Defining Sustainability

Little known fact: Back when Baylor’s sustainability efforts were just getting started, I was the one doing the leg work. All of it. I had dirty nacho containers tossed at me at Floyd Casey, I spent every home basketball game of the ’08-’09 season poking my head into trash cans at the Ferrell Center, and if there was a recycling container placed in a building around campus, I assembled it–by hand–or at the very least supervised the person who did. So, when I say that the university’s sustainability program carries huge significance for me, I mean it very much.

The idea of a program like this is of course a good one, especially given the state of our environment and the way we would like to deliver our world to our kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews, etc., etc. (preferably with breathable air and a few remaining species of wildlife for them to enjoy). However, there is more to the idea of sustainability than perhaps we realize. It is an effort that must involve all of us. I say this, of course, as one who still struggles with the innate selfishness that tempts me to cut corners by throwing plastics into my trash can instead of taking the time to clean them out and prep them for recycling. Sometimes the devil on the left wins out over the angel on the right. But it is a struggle worth engaging, if we really want to keep this earth of ours a decent place to live. And unless we all work together, unless we think of others before ourselves, unless (as a wise environmental scientist I know has said) we consider the next generation and the problems they will face if we don’t act now, it is a fight we’re doomed to lose.

I also (for those who don’t know) spent eight years working in “professional” church ministry. At the time I was working with sustainability at Baylor, I was pastoring a small church outside of Waco. (Baylor, by the way–also a “Christian” institution.) My greatest dismay during the year I spent on all this stemmed from the way in which my fellow Christians responded (or failed to respond) to what the school was trying to do. I don’t know if it’s an end times thing, or an overly focused evangelistic streak, or what, but the idea of conservation, of saving the planet, looking out for Creation, being good stewards–whatever–seemed so foreign to many of those I spoke with on the subject as to have been presented in Swahili. My point being: We tend, as Christians and as people in general, not to think in broad enough strokes, not to recognize the wider implications of the ideologies we embrace. We can see what’s in front of us–especially when it takes the form of a flying hot dog wrapper or a large, angry man who can’t understand why some of the trash cans are green and others aren’t, and why they’re not all fair game–but the concomitants tend to escape our view.

These concomitants take any number of shapes, from my own struggles over honoring my neighborhood’s recycling plan to taking care not to disrupt local economic ecosystems (e.g., how do we handle the fact that some in the neighborhood of our football stadium used to collect recyclables after games to supplement their own income?). Are we actually helping the situation by instituting our programs, or are we hurting it? Does our good intention cause harm to others, in whatever form, however innocuous or unintended? These are questions anyone who sets out to “save the planet” must consider, so that his or her efforts amount to more than simply an exercise in personal exculpation. Also, we must provide education that matches the structural change: as we discovered quickly here on campus, all the recycling containers in the world amount to a hill of useless beans if people don’t know how to make appropriate use of them (and that is far more complicated than you might think). Then there is the question of tangents. If I put all my recycling in the nearest container, but do not bother to turn off my light when I leave the room, am I more than a clanging “green” cymbal? Does it really matter how many environmentally-friendly food containers we pass out at the dining halls if we’re simultaneously running our air conditioning system into the ground or turning our lawns into swamps with over-watering? Does it make sense to demand conservation at the cafeteria while catering our events with non-recyclables?

Moreover, we must be sure that what we are doing is truly inspired, and not just an attempt to score points with donors or potential students, or to enhance our school’s reputation. I have seen recently attempts to engage in organic farming, a highly specialized and pricey endeavor, both by people who really believed in what they were doing and by some who thought it might simply be a good source of income. You can guess which suceed and which fail. Sustainability has to be more than just an idea, it has to be a lifestyle, a commitment to something greater than ourselves or our pocketbooks. We have to be dedicated enough to dodge soda bottles at a football game, over and over again. We have to embrace the definition of insanity (doing the same thing repeatedly, expecting a different result) until we actually get that different result.

Ultimately, sustainability doesn’t just demand a change in the way we act; it demands a change in the way we think. The true “sustainer” cannot live in the moment. He or she must inhabit two possible futures: one that could be, and one that will be unless we do our part today. We must be earth-centered rather than self-centered. If you want to insist on religious rhetoric (although I find it unnecessary to the defense of sustainable action), then “creation-centered” will do. Any way you look at it, “peace in our time” is not enough. We can’t just shove today onto the future’s shoulders; we have to take the future and shoulder it ourselves.