Sustainability Collaborative Essay

By: Diana M, Alexander R, Kerstyn S, Michael S, Mya G, Artressia C.

Internalizing the finite nature of our resources, sustainability is the symbiotic relationship between the effective and efficient consumption of those resources. Through achieving this goal, we can meet our own needs and certain superfluities without compromising the ability of future generations to satisfy theirs. As we yearn for more than the bare necessities of man, sustainable consumption allows this human ambition to flow continuously throughout generations. Fostering this harmonious relationship between people and planet ensures the health of the environment for us and for those to come after us. The concept of sustainability is commonly divided into three pillars, each independent yet interconnected in their own ways; economic, environmental, and social—also informally known as profits, planet, and people.

Reformity within our government represents the social willingness current generations have to cater to the needs of the future, by addressing the errors of today within legislative change for the struggles of tomorrow. Socially sustainable efforts include goals of poverty reduction, social investments, and the cultivation of safe and caring communities. Moreover, social sustainability integrates a physical and figurative infrastructure to create room for people and places to evolve.

Environmental sustainability works to create a self-sufficient cycle between what is used and what is produced, with the goal of maintaining and improving environmental quality over the course of time. In the case of hydro-power, a natural source of water flow is used which produces a constant and reusable source of energy with minimal effects upon the environment. 

Economic sustainability concerns itself both with the continued success of an economy over time and the impact that success has on the other facets of sustainability. Buying secondhand clothing, or other products along the same lines, prevents those materials from sitting in a landfill and harming the environment while also helping the economy. 

These pillars work together to maintain and revitalize the resources that we depend on. Those who carpool, for example, combine each of the three pillars of sustainability into one practice: they act socially sustainable by agreeing to make a change in their lifestyle; they act environmentally sustainable by deciding to consume less gas; and thus, they act financially sustainable by deciding to spend less money on unsustainable fossil fuels.

In each of these principles, people fail to act in the expectations of sustainability. A common theme seen both in real life and fictional representations of sustainability is the idea of cutting corners for the sake of ease or comfort. Ralph Ellison’s Chapter 10 of Invisible Man offers a literary take on the real-world consequences of cutting corners in the workplace and the real threats it poses to all pillars of sustainability. Within the chapter it is evident that the scenario given prompted economic and socially unsustainable practices. From a social standpoint, the lack of onboarding and preparation of your employer is destined to sabotage the company. The narrator is consistently told to “…just do what you’re told” and “get your orders the first time and get them right” (Ellison 4; 13). The focus is on him completing the tasks rather than him properly understanding them. Within the starting process of an employee, it is crucial that the employee understands the procedures behind what, how, and why things work the way they do. The lack of preparation from the employer’s behalf is essentially preparing the employee for costly mistakes. From the lenses of economic sustainability, the story shows how the plant manipulates their need to pay their workers for their benefit. It showcased that the higher ups fired “the regular guys and [put] on you colored college boys…That way they don’t have to pay union wages’” (Ellison 2). Later on in the story, the narrator is shamed for making a mistake, “’What the hell, you trying to sabotage the company? That stuff wouldn’t work in a million years. It’s remover, concentrated remover! Don’t you know the difference?’” (Ellison 7). The narrator responds that he was not trained to properly differentiate the remover from the “dope” and that his way of interpreting the difference was by smelling them, which is explained to be potentially detrimental to employees’ health due to the fumes. Clearly, a lack of social sustainability can immediately affect economic and environmental sustainability. 

In Chapter 10 of Invisible Man, it is exemplified how a singular action by an individual can snowball into an institutional problem. One worker neglecting to properly train a new hire for the sake of time and effort quickly becomes a larger issue in the grander scheme of the company. Since the narrator was not thoroughly taught the purpose of the different drops, he ruined a full batch of paint and rendered it unusable, making it so that it “…wouldn’t work in a million years,” (Ellison 7), meaning it becomes waste. The same idea of cutting corners resulting in waste in Ellison’s story exists in many different ways beyond just fiction; the issue of resources being used and discarded is extremely evident in the case of fast fashion. Buying clothing secondhand may not seem as immediately appealing to consumers because it makes it difficult to tailor purchases to one’s specific taste. Fast fashion makes the ability to find particular items that fit a buyer’s style easier, but at the cost of sustainability. Much like carpooling, thrifting is an example of the three pillars of sustainability coming together. Similarly to how a properly trained staff at a business creates a cohesive and effective team of collaborators, thrifting has brought a social circle of like-minded people together centered around sustainability. This social circle upholds the environmental sustainability of reusing clothing, just as a properly trained workforce upholds environmental sustainability by choosing to contribute to a “reducing, reusing, recycling” work environment. These social circles also work to preserve economic sustainability, despite being on opposite sides of the market. For example, workers in the market of thrift stores have it in their best interest to preserve the company’s finances by reusing donated goods rather than going through the costly fast fashion process of producing the goods. Thus, thrift stores can sell these goods at a lower price in order to make a profit, which benefits both the business and the buyers. On the other hand, the social circle of buyers have it in their best interest to shop at thrift stores in order to preserve their wallets, all while being environmentally sound and creating a unique social culture.

Much like the idea of using cover cropping to ‘feed the soil’ in Penniman’s Farming While Black, SUNY Geneseo’s use of composting food waste helps to enrich the soil that is then used to grow more food. Stated that, “Cover crops are planted to feed the soil, which in turn feeds our people.” (Penniman, 1) Cover crops naturally die down and return their nutrients to the soil which then feed the next generation of crops grown there. Geneseo uses this cyclical cultivation of the soil through composting food waste in the dining halls, to grow food in the E-garden. This food grown using the composted soil in the E-garden, will then be used again in the dining halls. This combined with the heating plant tour illuminated the effort of SUNY Geneseo to stay sustainable. Steve Morse related a similar cyclical process of the heating plant where he works in which it reuses water in its heating system. He explained that when the four large, blue boilers produce hot water to run through the radiators in the academic buildings, the used water is fed back into the plant into a smaller orange boiler where the water is conditioned to be reused again. This feedback system does not need to take place, but Morse emphasized that utilizing it is beneficial for the economic efficiency of the plant, the environmental use of community resources, and the social dynamic at Geneseo which is largely centered around sustainability. Even within a largely blue-collar, industrial environment, the common themes of thrifting and Penniman’s explanation of cover cropping are present. Morse also explained during the tour how the plant avoids using oil unless it is expressly requested. Beyond this, the extensive effort that is put into monitoring what buildings need heating at certain times shows the constant consideration the workers of the heating plant take in to ensure a sustainable campus. Rather than wasting resources, the workers watch closely to see when certain buildings or dorms have more bodies within them and therefore require less heat. Balancing the gray area between what humans need and what becomes superfluous nurtures the symbiotic relationship that is needed to lead a sustainable lifestyle both individually and for the community at large. 

