Tag Archives: sustainability

Sustainability: It Means More than “Tit for Tat”

19 Nov

Two innovative and inspired doctoral students at my University saw a problem and decided to do something about it. There is too often a disconnect between scientists and the public. The public struggles to understand what scientists are doing and unfortunately relies too often upon unreliable and unfounded sources for explanations. Scientists, for their part, do a fairly poor job of communicating what they do in a manner that makes sense to the average person on the street. To help address this gap here in our community of Worcester, these students secured sponsorship from NOVA and last summer started Science Cafe Woo. Their tagline? “Come listen to what scientists do while having a fun evening too!”

For the past several months, I have taken in the fun, sitting in the booths at the Nu Cafe in Worcester and listening to scientists from our local universities tell fascinating tales of how they spend their days. It is a wonderful opportunity for the community to gather in a non-academic setting, a non-research environment, to listen to, ask questions of, discuss with, and even debate people who often do work on the community’s dime (lots of government-funded research happens in our community). At the same time, the scientists get the chance to share their work with the community; to take on the challenge of explaining it in a way that non-scientists will get. It’s truly a win-win. AND it’s incredibly popular. I’ve arrived on more than one night to find it standing room only. For me, the entire experience – from the students’ initiative to start the Cafe, to the researchers’ willingness to talk, to the community’s positive response – has been a joy to observe and take part in.

This month, the featured speaker was Dr. John Baker, Associate Research Professor in Biology at Clark University. Dr. Baker teaches in the Environmental Science major at Clark, a nationally-recognized program that produces graduates who are “working is such wide range of areas as environmental regulations of pollution, water and wetlands conservation, clean technology, hazardous waste cleanup, public health protection, environmental planning, field and laboratory studies of endangered species and conservation planning.” (program website) His talk was called, “Ecology, Evolution, and the Most Misunderstood Word in the World.” The word? Sustainable 

This file is in the public domain because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that "NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted".

This file is in the public domain because it was solely created by NASA. NASA copyright policy states that “NASA material is not protected by copyright unless noted”.

Sustainable forestry. Sustainable design. Sustainable agriculture. Sustainable energy. The word appears in many places and many contexts, and is generally accepted as the behavior where you consciously replace what you use as you use it, so that whatever it is that you’ve used can continue. Cut down a tree, plant a tree. Even Steven. Tit for tat. Except, according to Dr. Baker’s argument (and a pretty darned persuasive one, in my opinion), such behavior is not sustainable. It is not “sustainability” as sustainability is defined. 

One example that he provided made his point clear to me; when you cut down a tree in a forest, you take much more than the mere carbon-offset that it provided. Replace the tree with another and yes, you replace its role here, but what you don’t – what you can’t – replace are all of the other disturbances that occur in the ecosystem by removing that tree. Dr. Baker explained that when a tree naturally dies, it falls to the ground where, over time, it decays and is reabsorbed into the soil, giving to the soil the nutrients it requires to really keep the forest sustainable. Disturbing the ecosystem of the forest is what cutting trees does. It changes the system entirely. Maybe we won’t see these changes for tens of thousands of millions of years, but to suggest that our practice of replacing trees is really a practice of sustainability, Dr. Baker argued, is false. 

“I’m not a fatalist, I’m a realist,” he said. It may well be a hopeless endeavor that we’re attempting, this whole “save the planet” venture, but the professor’s point – the one that I took from his lecture, anyway – was that we don’t do ourselves any good by lying to ourselves through talk and behavior(s) that claim we’re doing something that we are really not doing at all.

In my experience as an embedded librarian, I hear a lot of talk and questions regarding the sustainability of this kind of work. I couldn’t help but think about this tonight as I took in what Dr. Baker was saying. I wonder if the role is being seen akin to a tree in our library forests – send us out and replace us with another librarian in the library. Even Steven. Give us one new job, take away one we used to do. Tit for tat. But just like the trees and the forest described above, is this really addressing the issue of sustainability? Other staff may well provide the librarian equivalent of carbon-offsets (on paper), but in the ecology of the library, is that all that needs to be replaced? I find the questions fascinating. I’m not sure if the forest metaphor applies to the library, but I do think that thinking of the bigger system – the ecology of the library – is a worthwhile pursuit. It may yield some insight and answers for us as we try to move forward in this arena.

Similarly, it’s interesting to think about this in the context of how the librarian and libraries have been replaced in our educational and healthcare systems, overall. What have we been replaced with? Open databases, journal articles at the desktop, Google (I’m positive that someone is thinking “Google”) and gadgets. Is it an even swap? Does the overarching goal of solid biomedical research and safe healthcare practice suffer in these trades or do they disturb something bigger in the evolution and ecology of our “environment”? What do you think? Can we make a stronger argument for our value when we think of the bigger picture? I’d love to hear what others have to say. I hope you’ll comment below.