Living sustainably isn’t as simple as it may seem. Recycling our trash and installing a few solar panels will only get us so far. Finding economically viable solutions to environmental and sociological issues requires thoughtful action that will push us toward ecological balance.

By Barry Stiefel

When I was young, I believed I was doing great things for the planet by recycling as much of my family’s garbage as I could and picking up litter with the various community service groups I was involved with. This was especially rewarding growing up in Michigan, where each beverage can and bottle I collected came with a 10-cent payout. One could make some decent spending money just for an hour or two’s worth of picking up trash from the side of the road.

Later, much to my chagrin, I learned that this was not enough to earn that super “S” on your chest for saving the Earth. While recycling is an important thing to do, by itself, it is nowhere near enough to stop, let alone reverse, the threats of global climate change. Sustainability within a framework that brings no negative harm to the Earth is so much bigger and more complicated than simply recycling our garbage. To put things in perspective, if everyone on Earth lived the same lifestyle as the average College of Charleston student, we would need three to four additional planets simply to support a daily routine. (I know this because for the last several years, I have done ecological footprint surveys of my students based on class averages.)

But we only have one planet! So, it seems a different way of living might be in order. Becoming literate in what it means to live within a sustainable framework that is balanced with the Earth’s resource and ecological systems is as important as learning anything else that you might major in at the College. The lessons of living sustainably are just as essential as accounting, women’s and gender studies, biology and everything else in between.

While recycling is an important thing to do, by itself, it is nowhere near enough to stop, let alone reverse, the threats of global climate change.

Some of my research at the College is directed towards how historic preservation and community planning, as well as urban studies, pertains and interplays with objectives of sustainability and environmental conservation. I am presently co-authoring a book that explores how learning about the cultural traditions of the past and reusing historic things (such as buildings, structures and vehicles) when combined with contemporary hindsight can help inform decision making and planning for a more sustainable future. Within my approach, I am also looking to the model of natural systems thinking, which embraces the concept that there is no such thing as waste because nature doesn’t have “garbage.” Instead, all matter and energy is conserved and reused. With this framework in mind, how can we, as a civilization, apply this system to change our cultural and social habits in a positive way to be more synchronized with these natural processes? This is not advocating a return to a historic “greener” past, but rather recalibrating the present for a future that does no harm to other species as well as our own. (Yes, I recognize that this is very idealistic.)

Sustainablity literacy must also be about learning how to live in a world that is different than what we grew up with in the past. This includes being familiar with ecological systems within the environment, the economic complexities of our communities and our country, and the social and cultural interactions between people, places and biodiversity. Sustainability literacy should entail being aware of more than just your carbon footprint. It isn’t just about the energy one uses. It’s also about the waste we produce, the land and water resources that we are dependent upon, and the side effect of every action and decision we make. The future within our lifetime, particularly that of faculty, staff and students at CofC, seems to be poised for hotter days and warmer nights – spend a summer in Charleston to see what I mean. Water will play a much more significant role, too, whether it is too much at once (just ask any of the upper-classmen about stories of Charleston’s flooded streets after a heavy spring rain) or too little (like those baking hot days in early August in the humid Charleston heat when the lightest rain shower would be a welcome relief).

There are a few key questions that will influence the decisions we make about how we want to live here at the College of Charleston – and elsewhere after graduation. Chief among them: What kind of planet do you want to live on and leave to future generations? How do you see yourself interacting with other people and environmental influences as they respond and change to what is taking place?

Sustainability within a framework that brings no negative harm to the Earth is so much bigger and more complicated than simply recycling our garbage.

The objective of the College’s Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP) is sustainability literacy, which will be a bridge for our students in addressing problems of the 21st century. Implementing this objective is the task of the Sustainability Literacy Institute (under the leadership of visiting assistant professor Todd LeVasseur ’97) and its faculty fellows, which I along with associate professor David Hansen (Innovation Fellow), associate professor Steven Jaumé (Faculty Development Fellow) and visiting assistant professor Caroline Foster (Outreach Fellow) are all a part of. We are doing this not only because it brings meaningful value to our work, but also because we see this as a lasting positive legacy we can create, together with our students, to make the world a better place.

Problems and challenges of this past century included aggressive fascism (World War II), genocide (the Holocaust, among other mass killings of innocent people) and the Cold War (USA vs. Soviet Union). Many of these problems still linger in some form, and will need to continue to be addressed. But it will be the additional burden of those who live in the 21st century to also deal with issues of climate change, rising sea levels, species extinction, over (human) population and poverty, among others. Literacy in sustainability will enable our students to rise to the challenge of resolving these very important issues. It will take more than just recycling our used bottles and cans to get us on the right track. Resolving the environmental issues of the 21st century will involve everyone working together in a community, learning and communicating for the common goal of having a stronger, healthier, cleaner planet.

Barry Stiefel is an associate professor of historic preservation, community planning and urban studies. Stiefel is the student engagement fellow for the College’s Sustainability Literacy Institute.

Illustration by Chiara Ghiglizazza