In the local efforts reflected within the Geneseo community to march onward with sustainability, we look towards a marginalized community that embodies what a sustainable way of life looks like. Within our discussions of Black Literature, we consistently see individuals creating art, stories and other forms of survival and expression with what they’re given. Looking at the narratives provided behind the stories of a quilt, we have internalized that the quilt serves greater purpose than just a bed cover. With hundreds of pieces of fabric interweaving in manners that have been exclusive to the art form of quilting, we see a great example of sustainability in the social and environmental sense. But as we applaud the creation of quilts, we understand that the meaningful expression was brought forth by unfortunate circumstances. While within the lens of those who may not understand the value of a quilt, one may assume it’s a creation of nothing but poverty and squalor; a messy mashup of scraps and cotton. Within that same view, a student can view our heating plant and the smokestack as a symbol of industrious ignorance, serving as nothing more than a continuation of our unsustainable past. But as we immerse ourselves in both entities, the heating plant and the quilt of Black Literature, we see practices that favor our predicaments and environments. The story behind the transformation of a once impractical heating plant to an energy conscious one, or the story behind the beautiful rhythms within the different schemes of color that create a quilt. Like the finite nature of our environment, both narratives expressed within Black Literature and our very own campus are attempting to effectively maximize what we’ve been provided with by nature or the struggles of oppression.

The Study of Sustainability: A Student’s View

By: Sam, Mattie Lili, Patricia, Taylor, and Quentin

The word sustainability has spiked in usage between the years 2019-2022.  Society coined this word as a necessary topic for discussion, enabling change and encouraging the new generations to take a step to ensure a safe and healthy environment for the future. Sustainability is a broad policy concept, historically, primarily centralized around the global public discourse, and defined by the three known pillars – environmental, economic, and social. Though the original definition stated that it was the ability to continue over a long period of time, recently the thoughts on this subject and the definition itself have evolved.

Within our community, sustainability has been emphasized on numerous occasions to encourage people to make responsible and efficient decisions to ensure the general welfare of those around us without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Written on SUNY Geneseo’s webpage are these ideals – stating “In an effort to work on and commit to all three pillars, SUNY Geneseo has joined world leaders at the United Nations in adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all” (“Sustainability at Geneseo…”). Along with this, a Sustainability Map is included to further explain and express how this institution leads sustainability efforts both on-campus and worldwide in an interactive map format. With these ideals in mind, sustainability has morphed its way into a major at the college for students to further the conversation about how to maintain future generations’ successes. The college offers multiple internships and work studies to grant students the opportunity to be involved in local endeavors, such as the Genesee Valley Conservancy and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. There is also a tab on the side of the website in which students may click on, entitled “Get Involved” – showing on-campus initiatives, clubs/groups on campus which focus on sustainability (Arboretum Board, GOLD program, CAS, EcoHouse), and the necessary contact information for the Office of Sustainability where students can “take a directed study with other interns in the office, volunteer, or utilize Office resources for [their] research, projects, and initiatives” (“Get Involved”). There are a number of paths that students can take following this major, such as Climate Change Policy Analyst, Conservation Scientist, and Soil and Plant Scientist. Along with these careers, there are even instances in which students are given the opportunity to immerse themselves into sustainability at SUNY Geneseo directly on campus, such as our own class’s recent trip to the Heating Plant in which we learned about the work done there and how it impacts Geneseo students. These resources available for students and the opportunities that we are presented with on the topic of sustainability offer chances for growth, knowledge, awareness, and appreciation.

In class, we have also been exposed to multiple texts that cover sustainability. One text that goes more in-depth on raising awareness about sustainability is The Invisible Man, written by Ralph Ellison. In chapter 10, Ellison engages the audience with questions about sustainability and its various impacts on us. It is here where questions revolving around sustainability in the workplace and the different social and economic impacts are grappled with by the reader.   “Why, you’d a-thought I’d done cursed him or something. ‘What kind of talk is that from you, Lucius Brockway,’ he said, ‘taking it easy round the house when we need you out to the plant? Don’t you know the quickest way to die is to retire?” (Ellison 17). This quote pushes the reader to think about the effectiveness of a company that relies so heavily on one man and furthers the conversation on how sustainably such a company can be operating. This is also a subjective and thought-provoking phrase when the reader interprets what exactly Ellison is saying. Is saying “the quickest way to die is to retire” meant to show that a worker’s value deteriorates when they stop working? Or perhaps is it being suggested that the worker’s own life deteriorates when they leave their working life behind? Which is sustainable – the worker’s value, the workplace, both, neither? The idea of this one man being so important becomes more complicated when the reader realizes how much pride Lucius takes in his role. “everybody knows I been ever since there’s been a here — even helped dig the first foundation. The Old Man hired me, nobody else; and, by God, it’ll take the Old Man to fire me!” (Ellison 12) Lucius’ tense greeting to our narrator also demonstrates his fear of being replaced, thus his fear of not being able to sustain himself. The ecosystems of a factory setting are complex and intricate, and he understands how a replacement could destroy him individually, yet not the company in any way. While reading Invisible Man, certain questions arose and were identified by our group surrounding the topic of sustainability. These questions included the following: What defines something or someone’s value that leads to it being sustained? What does it take to maintain a sustainable work environment? Can other things sacrifice their own sustainability while keeping another thing or person’s sustainability alive? How does the production of paint in the factory interact with the idea of economic sustainability? And lastly, how does the union’s reaction to hearing Lucius’ name and Lucius’ reaction to hearing about the union contribute to the idea of social sustainability? Having these questions before the visit to the Heating Plant provided a framework for the thought process. Each man in the plant had their role and were imperative and dedicated to that role. 

Not only did questions arise from the Heating Plant visit, but we also arrived at a realization regarding our own appreciation when it comes to some of the essential parts of our life. We saw that the Heating Plant follows a very complex process in which daily life and functions are often not thought about by the general public, and oftentimes, the work at the Heating Plant can be taken for granted by those who benefit from it every day. When the radiator turns on and makes a noise, we are quick to comment on it, but how often do we take time to appreciate its purpose and the work that is put into sustaining it, along with our warmth and comfort? How often do we question who is running this system, and appreciate the work they do for us? One text from class called Farming While Black, written by Leah Penniman, connects to this idea of underestimated complexity. In the chapters that we read and discussed, we made note of how Penniman also covers a process that the general public can often go unnoticed yet offer us something necessary to sustain our lives. There is so much work that goes into these things that sustain our lives – alluded to in the words “We ask a lot of this land. Each year we coax around 80,000 (36,500) of mineral laden vegetables from the hard clay soils” (Penniman 59). Oftentimes, the public is unaware of dedication and labor which goes into these things. For example, the soil itself provides a complicated pH index for those working with it. “Farmers in Africa combine these soil characteristics to create complex soil classifications. For example, Marnprusi people of the northeast of Ghana Kokua Sabbi have four dark soils with iron/magenese nodules and a general low fertility, especially in drought conditions” (Penniman 90). The fact that such intense work goes into creating the food that we enjoy and that sustains our lives on a daily basis yet so many of us are ignorant of the process itself is a parallel we drew between our text and our visit to the heating plant. If ignorance is still an issue then there are other careers and areas of life that are similar to the Heating Plant and farming – ones in which we take for granted and do not give the necessary credit to on what they do for civilization and for the sustainability of comfort and life. The realization that we are largely unaware of the work that goes into sustaining the world we live in illuminates the complexity of sustainability issues.

