dissertation is, ‘human sustainability is related to lasting happiness enjoyed by most, if not all, members of the human society without threatening its long-term survival.’


Acknowledgements: Peter Menzel Photography for the photos representing food inequality, that can be found at http://blog.halbergphotographers.com/2007/12/11/average-weekly-food-consumption-of-families-around-the-world/


The Resurgence magazine (www.resurgence.org) recently organised a contest in order to celebrate Dr Satish Kumar’s 35th anniversary as its Editor, inviting a 100-word write-up on the importance of connecting with nature for creating a sustainable future. The authors of the best 35 entries were offered a copy of Only Connect - an anthology compiled from a decade of Resurgence magazine. My write-up, which was among the top 35, is as follows:


Connecting with nature is important for creating a sustainable future because nature is our environment. We human beings depend on nature for our non-materialistic achievements as well as for our material existence.1 We can mentally afford to step outside the biosphere, but we are animals among animals, organisms among organisms.2 If we destroy nature instead of connecting with it, we will eventually lead humankind to extinction because, as the Inevitability Rule declares, the system that destroys its environment destroys itself.3 Therefore, either we connect with nature or we disconnect our only lifeline. The decision is ours.



1. HUXLEY, J. (1957) New bottles for new wine. London: Harper and Row.

2. SLOEP, P. and VAN DAM-MIERAS, M.C.E. (1995) The environment in the eyes of a natural scientist In: GLASBERGEN, P., and BLOWERS, A. (eds.) Environmental policy in an international context: perspectives on environmental problems. London: Arnold/ The Open University of the Netherlands In: MAITENY, P. and PARKER, J. (eds.) (2002) Unit 6 Reader: Science and culture in education for sustainability. London: Distance Learning Centre, South Bank University.

3. WILDEN, A. (1987) The rules are no game: the strategy of communication. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

The tulip and the butterfly
Appear in gayer coats than I:
Let me be dressed fine as I will,
Flies, worms, and flowers exceed me still.
~Isaac Watts


I think I shall never see,

A poem lovely as a tree.

~Joyce Kilmer


He who plants a tree
Plants a hope.
~Lucy Larcom


All I want is to stand in a field
and to smell green,
to taste air,
to feel the earth want me,
Without all this concrete
hating me.
~Phillip Pulfrey


In a mountain greenery

Where gods paint scenery.

~Lorenz Hart


Nature, with equal mind,

Sees all her sons at play;

Sees man control the wind,

The wind sweep man away.

~Matthew Arnold


To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

~William Blake


Who leaves the pine-tree, leaves his friend,
Unnerves his strength, invites his end.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson


Alone with myself
The trees bend to caress me
The shade hugs my heart.
~Candy Polgar


Trees are poems that earth writes upon the sky,
We fell them down and turn them into paper,
That we may record our emptiness.
~Kahlil Gibran


To heal mine aching moods,
Give me God's virgin woods.
~Clinton Scollard


I learn more about God
From weeds than from roses;
Resilience springing
Through the smallest chink of hope
In the absolute of concrete....
~Phillip Pulfrey

A frightening warning headed Robert Verkaik’s news item in The Independent of 9 July 2009: ‘Just 96 months to save the world, says Charles.’ If the Prince is right, we’ve got only 8 years to prevent ‘irretrievable climate and ecosystem collapse, and all that goes with it.’


He is one of the many who constantly worry about modern human’s threat to humankind’s existence on Earth. Should we worry like that? Let’s explore this from a more scholarly angle.


In his book The inner limits of mankind, E Laszlo perceives the modern human being as ‘a serious threat to the future of humankind.’ But how?


Passion for relentless economic growth characterises the modern human being. So when H Komiyama and K Takeuchi, in a paper titled ‘Sustainability science: building a new discipline’, identify the Industrial Revolution, industrialisation and rapid economic growth as the root causes of today’s sustainability crisis, no wonder the modern human being stands accused. Today, more and more people are striving for higher and higher living standards on a planet with finite resources, a fragile system of ecological services and a limited waste absorption capacity.


Prince Charles points his accusing finger to the modern economic system. In a study guide of the Education for Sustainability Programme of London South Bank University, P Maiteny and J Parker identify two factors that fuel the global maximum growth economy: consumer demand and the assumption that human happiness/wellbeing can be best achieved by a materialistic route of acquisition and consumption. However, they observe that, due to two reasons, this assumption looks increasingly flawed. First, there isn’t a correlation between increasing levels of wealth and improvements in wellbeing. Second, economic growth at all costs causes much ecological and social disintegration, like the Prince claims. Therefore, as the prevailing materialistic-consumerist worldview is paving the way for personal, social and ecological breakdown, they argue, like the Prince, that we are facing an unsustainable future.


