School of Global Environmental Sustainability discusses issues surrounding sustainability

Jorge Espinoza

Engaging people in sustainability was at the center of “Sustainability: How do we measure it,” a panel held by the Colorado State University School of Global Environmental Sustainability. 

The panel was held on Nov. 2nd at Avogadro’s Number in Fort Collins.

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The panel consisted of Keith Paustian, a soil and crop sciences professor, Josie Plaut, the associate director of the Institute for the Built Environment, Sarah Reed, an affiliate faculty member in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, and John Sheehan, research scientist in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences.

The discussion between the panelist and community members centered around what can be done to engage people in sustainability, and for people like Sandy Steel, a visiting New Yorker, the discussion provided a way to contribute to sustainability talks.

“Being a certain age, I need to contribute and learn as much as I can to leave the world and leave my children with a better world, not one that’s going to destroy itself,” Steele said.

According to Plaut, being sustainable is more than reducing the harm that’s already been done to the planet.

“I see sustainability as an overarching goal which is about preserving our ability to maintain a healthy and thriving life on the planet, and there are different avenues we can go about to helping realize that goal,” Plaut said. “Some of it is about harm reduction, but some of it is also about capacity building.”

According to Sheehan teaching people about sustainability is key to making people understand what sustainability is.

“Achieving sustainability has to actually start with the basic attitudes of all of us as citizens,” Sheehan said. “If we don’t get a more common understanding of where we’re headed, and what we want for our children and grandchildren, then we have no chance at being successful.” 

According to Plaut, to teach people the content has to be relatable to what is going on.

“What I’ve been thinking about, and working on more recently, because of what I’ve noticed between companies, municipalities and projects that I work with is that, yes, it’s true that mindset is important, but what more important is where mindset comes from and that’s will,” Plaut said.

Plaut said in order for people to change their mindsets, they need their values questioned.

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“Will comes from our values and our beliefs,” Plaut said. “When you can help connect people to what they cherish and relate to them from that place that is where mindset comes from. The work, in my opinion, is about evoking will.”

Paustian said scientists can be more transparent to help people understand what sustainability is. 

“I think that a really important thing is completeness and transparency,” Paustian said. “Transparency is really important because you can say, ‘Well, here are all my calculations for how sustainable this product is’, but it’s like, ‘Well, how did you come up with that?'”

Transparency in how sustainability measured is only a part of the issue when it comes to getting a clear message out to people who lack understanding around sustainability. According to Sheehan, the overall presentation needs to be more general to help people understand.

“We’ve become so specialized and so jargon-y in how we talk that we’ve lost our ability to communicate more broadly,” Sheehan said. “We need to be generalist instead of specialist, and then we can really start to communicate.”

Plaut said humans can do their part to have a positive impact on the environment.

“I believe that the disdain that the sustainability movement often holds for the human species as it relates to the rest of the living system that we are apart of, is core to the issue that we have,” Plaut said.  “I believe human beings can play a positive contributive role in the evolution and well being of natural living systems, and that withdrawing and abandoning ourselves from that is in a way not honoring the capacity we have to be a contributor of the well being of the whole, so I would fundamentally challenge the notion of a separation between wilderness and us.”

Collegian reporter Jorge Espinoza can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @jorgespinoza14