Sustainability is as inadvertently subjective as it seems. There are multiple aspects of sustainability we learn and utilize in our local communities and beyond. Economic,  environmental, social, individual sustainability just to name a few, are filtered through our brains in this current generation to execute change responsibly and maintain our general wellbeing.  Our own desires of sustainability may differ, as well as what our resources and education provide us to learn about sustainability. As Penniman states, “We ask a lot of this land” (59) – and with that being said, it is okay to not be aware and to recognize your own lack of appreciation or understanding – as long as there is growth that stems from it, and knowledge that is gained. We must actively learn to care and to ask ourselves “so what?” In order to fully appreciate and acknowledge the sustainability that certain things grant us through our lives, comfort, and happiness. We, as humans, do take a lot from this earth, and it is imperative to maintain a sense of sustainability for future generations. Although we came to an agreement on what sustainability means to us for this essay’s purpose, we can’t speak for everyone in this class, our community, or our environment. Our admittance of our own ignorance means that we are prepared to grow and learn through further collaboration with our peers. 

Sustainability, Sankofa & Steps Toward Action

Cheyanne Carney, Francheska Colon, Josephine Lewis, McKinley Skala, & Susanna Dolan

Through our analysis of chapter ten Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Leah Penniman’s Farming While Black chapters three and five, we uncover how the shared individual and systemic responsibility of everyone in society is important to sustain the world we live in. By playing our part in the three pillars of sustainability: social, environmental, and economic – we discussed how to maintain and balance sustainability once we find a way to achieve it after seeing a local example at the Geneseo heating plant. Using examples of African American oral and farming traditions, as well as the spirit of the African Sankofa bird, we further discuss how we as students at Geneseo can play our role in continuing our journey of learning and thinkING about what sustainability means and why it matters.

The Meaning of Sustainability

Sustainability is such a broad word without context; there is so much potential, but the world has to give it the fuel to be something bigger and better. Sustainability is not just one thing, it is very complex and has three pillars: social sustainability, environmental sustainability, economic sustainability; all a part of something bigger but not exactly the same. Social sustainability refers to humans and our health, resource opportunities, and how we educate our youth. Through this, we are attempting to maintain our way of life, our way of thinking as human beings. Economic sustainability refers to job creation, profitability, and the distribution and consumption of goods and services in our society. Here, we focus on what we can get from our environment and others in our society and how we can use these resources to build something for ourselves. Using the other aspects of sustainability, we can build our empire and survive within it. Environmental sustainability refers to our impact on natural resources, our compliance with the laws and regulations we have created regarding the environment, water and air quality, pollution, biodiversity, and the measures we take to protect wildlife and endangered species in our world. All of these pieces are individual, different from the others, and able to stand alone, however, they are interlaced and stand stronger together. It is important to note that true sustainability occurs only when all three pillars are balanced. It might seem pointless to have some aspects of sustainability met and not others because sustainability is not complete until all pillars are achieved and work together in balance. Sustainability is defined as the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level; avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance. 

What does sustainability possibly have to do with a literature class? There are many aspects of our lives that could connect to the literature we experience on a daily basis, including the overarching concept of authorship and ownership. Throughout our time together, especially at the beginning of the semester, we have discussed what authorship really means in literature and generally in our lives. In the Merriam-Webster dictionary, authorship is defined as “1) the profession of writing; 2) the source (such as the author) of a piece of writing, music, or art; 3) the state or act of writing, creating, or causing.” We had many conversations as a class about what can sway people’s opinions about true authorship. Does someone own the work they have written in its entirety, or do the editors and illustrators of the literature deserve authorship credit for the work that they contributed as well? There can be a lot of gray areas regarding authorship and what it means to truly own something. In terms of sustainability, ownership can apply to how humans view Earth. We do not own the planet no matter how much our actions might try to say otherwise. Earth is here to offer us a place to live, food to eat, and water to drink in return for protection and repayment of the resources we use. Chapters three and five in Farming While Black make the connection between Earth and the people that inhabit it in an endless spiritual exchange of give and take with resources and caregiving. We do not own the earth, but we do have an unspoken obligation to take care of it. To get us thinkING about this, some authors, like N.K. Jemisin write, at least partially, through the perspective lens of Earth as an active character with its own emotions and reasons for being. This allows readers an insider’s look at what the planet might be thinking and feeling when we treat it certain ways.

Ownership does not only pertain to environmental factors, it can also refer to Bernice Johnson Reagon’s idea of taking care of her songs by saying that they are free when in reality they are not licensed for sale. She took authorship over the songs she sang to the public and was accused of hypocrisy for not making them “free” like she stated they were. Taking ownership of the songs could allow Reagon to hold the meaning of the music close and safe until the audience was deemed ready to actually appreciate the songs, their historical importance, and the social necessity to keep their messages alive. The phrase that Bernice Johnson Reagon uses to describe the meaning of the songs is “the songs mean what they mean” which actually provides us with a good representation of her idea of ownership in regards to them.

Finally, we thought it was important to look back to when we learned about the African Sankofa bird and understand what happened in the past so that we can move forward together and make the changes needed to reach a state of true sustainability. Sankofa is a word in the Twi language of Ghana meaning “to retrieve” or “go back and get.” This idea of circling back with new information, making connections, and continuing to grow and move forward is the main idea of Sankofa and should be the ultimate goal when trying to reach true sustainability (all three pillars). We must revisit and learn from the past to avoid making the same errors in the future.

Invisible Possession

Throughout our course conversations, the discussion has continuously returned to concepts of possession. In one of our early classes, we read an excerpt from Suzan-Lori Parks The America Play and Other Works which provides the definition of “possession” as being “the holding or having of something as one’s own” (Parks, 3). With this definition in mind, it is interesting to see how elements of possession impact personal accountability when implementing sustainable practices that nourish the Earth, economy, and human spirit. Chapter ten of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man raises questions that help readers gain a better sense of their role in sustainable practices at the individual and systemic levels. 

In the chapter, the main character begins working at Liberty Paint, a company that bears the slogan, “Keep America Pure with Liberty Paints.” The company’s logo emphasizes purity with its signature color ‘Optic White’ which is attested to be the “purest white that can be found.” What the main character soon realizes is that the key to this pure white paint is a chemical referred to as ‘black dope’ that gives the paint its blinding white property. On his first day, our narrator is tasked with administering this dope to all of the paint buckets and while doing so questions his role in this task. At this moment, our narrator is taking on a role of personal responsibility by questioning the process that seems unscrupulous. When he asks his supervisor, Mr. Kimbro, about the process he is performing, the response he receives is, “That’s it. That’s all you have to do,” he said. “Never mind how it looks. That’s my worry. You just do what you’re told and don’t try to think about it.” Kimbro’s response releases our narrator from his moral dilemma by asserting that the paint-making procedure is a factory concern and the responsibility is held by Liberty Paint, not individuals. 

This interaction draws attention to practices of sustainability in relation to Earth, the economy, and the human spirit. In terms of Earth, it questions the ethical qualities of adding chemicals to paint. In relation to the economy, this scene illustrates how the ‘dope’ makes the paint whiter, which in turn makes the company more profitable. In a capitalist society, profitability may often take away from environmental or ethical concerns. In regard to the human spirit, this scene asks questions of ethics and individual accountability. Does Kimbro’s response change the sense of possession over sustainable practices within the plant? This scene asks readers to examine when individual responsibility ends and institutional responsibility begins as well as determine whether these two worlds are mutually exclusive. 