Corresponding to the three types of breakdown above facilitated by the ‘modern human’ species, we could perceive that the human sustainability crisis embraces three key elements:

§  Ecological ill-health at biosphere level

§  Economic and social inequity at society level

§  Quasi-happiness at an individual/personal level


First, let’s focus on ecological ill-health at biosphere level.


As P Maiteny and J Parker emphasise, nature does not depend on us humans for existence but we humans depend on nature because it is our environment. By destroying nature, we will only be destroying ourselves because, as A Wilden, in The rules are no game: the strategy of communication, highlights using the Inevitability Rule, ‘The system that destroys its environment destroys itself’.


And we’re capable of such destruction, cautions N Roling in his New Scientist article ‘A proper study of mankind’. A similar warning appears in a paper titled ‘The environment in the eyes of a natural scientist’ by P Slope and MCE van Dam-Mieras. Like the Prince, they claim that present day human-induced infringements are large enough to upset the ecosystems, threatening all life on Earth. And PH Raven, in an address on ‘Science, sustainability and the human prospect’, warns that many life-support systems are deteriorating rapidly and visibly.


Meanwhile, in a chapter in The local politics in global sustainability, T Prugh, R Constanza and H Daly emphasise that we are adversely affecting the planet’s minimum technical requirements for sustainability, by ignoring three sustainability house rules: (1) don’t use up all of its resources; (2) don’t undermine its delivery of the ecological services; and (3) don’t overwhelm its waste absorption capacity. Unfortunately, we modern humans are busy doing all three don’ts.


Second, let’s turn to economic and social inequity at society level.


Many people seem to believe that the materialistic worldview does not serve the majority. According to P Maiteny and J Parker as well as SG Tideman (a paper titled ‘Gross National Happiness: Towards Buddhist Economics’), the rich-poor gap is widening within societies as well as among countries. Moreover, E Laszlo claims that the ‘trickle down’ theory of wealth has failed. In this context I Serageldin, in an article in Science, warns, ‘.... humanity cannot survive partly rich and mostly poor’.


But the poor Third World countries are developing, aren’t they? Their people will eventually achieve the quality of life currently enjoyed only by those in the developed world.


However, pointing to the Earth’s physical limits, some dismiss this idea as an illusion. For example, according to M Wackernagel, W Rees and P Testemale in Our ecological footprint: reducing human impact on the Earth, if everybody in the world lived like an average North American, two more planets will be required to produce the resources, absorb the wastes and maintain life support.


Finally, let’s consider quasi-happiness at an individual/personal level.


Yet again, according to P Maiteny and J Parker, emerging are symptoms related to the ‘growing psychological stresses and strains of living in a complex consumerist society’. S Holtzman, in his paper ‘Science and religion: The categorial conflict’, supports their idea. He states, ‘There is a growing awareness that something is fundamentally wrong with our modern Western civilisation’, giving a list of symptoms ranging from negative feeling in life, affecting inner strength for living and overcoming problems, to a threat of ecological disaster capable of destroying humanity. Therefore, materialistic-consumerist happiness seems to be a form of quasi-happiness.


So it seems that the materialistic-consumerist worldview, the philosophy behind the modern human establishment, performs inadequately at all three levels. As the Prince puts it, ‘We face the dual challenges of a worldview and an economic system that seems to have enormous shortcomings, together with an environmental crisis – including that of climate change – which threatens to engulf all.’ According to him, we cannot continue to afford consumerism and the ‘age of convenience’ is over.


Meanwhile, no wonder a New Scientist article published in September 2009 further intensifies the climate change worries of people around the world. The article ‘Don’t provoke the planet’ by Richard Fisher, based on Conference on Climate Forcing of Geological and Geomorphological Hazards organised by the University College London in September 2009, warns that ‘even slight changes in weather and climate can rip the planet’s crust apart, unleashing the furious might of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and landslides.’ So this climate change business is becoming pretty scary.


Fortunately, however, P Maiteny and J Parker indicate the emergence of a cultural shift or rethink in norms and values. So there’s some hope for tomorrow....


But we had better act fast. As Prince Charles, drawing a parallel to the financial crisis, aptly puts it, ‘If we don’t face up to this [challenge], then Nature, the biggest bank of all, could go bust. And no amount of quantitative easing will revive it.’

Humankind’s 999 call

Today is 09/09/09 or a 999 day.


These days, some of us are desperately making ‘999 calls’ all around the world because we are like a bunch of crabs in a pot of water to be boiled. It is only a matter of time before the water will become warmer and then hotter, eventually boiling all crabs – those who are now making 999 calls as well as those who think there’s nothing to worry about.


So what can we ‘crabkind’ do? Get out of the pot and sneak into another, or build a new pot to our specifications, or develop capabilities to tolerate such high temperatures, or douse the fire under the pot (it’s we who are nurturing it in the first place). So there seems to be four options.


