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. 

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