Thinking about this scene at a more figurative level, it is important to examine the question of what it means that the black chemical “dope” drops are covered up to create “pure” white paint? Throughout the chapter, there are indications that this scene is meant to symbolize the somatic norm of whiteness and how different groups of people are often compelled to live up to white standards and societal norms. One example of this is found in the character of Mr. Brockway who was the only one who knew how all of the machines in the paint factory functioned. If he were unable to come in, the factory would not function in the same way. When talking to the narrator, Mr. Brockway states “They thinks ’cause everything down here is done by machinery, that’s all there is to it. They crazy! Ain’t a continental thing that happens down here that ain’t as iffen I done put my black hands into it!” In this assertion, the author once again draws attention to the fact that creating Optic White paint would be impossible without the work of Mr. Brockway who is one of the very few people of color working in the factory. Mr. Brockway is more valuable to the company than many of the younger white workers, but he is paid incredibly low wages and forced to endure terrible conditions. 

Although Mr. Brockway does not literally possess the deed to the company, his knowledge of and function within the factory makes it his possession. This factory model is unsustainable because Mr. Brockway is the only one who knows the system. This chapter creates room for critical conversations about personal responsibility and accountability within the workplace. It also draws attention to the somatic norm of whiteness and the enduring power that this has within society. 

The Power of the Individual 

The power of the individual is essential in the progression of the future. This surely applies to how we view individual responsibility in regards to maintaining a sustainable world. One individual who has pioneered the concept known as intersectional environmentalism is Leah Thomas. The concept of intersectional environmentalism is a broad-based form of environmentalism that argues for the protection of both people and the environment. It analyzes the manner in which injustices against marginalized populations and the environment are linked. It puts to light injustices against the most vulnerable groups and the environment, rather than minimizing or silencing socioeconomic inequalities. This is similar to the Black civil rights leader Benjamin Chavis noted in relation to the definition of environmental racism. He stated that racial discrimination is engraved in environmental policy-making, regulation, and law enforcement. It intentionally targets communities of color through toxic waste facilities, official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in their communities, and a history of excluding people of color from ecology movement leadership. Furthermore, Thomas was influenced by Kimberlé Crenshaw’s term of intersectionality. The word was coined to describe the oppression of African American women in the feminist movement. In simplest terms, it demonstrates how feminism does not recognize the reality that women come from diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, abilities, and sexualities, among other things. It further favors the demands of those who are white, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, and able-bodied.

Leah Thomas is the founder of Intersectional Environmentalist (IE). This is a platform that focuses on the climate justice community and resource hub centered on BIPOC and historically under-represented environmental voices. Here they promote collaboration, accessible educational resources, and connect people to other organizations. For example, IE connected with Allbirds to create a series of workshops and videos that presented ideas on how to address climate change. This collaboration included a series of posters commissioned by IE artists that were shown in towns around the United States, as well as IGTVs that featured IE council members addressing significant environmental legislation. Leah Thomas, the creator of IE, thought that individuals had the potential to address these challenges that impact people all around the world in various ways. Thomas is only one person who has reached out to thousands of people and created an organization that may assist those in need and those who want to donate to this cause.

Multiple Perspectives

The class toured the Geneseo heating plant unit in order to understand the difficult and time-consuming efforts that go on behind closed doors to secure a better perspective of the deeper meaning of sustainability. A few of the many significant responsibilities that staff members of the campus heating plant at Geneseo take on include overseeing the energy management system, evaluating combustion efficiencies, analyzing chemicals, and responding to maintenance situations. 

The class was invited into a whole new world of knowledge with the help of two passionate staff members of the heating plant: Mr. Morse and Mr. Schunk. Both Mr. Morse and Mr. Schunk spoke with a great deal of excitement as they shared their essential work with the class. There was a distinct gap of knowledge and experience between the staff members and the class as sustainability, heating, and cooling jargon was included in the conversations as well as explanations of how the unit functioned. An overall key takeaway from this illuminating opportunity was the fact that we outsiders knew such little information pertaining to a system that so greatly impacts our lives. There is such an immense amount of detail and technique behind this cyclical process of heating and cooling. 

With the help of her book, Farming While Black, Leah Penniman offers her readers her unique perspective on the process of farming and her thoughtful insights on social issues such as racism and food access. Penniman emphasizes the importance behind the reciprocity between the Earth and the human beings inhabiting it. In order to produce effective and long-lasting change, we must work towards “economic justice, social welfare, and environmental justice” (chapter 3, page 54). Sustainability is merely an idea, which means that human beings must take responsibility for their actions and work hard to make positive changes within their world and the people around them. Consequences of taking from the Earth without giving back include the possibilities of “spiritual poverty, impairments to our physical and emotional well-being, or a sense of disconnection from our purpose” (chapter 3, page 57).

Real-World Application

Through our understanding of sustainability and how both individual and institutional structures work to maintain it, conversations on the continuity of African American culture can be revealed. As seen through the survival of Black oral and farming traditions, the African American community has mastered how to keep their practices alive. As symbolized by the African Sankofa bird, in order to move forward, you have to go back and retrieve what you can from the past. This spirit is emphasized when African Americans refer to the traditions and practices of their predecessors as guidance on what to do in the present and future. 

For example, as explained in Farming While Black by Leah Penniman, the spiritual practices at Soul Fire Farm are informed by their lineages and nature-based religion (p. 54). By connecting the social pillar of sustainability of their religion and community, Black farmers can work together to take care of the Earth. This practice of farming further helps them balance the environmental and economic aspects of sustainability as well. This same cyclical process can be seen in Black oral traditions. If not for the preservation of the songs, enslaved narratives, and stories of African Americans created during slavery, Black writers today would not have the work of their ancestors to draw inspiration from.

This carrying on and evolving of ideas of African Americans has been threatened throughout our nation’s history. Despite the institutional structures of slavery, police brutality, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, the Black community has continued to thrive. This is necessary to mention because addressing one pillar at the expense of the other pillars will not lead to a balanced, sustainable future. Without the support of equitable organizations and various groups of allies, African Americans can not be socially sustainable. 

Notably, we can carry out this responsibility of balanced sustainability as students at SUNY Geneseo. As seen on the college’s website, Geneseo defines sustainability using the following United Nations definition: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Through learning how to be an ally to our Black peers through our journey towards belonging or our heating plant recycling water and using steam power, the Geneseo community can work together to balance all three pillars of sustainability. Therefore, through the obvious connections between the three pillars of sustainability of Black culture and the overall sustainability of the Earth, we can continue to educate ourselves and others to change our practices for the better in the future. 

Sustainability Collaborative Essay

The term sustainability can be defined as meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Additionally, there are three pillars relating to this concept which are social, environmental and economic. The social pillar expresses the importance of maintaining relationships and engaging with sustainability in social situations. In a broader sense, having good faith with your actions is key to practicing social sustainability. For example, maintaining relationships specifically within a group collaborative assignment is demonstrating good faith in social situations by respecting everyone’s thoughts and opinions which will shape the way the assignment will be viewed. Being economically sustainable is another important aspect in regards to sustainability, this can be understood as using and creating resources intelligently without sacrificing future access to these resources. This is directly related to environmental sustainability which focuses on interacting with your environment responsibly to successfully avert the depletion of natural resources and allow for long-term environmental quality. To illustrate, being sustainable in regards to our environment is extremely important to avoid greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and unsustainable energy usage. There is a strong correlation between sustainability and literature, specifically literature classes. In class, we become informed about what is going on in the world as well as what has taken place in the past. Reflecting on these events makes us more informed about the issues going on around us, where we then can use that information to make effective decisions to better our environment for future generations to come. This allows us to shape our future actions and thoughts which will hopefully result in a sustainable environment. 

