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.