Turning to Option One, let’s see what we’ve got as potential new homes (i.e. new Earths). We have Moon (no, not that secretary general, but the round one Neil conquered), but the conditions are such that we can’t live there. And we have the International Space Station, but it’ll become a bit too crowded if six billion of us attempt to colonise it (imagine the number of collisions between floating bodies in that small space!). Then we have Mars (again, not the bar one but the round one), but it’s so far and the conditions are not right, too. Nothing else it seems. So this option is out.


Option Two is about building a new pot, a tailor-made one for humankind. However advanced modern science is, creating a new Earth fit for human life is almost impossible. The pot we’re in (or planet Earth we inhabit) has evolved over billions of years and is still evolving. How on earth can we build a new earth when we find it quite challenging to predict tomorrow’s weather? And how to create delicate relationships between various species and how to develop the ecological services that Mother Nature has so ingeniously put in place? So Project Brand New Earth is fantasy.


Option Three seems possible. Let the warming thrive and adapt to the new environment. But, according to Darwin’s theory of evolution, it will take a hell of a long time – perhaps millions of years – for us to achieve such adaptations to an ever warming environment. No fast track service is available in this case. And there’s the risk that, if the warming is too fast, we could be wiped out altogether instead of being evolved! Warming of the atmosphere brings lots of catastrophes in its wake (from rising sea levels to loss of habitats leading to extinctions), leading among other things to extreme weather conditions growing in both frequency and severity. Moreover, impacts on agriculture, for example, will have devastating effects on billions of people around the world. So this option is too risky to even consider.


So we’re stuck with Option Four. It is we human beings who are warming the Earth’s atmosphere by a variety of ways, from burning of fossil fuels to deforestation. So we can prevent, or at least mitigate, the warming if we want to. Do we want to? That’s the question. Not all want to because many cannot, or do not want to, understand the great dangers lying ahead. However, many, individually as well as groups, are spreading the message and are also taking action. One of the latest resides at No 10 (not that one, but the double No 10, www.1010uk.org).


So that’s it. Our Earth is warming. We have nowhere else to go. We cannot build a brand new earth. It’s too risky to allow the warming to continue and trying to adapt to it. So we must prevent the warming at all costs!


The next 999 day will dawn on 9 September 2109 – one hundred years from now. I won’t be around of course. If someone is, he or she might remember me, one of the crabs who feared then (i.e. 100 years ago) that it was going to be too hot for crabkind to survive – let alone achieve wellbeing!


That is, if someone is around on 09/09/2109. The way things are going now seems to indicate that it’s very unlikely that someone could be there. Let’s hope it wouldn’t get that bad so soon. Instead of hoping, however, we can, and must, do better things, such as spreading the message and take necessary action.

Two years ago, I embarked on the Education for Sustainability (EfS) MSc programme at London South Bank University, in order to gain a grasp of the big picture of sustainability. Of course, different people define sustainability in different ways. For me, it is ecological health and happiness/wellbeing for the most of humankind that, together, form the broad basis of human sustainability.


At the EfS programme’s onset, I believed that it was modern science that really mattered in an endeavour towards human sustainability. Such scientific dominance was not surprising for until then I had a science education, punctuated by a BSc Eng (civil engineering) and an MPhil (Green buildings for the tropics).


As the programme progressed, I was getting worried as there wasn’t much status for science. But at the same time, I gradually realised that human sustainability requires much more than science. Science is essential but certain aspects extend well beyond its boundaries.


The Unit 6 was the turning point for me – Science and Culture in Education for Sustainability. There, I realised that both scientific and cultural thinking are essential for an endeavour towards human sustainability.


It is in the inner-world domain (especially in meaning and morality) that science falters. There, culture (especially informed by religion or spirituality) thrives. Therefore, extremely desirable is such science-culture collaboration in humanity’s quest for a sustainable world.


Put in another way, I believe that, in the rough seas of unsustainability, culture (informed by religion) can act as a meaningful moral compass that will guide the ship of humanity powered by the engine of science to the safe comforts of the port of human sustainability. However, essential throughout this journey is some level of critical scientific monitoring, especially in aspects relevant to ecological sustainability.


In the Unit 6 Study Guide, Paul Maiteny and Dr Jenneth Parker elaborate this science-culture-sustainability relationship elegantly: ‘Sustainability is ultimately about bio-ecological processes remaining functional and viable and keeping human activities to a level where they continue to be capable of supporting our lives and wellbeing, both locally and globally. Observing, describing and understanding these processes is a scientific activity. Sustainability could therefore be seen as primarily about science. However, the way we interpret what we find out, whether we choose to accept and why, etc – these are all cultural activities....’


Summing up, if science and culture stand united, so will we – the whole of humanity. If they stand divided, it could well be the end of the story – for the humanity.