Although it is not the literal meaning of the work, chapter ten of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man tackles several potential issues in not acting in a way that aligns with the pillars of sustainability. Firstly, it shows a prime example of a dysfunctional workplace. Right from the start, the reader sees there is no cohesion in the paint company the main character applies to, with new workers referring to the main character’s boss as “the colonel” (Ellison, 3). Later on, we see a clear conflict between Mr. Brockway, the main character’s new boss, and a union within the company, a feud which sends Mr. Brockway into a fit of rage (Ellison, 24). These two conflicts show a breakdown of the social pillar. The relationships within Liberty Paints are shown as fragile and tense, lacking any good faith and creating a tense work environment. This is not manageable, and will continue to exist at the company, and every new hire will experience this hostility. Another potential problem in practicing sustainability is shown through the company’s hiring practices. At one point, a character states that higher-ups at the company are avoiding union wages by firing current workers, and instead hiring young black college workers (Ellison, 2). By doing this, the business is forsaking workers who have experience, and getting rid of old values and knowledge within the company. This shows a clear motivation of profit behind the company, prioritizing lower wages over experienced workers, and shows that the economic pillar is trumping the rest of the goals for the company. The result of these failures? The author has a clear idea of what happens as a result of not acting carefully. At the end of the story, due to an argument between the main character and his boss, one of the tanks in the basement explodes. Simply put, although the message is not literally “act sustainably or explode,” the disaster is figurative. If businesses and society as a whole do not act in this way, disaster will strike.

The company’s failure to implement the three pillars into their work successfully is what ultimately led to the destruction of their company; specifically, their failure to maintain a strong social pillar. Throughout the chapter, we are reminded of the constant tension between Mr. Kimbro and Mr. Brockway. The two men saw themselves as very prominent members of the company and prioritized proving their individual importance within the company. Mr. Brockway in particular, emphasized the importance of his work in the production of the paint, “He spat on the floor and laughed. “Heh, heh, heh, he was a fool, that’s what. A fool! He wanted to boss me and I know more about this basement than anybody, boilers and everything” (Ellison, 17). Mr. Kimbro can be seen expressing similar thoughts, “He snatched up several of the later samples, smearing them, and letting out a groan. ‘Of all the things to happen to me. First, they take all my good men and then they send me you. What’d you do to it?’” (Ellison, 7). Both men are complaining about the actions of other members within the company. Mr. Brockway calls Mr. Kimbro “a fool” for trying to fire him, while Mr. Kimbro blames the men responsible for hiring the main character for the mistakes the main character made. The problem is that both men are too caught up in their belief that their decisions and actions are superior, instead of looking to improve the company and their paint as a whole. Working only towards individual success will not allow for sustainability to be reached. With good faith being key to practicing social sustainability, it is clear here that the men are administering bad faith through their actions and even words towards other members working for the company. This idea suggests that in order for an institution to be successful, individual actions must reflect the overall goal the institution is trying to achieve.

Furthermore, we were able to gain multiple new perspectives immediately following our reading of Penniman’s Farming While Black and our exploration of the Heating Plant on campus. During our visit to the Heating Plant, we learned about the importance of maintaining sustainability throughout the entire facility. With that being said, every worker must be trained and well versed with the processes and machines within the plant. Within the Heating Plant, there is an organized and effective schedule/process that is used which leads to their success and sustainability. The Geneseo Heating Plant implements the three pillars of sustainability by ensuring that they are not putting too much steam into a building that could negatively affect the people in it. The plant is environmentally sustainable by shutting down the plant at the end of the year, “as soon as everyone throws their caps in the air, we start our shutdown process” (Steven Morse). This further proves that they’re environmentally aware of the effects their plant has on the environment. However, quite the opposite is seen at the paint company in the text Invisible Man. This company is seen not practicing sustainability or good faith practices, which ultimately leads to the explosion of their plant. The concept of sustainability was also heavily discussed within Penniman’s text, Farming While Black. Penniman dives into environmental sustainability by taking care of the soil and making sure it’s still usable.  This is possible through soil tests, which Penniman details the importance of in chapter five of his work. His work also reminds readers of the connection between sustainability and literature by providing us with the proper information to successfully create a sustainable future. Similar to the Heating Plant, Penniman’s text also considers the significance of the three pillars by alluding to the social pillar of sustainability in his third chapter titled “Honoring the spirits of the land.” This chapter discusses social sustainability in terms of respecting the land, acknowledging the culture of the land, and exploring how good faith plays a role in sustainability.

The whole Geneseo community, as well as others, should care about the topic of sustainability. Specifically, because it is stated within Geneseo’s values that “Sustainability: Building a culture of well-being that integrates and applies principles of environmental, social, and economic stewardship informed by an understanding of the past and our obligations to the future” (Geneseo, 2022). Geneseo as a school is “guided by our beliefs and commitments” to this value. When it comes to our work in this class, sustainability and Black literature are key to helping us understand our past actions (whether they are ours or a long time ago in history) in order to better ourselves in the future. In other words, learning from our mistakes. This is what we believe this course, as well as Geneseo, are trying to teach us. We saw an example of all three pillars of sustainability being demonstrated to us when our class visited the Heating Plant, “the Heating Plant unit is charged with the responsibility of providing service utilities in an economic, efficient, safe and timely manner” (Geneseo Campus Utilities-Heating Plant). We learned through this visit that the staff is dedicated to ensuring that all the students and staff are comfortable in their dorms, classrooms and extracurriculars. We also learned that the Heating Plant will be turned off on a specific day in order to save energy. The Heating Plant staff informed us that they only use steam rather than gas because of technological advancements as well as providing a safer environment for all. If we go back to the beginning of the semester to our discussion on the text, On Repetition in Black Culture Dr. McCoy restated a paragraph we were discussing by saying “everything that’s new is a revision of something that has already existed” (McCoy 2/7). This quote relates to our understanding of sustainability because like the Heating Plant, there will always be advancements made whether it’s technological, social, economical, or environmentally. When exploring sustainability and Black literature we are making informed decisions that allow us to shape our future actions and thoughts which will hopefully result in a sustainable environment.

Written by Ben Timmons, Jordie Slobodow, Jeremy McCarthy, Amanda Neri, Haylee Evertsen, Emily McIntosh

Justice in The Stillness: Whose? How?

“This is the Stillness, a land familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.” 

Author N.K Jemisin poses many powerful and complex questions within the context of her Broken Earth trilogy, questions regarding what it means to have justice. Jemisin layers geological concepts within The Fifth Season with other issues including (but not limited to) institutionalized oppression/racism and freedom. Set within the Stillness, a world in which it’s people live in “a perpetual state of disaster awareness” (Jemisin 8) due to frequent geological devastation, there are certain people who have the ability to perform “orogeny” in order to contain shakes and perform maintenance for the Comms of the Stillness. While orogenes—as they are called in this world—are given this extraordinary power, they have become the victims of massive oppression and are controlled by the powerful organization known as the Fulcrum, alongside the Guardians who have the ability to negate their orogeny. From this control and oppression stems certain questions for reading Jemisin’s work: What is justice in The Stillness? How is Jemisin writing for justice? Whose justice is she writing for? 

From an early point in the novel, the power that is wielded over Orogenes is shown through the viewpoint of Damaya, one of three narrators/perspectives in the book. Schaffa—Damaya’s assigned Guardian, who is assigned to watch over and “care” for young orogenes—explains to Damaya when he comes to take her to the Fulcrum that “The orogenes of the world serve the Fulcrum… your usefulness lies in what you are…From birth, an orogene child can stop a shake; even without training, you are orogene,” (Jemisin 34). Schaffa’s explanation of what orogenes are, and what their ‘usefulness’ is, seems sort of complex and nuanced. On one hand, Schaffa is telling Damaya just how strong and powerful she is and can be with the ability to perform orogeny. Even after the quote, he continues on to tell her she will become even stronger with the guidance of the Fulcrum. However, it is at this point that it becomes nuanced: the Fulcrum is an oppressive agency that exerts control over and institutionalized orogenes. So if orogenes possess a powerful ability to control geological events, if stills hate orogenes, and the Fulcrum is an organization that controls the orogenes (with the use of Guardians), is this done out of fear? Out of a desire for power? In a world where they experience consistent geologic devastations that kill so many, why aren’t orogenes praised for their powers?

Interactions between the Fulcrum, Stills, and Orogenes in The Fifth Season are what help to shape these methods of reading and thinking. An example of the stripped autonomy that orogenes experience is directly through Syenite, the third narrator and perspective in the novel. Syenite is assigned to work with a highly skilled orogene, Alabaster, but she is also assigned to conceive a child with him, which is something all Fulcrum orogenes must do. She is told that she has to do as she is assigned by her mentor Feldspar, and that Feldspar herself has had six children of her own for the Fulcrum. Not only is the Fulcrum responsible for oppressing and controlling orogenes’ powers, they are also responsible for stripping their basic autonomy as well (ability to have a right of choice for their own sexual reproduction). To further the horrid forced conception to even worse lengths, the reveal of what is done with Fulcrum-born orogene children is appalling and disturbing. Inside a node station1, Syenite comes to the realization of the treatment of the node maintainers: “She would call it a chair, if it was made of anything but wires and straps. Not very comfortable looking, except in that it seems to hold its occupant at an easy recline. the node maintainer is seated in it, anyway, so it must be—Oh. Oh. Oh bloody, burning Earth,” (Jemisin 139). The intensive, abusive, and forced labor that node maintainers (children nonetheless) is an overwhelmingly revolting piece of the worldbuilding within this novel. 

In my own mind, how this abuse and oppression exerted by the Fulcrum and higher powers comes across is a desire to hold onto power. After reading through The Fifth Season, I am not convinced in the slightest that the governmental powers in the Stillness are working properly or carefully for both social justice and environmental justice for the people who live there, both orogenes and stills. Even with the handpicked examples of the oppression, stripping of orogene autonomy, and massive control over the populace I have featured, that surely does not cover the entirety of issues within The Fifth Season. Surely, much much more will be brought to light in The Obelisk Gate and The Stone Sky (perhaps the moon that has been absent!). Now that N.K. Jemisin has provided a foundation for using geological concepts to seek/question justice, I wonder how she writes out the rest of the series to accomplish this. Can the Stillness obtain social justice, or will they find themselves stuck in a cycle of hatred and oppression? What can be done to break said cycle? What does a just and caring future look like for Essun and all people in this world?

1Network of Imperially maintained stations placed throughout the Stillness in order to reduce or quell seismic events

Father Earth’s Revenge: The Deadly Seasons

The Fifth Season includes many geological concepts to keep the readers engaged and wanting to read more. Throughout my reading of the novel, the most intriguing geological event N.K. Jemisin chose to include, in my opinion, was volcanic activity. The shakes are the primary geological aspect used most frequently throughout the novel, but after my reading I looked at the appendix and discovered something about the different seasons that make up the science-fiction world that is The Stillness. N.K. Jemisin took the time to go back to a time before her book was even set and created a timeline of Seasons for the readers to explore after their initial reading of her work in The Fifth Season.

There are a total of twelve seasons that N.K. Jemisin writes about in “Appendix I, A Catalog of Fifth Seasons…”, and out of those twelve seasons, eight of them were somehow linked with volcanic activity (eruptions, hot spots, etc.). A Fifth Season, as defined by Jemisin in Appendix II of The Fifth Season, is “an extended winter – lasting at least six months, per Imperial designation – triggered by seismic activity or other large-scale environmental alteration” (Jemisin 460). The Choking Season, Boiling Season, Breathless Season, Season of Teeth, Fungus Season, Madness Season, Heavy Metal Season, and Twin Season were all a result of some sort of volcano related geological event!

I found it extremely interesting that three-fourths of the cataloged Fifth Seasons were connected to volcanoes because of how prominent shakes/earthquakes are throughout the novel. This leads me as a reader to begin thinking about these geological events in relation to the topic of power and justice. Father Earth is described as a vengeful being that is out to destroy humankind and there are many things written about him in the stonelore and other forms of historical communication that frequently appear that the end of each chapter. For example, the quote at the end of chapter twenty in The Fifth Season is from an Ancient Folk Song and reads “Some say the Earth is angry / Because he wants no company; / I say the Earth is angry / Because he lives alone” (Jemisin 387). In the eyes of someone who thinks the Earth is vengeful because of the orogenes, stone eaters, and Guardians (among others) inhabiting the planet and using their powers to alter the way the Earth works, it could be said that Father Earth is using the power he has to fight for what he thinks is just. When the orogenes alter the Earth in anyway using their powers to stop quakes and other seismic/geological events from impacting the people that inhabit the Earth, they could be seen as using their power (in the literal and figurative sense) to avenge the population and provide justice to those who live in the Earth’s surface.

I read a National Geographic article in preparation for this essay and discovered that volcanic activity can occur in many forms. Volcanic ash is very harmful if inhaled, can collapse weak structures and even cause power outages. Volcanic mudflows can prove to be very destructive, burying entire towns in their wake. Pyroclastic flows, avalanches of hot rocks, ash and toxic gas can race down slopes at speeds as high as 450 miles an hour. These are just a few major examples of what volcanoes have the power to do. In the novel, Essun, Hoa, and Tonkee walk together amongst others through ash clouds that require them to wear face masks to avoid suffocation. The article, “Volcanoes, explained” written by Maya Wei-Haas (, emphasizes how each volcano is unique and how it can’t always be easy to predict volcanic eruptions. Maya writes that warning signs include small earthquakes and difference in the appearance of the volcano in question, but “none of those signs necessarily mean an eruption in imminent” (Wei-Haas). The idea the humankind is sometimes unable to predict volcanic activity and use this information to take necessary precautions and preparations for a life altering geological event, the Earth has the power. Just like in the novel, Father Earth is the character that holds the power in the relationship between him and the people living on his surface.  

The Power of Orogeny and Geological Events

When I think of power and justice, there are many images that come to mind. There are also many images that don’t (or didn’t) come to mind–images like earthquakes or volcanoes or other geological events. What N.K. Jemisin does in her novel The Fifth Season, is the tying together of these geological events with concepts of power and justice so that we can gain a better sense of what it means to have and use this power. 

While I read this novel, one of the things that particularly interested me was the concept of power as it relates to the orogene’s abilities. Orogenes are able to manipulate energy related to seismic events, a power that makes those without this power, fearful. The power that orogenes have is truly awe-inspiring and powerful. One of the things that they can do is still earthquakes. I’m not entirely sure what this means exactly, but they are somehow manipulating the energy from these events to stop them. To stop literal plates of earth from moving. That is not only super cool, but seems impossibly hard. Aside from the physicality of their powers, there are also the underlying motivations for them to use these powers. I think this might partially be a reason why they are feared, but I will get to that later. 

Another thing that orogenes can do is freeze the air around people, something that seems to occur when they are heavily emotional about something. This has proven to be dangerous, as many young orogenes have killed family members and friends by inadvertently doing this. That also seems to be another reason why the stills, people who don’t have the power of orogeny, are fearful of these powers. It seems like the unpredictability of motivation and usage of power leads others to be wary of orogenes, a fact that leads to the resentment and contempt with which they treat those who are different than themselves. 

In the second chapter of their book, Nur and Burgess discuss how earthquakes happen. They say, “Though earthquakes are unpredictable, they are not strictly random; they shape and are shaped by the structure of the earth as a whole” (41). When I read this quote, I immediately thought of the orogenes. Yes, they may have unpredictable powers that have consequences, but they also are affected by what happens around them–something the stills and those in power somehow overlook. Unpredictability and uncertainty can be fear inducing for sure, but does that mean that orogenes should be treated as less than? Should orogenes be harmed in the process of training them to harness their powers? 

When Damaya, the young protagonist of Jemison’s novel, is being taken to the Fulcrum to be trained, she gets her hand broken by her Guardian as a lesson. Schaffa says, “I am your Guardian now, and it is my duty to make certain that you remain helpful, never harmful” (93). This rubbed me the wrong way for many reasons. Who deemed Guardians the ruler over orogenes? Why can’t orogenes learn to control their actions on their own? How will hurting Damaya make her want to be helpful instead of harmful? How can breaking a young child’s hand (and spirit) be just? All of these questions keep surfacing and shifting to some of the awful things that orogenes have to endure throughout the novel. The quote from Nur and Burgess reminds me that the earth, the very thing that sustains us, is unpredictable. Why do we as humans get to try and push the earth into this box of predictability for our own benefit? We tend to forget that our own actions have consequences on the very forces that we believe shape us. Jemisin points out that, “Father Earth never forgets the debts we owe” (146). This line haunts me. The Earth in this novel has existed before humans, and although did not create humans, has a relationship with us where it both affects us and is affected by us. When we mistreat the earth, the earth remembers. When the orogenes are mistreated, they will remember by whom. 

Nur and Burgess also talk about stress building at plate boundaries. They state that, “only when the stresses exceed the friction holding both sides of the fault together does the plate boundary slip, releasing the energy stored in the strained rocks, like a stretched rubber band releasing energy when it snaps” (45). This makes me think of the young orogenes discovering their powers and accidentally hurting someone they are in contact with. Obviously, if there is a build-up of pressure, it needs to be released eventually. The earth does it, so humans will too. I’m wondering if this intense reaction could be avoided if those with orogeny were not devalued in society. What if we taught young orogenes that they were special and had amazing powers that could do some real damage if left suppressed? What if instead of hurting orogenes to teach them lessons on who gets to be in control, we taught them effective ways to utilize their powers so they felt more in control? Clearly, the need for control and power outweighs any of the other possibilities from this situation. People want what they want and will do whatever they deem necessary in order to remain in power. 

I feel as though Jemisin’s treatment of concepts like control and fear show us that sometimes, people will manipulate things as a means to benefit themselves without truly recognizing the scope to which this is harmful to others. People use and abuse the earth and the earth breaks apart. People mistreat groups of people they seem scary and unpredictable in order to maintain control.

The Earth’s Shifting Power dynamics

Power is a useful tool, both in its ability to create and destroy. And yet, power is not equal, and is often manipulated by those who have this mighty tool. The power dynamics, and implication of such is explored in N.K. Jemison’s novel, The Fifth Season. The Fifth Season creates a post apocalyptic world that while fantastical in its use of magic, intertwines destruction and justice in an all too familiar manner. The novel takes place in a world in which seasons reshape and restructure the future for generations to come. Seasons are not simply thunderstorms, but rather climatic events that have led to the creation of one single continent, coined “The Stillness.” The novel follows the perspective of Essun, who takes on the personna of three fragmented identities within different points of her life. The perspective of power and the implications that such power holds is presented in parallel with the occurrence of natural disasters. Just as pressure builds within the earth’s surface, ultimately leading to destruction, so too do the societal relationships in the novel. 

The motion of tectonic plates within the earth mirrors the very friction of the societal order itself. Within this world, individuals are broken into two distinct groups, the Oregones and the Stills. The Oregones are able to control seismic events, such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc. And yet, despite this power, Oregones are ultimately feared by those around them, and therefore, treated as “the other”. It is ingrained in society to fear Oregones, as Stills are told when there is a threat Oregones will do whatever is necessary to protect themselves, and “…people will die.” (Jemisin 37). Oregones have the power to change the world, and yet, they are treated as second class citizens. The notion of power is important to take note of when discussing The Fifth Season. After all, who truly holds the power? One might say the stills hold the power, yet even within this hierarchy, those who are commless are left to fend for themselves. The Comless have neither the resources nor the power to be prepared for the seasons, leading to fatal consequences. In this world that Jemisin has created, the ability to belong is vital to survival, and those who are left outside of the group are ultimately left to fend for themselves. 

The earth, and those who have possession over it have become an entity to be controlled, thereby denying its own agency. Oregones are the very manifestation of nature itself, yet are controlled by those who have no first hand knowledge of their ability and connection to the earth. Oregones are taken to the Fulcrum, assigned guardians, and taught to control the nature that is intrinsic to their very  identity. The guardians themselves have to touch the Oregone to create a connection that enables the control. In this sense, the guardians’ connection is fabricated, allowing not only a sense of control over the Oregones, but a false sense of knowing. Their identities are based entirely on the ideals of the fulcrum, mainly control, rather than unpredictability, creating an unity of sorts. They are taught what is deemed necessary by the Fulcrum, information that consequently allows the Fulcomes to remain in control. Ultimately, the very story of “The monstrous Misalem, who decided to declare war against a whole nation and off the Sanzed empire for no particular season” (Jemisin 416), is told to take away Oregon’s agency. Misalem had a reason, and this aspect is conveniently left out of the story as yet another way to control “the other”. 

And yet, everything and everyone has a breaking point. According to author Leanoard Seeber, though small earthquake faults can not be seen “…when you add them up, they are probably more dangerous than we thought.” Essun has faced injustice after injustice in life, and no longer feels the need to contain her feelings, contain control. Essun’s breaking point comes when she loses  everything she built her new identity around; Her children, her home, and ultimately, her loss of identity within her community. Essun’s identity is erased as “…A bird perched nearby the fence falls over frozen, too. The ground crisps, the ground growls hard, and the air hisses as moisture and density is snatched from its substance…but no one has ever mourned earthworms” (Jemisin 58). Just as Essun, earth’s plates build pressure, controlled underneath the surface, until this is no longer the case. 

Throughout the novel, the reader sees the consequence of ignoring tension and stress, as well as, the potential disastrous result. Nehl Burg describes the resulting motions of tectonic plates as “a stretched rubber band releasing energy when it snaps.” At the end of the novel, we see Essun  release the power the Fulcrum has tried so hard to control. It is evident that Fulcrum is no more as she “…opens herself to all the power of the ancient unknown and tears the world apart” (Jemisin 442). Essun has started a new season, one that will last for centuries upon centuries, and surely lead to the death of thousands. It is at this moment that she starts over. Essun  has reached her breaking point, and as a result, there is death, both literally and figuratively. Individuals on both ends of the power dynamic are dead, and those who survive are left to find a home elsewhere. The end of the novel forces us as readers to ask an important question; What happens when the power structure breaks? Moreover, who survives and what does it take in order to do so?

The earth within Jemisin’s novel teaches us a very important lesson, that even today we still seem unable to grasp; When enough pressure builds, there will be a reaction. However, the implication depends on how much we resist the change. Jemisin shows us that such resistance will prove cataclysmic, that much is clear by the end of the novel. By continually ostracizing Oregones as “the other,” the conflict has escalated, resulting in unspeakable tragedy. However, what we are left to figure out ourselves is what happens when the system breaks.  Who is left? Where do we go and what do we do? After all, a natural disaster is only manageable for those who have the resources to do so. What happens to those who do not have such resources?

Ephemeral Realities

“It is because islands tend to form near faults or atop hot spots, which means they are ephemeral things in the planetary scale, there with an eruption and gone with the next tsunami. But human beings, too, are ephemeral things in the planetary scale. The number of things that they do not notice are literally astronomical” (150). Islands, too many, are defined as a body of land surrounded by water or classified as isolated. To me, islands mean home, shelter, community, and culture. However, the term that is essential within this piece is the idea of isolation. Within this quote, Jemisin highlights perhaps unintentionally the lives of many individuals that intertwine with justice. 

Islands in the year 2022 hold a lot of significance within our culture. “It is because islands tend to form near faults or atop hot spots, which means they are ephemeral things in the planetary scale, there with an eruption and gone with the next tsunami”. This quote can be directly proven in connection to natural disasters that occur on different islands. One example is the beautiful island of Haiti, Haiti has been exposed to different types of natural disasters. The article “Why Earthquakes In Haiti Are So Catastrophic” explains, “Haiti sits on a fault line between huge tectonic plates, big pieces of the Earth’s crust that slide past each other over time. These two plates are the North American plate and the Caribbean plate” (Jaclyn Diaz). Haiti sits on top of a fault known as the Enriquillo-Plantain Garden fault system. As a result of the unease in the Earth’s crust, Haiti has been subject to various natural disasters, including earthquakes. The results of these earth are devastating, where many are found dead, homes destroyed, and people unprotected. And this is where the second half of the quote comes into play; “But human beings, too, are ephemeral things in the planetary scale” Upon understanding the destructive forces that can occur one understands the way human beings are temporary on space as ginormous.  

Islands within The Fifth Season hold a lot of meaning. In the beginning stages of the novel, Jemisin writes the quote used at the beginning of this paper that emphasizes the uniqueness of islands. This left readers with a lot of questions such as why is Jemisin focusing on islands? Are there people that live on islands within this novel? Etc. Jemisin left readers with a cliffhanger until the very end of the novel. Until readers are met with Syenite and Alabaster in chapter 22 where the Guardians have come to attack the island that at some point they have grown to appreciate. The arrival of the Guardians on the island shows the unfairness of attempting to forcibly eradicate and remove Corundum from his parents’ grasp. Corundum is considered as a need by the Guardians and the Fulcrum because of what he can provide. After reading about how the Guardians invaded the island, some people might wonder, “Who will restore this island?”

In recent years we have seen injustices and science connected. In 2020 Puerto Rico was hit by a devastating earthquake. However, hundreds of people are unable to pay for damage repairs to their houses. Others are skeptical of government inspectors’ claims that their homes are secure. The injustices are direct, we have a community of people impacted by an earthquake but the response of the government was very limited. For instance, Puerto Rico began to create camps for individuals who have lost their homes. Jenniffer Santos-Hernández, a research professor at the University of Puerto Rico who has visited the camps, believes the authorities have done little to offer temporary accommodation near people’s houses. She went to one neighborhood that is constructing one-room shacks with metal roofs that she described as looking like something out of a “shantytown”.

Works Cited 

Diaz, Jaclyn. “Why Earthquakes In Haiti Are So Catastrophic.” NPR, 16 Aug. 2021,

Jemisin, N. The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, 1). Reprint, Orbit, 2015.

Robles, Frances, and Erika Rodriguez. “Months After Puerto Rico Earthquakes, Thousands Are Still Living Outside.” The New York Times, 8 Apr. 2021,

The Fifth Seasons’: Could We Survive?

In The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin,the most fascinating Geological concept within The Fifth Season is the Fifth season themselves. In the world of N.K. Jemisin’s first book of her Broken Earth Trilogy: The Fifth Season, Jemisin tells of a world called the Stillness that is ironically, often moving, not even on a good day (7). This world of The Fifth Season seems to have a tragic history of geographical disasters from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions and beings who are literally rock. A  Fifth season according to Jemisin is a long winter initiated by seismic activity or a large-scale geographical alteration. Terms like shake, crack, shock, lava, aftershakes, and ash alongside brief descriptions of the previous seasons mentioned within this story. In chapter 21, end with a description of The Madness Season that was caused by “[t]he eruption of the Kiash Traps, multiple vents of an ancient supervolcano” and it is noted this same Ancient volcanic eruption being responsible for the “ TWIN season believed to have occurred approximately 10,000 years previous”(411). In the season of Madness and the same can be assumed for the Twin, being caused by the same eruption “[resulted in] ten years of darkness…devastating in the usual Seasonal way, but resulted in a much higher than usual incidence of mental illness.”(412). Throughout this novel Jemisins notes how these extreme seasons in the Stillness are particularly hard to survive that. According to Nur and Burgess, “Large earthquakes can have far-reaching effects on societies, and
could, given the right concatenation of factors, lead to catastrophic
changes in a region. Of particular interest are sequences of several
large earthquakes that occur closely spaced in both geography
and time, and can affect a very large region over the span of a
few decades.”(9)The  few points at which Jemisin chooses to tell about the variety of these seasons in their realistic unrealism speaks volumes about the people who are actually surviving these seasons. The extent of their power or power in strategy allows  for their survival.

It is not until the very end of The Fifth Season encompassing its first appendix, “Appendix 1 A catalog of the Fifth Seasons that have been recorded to and since the founding of the Sanzed Equatorial Affiliation, from most recent to oldest”(Jemisin A1). In the appendix there are 12 seasons, to which Jemisin included descriptions of each yet only included a few such to end some chapters. The naming and giving detail to these seasons seems purposeful to the reader by Jemisin in giving further insight on the power involved in getting through the theme. Holistically throughout the “The Fifth Season”  the use of geographical terms references to earthquakes and their actions and moreover the movement of the earth and rocks seem to set the tone for the place of the Fifth seasons. Show how encompassing the movement  of the earth is over the life of the beings within Jemisin’s world especially In the Stillness. Exploring the extent of which I’ve noticed the effect of geological concepts of natural disasters that make up the Fifth seasons, and harsh climate on who has the real power in Jemisin.