August 6, 2015

The 2015-16 Symposium Against Indifference: Environmental Sustainability

The College of Arts and Sciences is pleased to announce Environmental Sustainability as the theme of this year's Symposium against Indifference.  Dr. Patty Saunders, Director of AU's Environmental Science Program and faculty member in the Department of Biology/Toxicology, reflects below on the importance of environmental sustainability. See the schedule for this year's symposium events HERE.

The Importance of Environmental Sustainability 

Sand hill cranes fly over the
Black Fork Wetlands Preserve.
This summer, my family and I took a road trip to visit family in New England. Along the way, we stood above Niagara Falls, craned our necks to see one mountain range after another, inched forward with traffic on I-95, ate lobster rolls, camped by big lakes, followed around ducklings from a neighboring site, breathed in the pine-tree scent, and stopped to top up the gas tank seven times. Like everybody else, we interact daily with nature and are sustained by nature.  Sometimes, as on our trip, we take extra time to wonder at the view.

Travel, technology, and education allow us to “view” farther away and see with greater resolution. More and more, humans are considering how to make our collective environment more sustainable. How do we do a better job of living within our means? …And why make the effort? We all use environmental resources and rely on natural systems to renew and replenish resources, but there is only so much stuff.  An important corollary is that natural systems of renewal and recycling are also limited.

Natural resources and their limits get a lot of attention inside and outside of the classroom. Drought affects crops and wildlife and it is important to social and economic concerns. Western U.S. farmers looking at recently fallowed fields know this. There just isn’t enough water to go around (and even the stock underground had already been depleted). Agriculture both harvests and replenishes soil nutrients essential to plant growth. Food production, but also manufacturing and power generation, consumes far more resources than we can see. Collectively, we use a lot of stuff.

Students and faculty watch bald eagles at Black
Fork Wetlands Environmental Studies Center.
Therefore, for thousands of years, people have explored, harvested, exploited, and otherwise expanded their use of earth’s resources.  In history lessons and on the news, we learn that people die if their land is degraded and they can’t grow food. Towns are abandoned if the water supply is ruined. Whole nations sometimes need to look elsewhere for their basic needs. Products from fish to phosphate rock are imported to U.S. markets, because our own stocks are not nearly enough to meet demand. These valuables come from somewhere, expanding the consequences of local consumption to other economies, cultures, and environments.

The abundance of our species has increased and increased, and colonization, trade, and urbanization have accelerated over the last 500 years or so. The resulting interactions are complicated. Grocery store items don’t tell us their stories, but often there are stories. More and more consumers have learned to ask questions, even press for change.

When we figure out how to adjust our ways, things can get better, so the on-going discussion of when-where-how-why has value. We stopped hunting whales and shooting bald eagles. We breathe easier. The restoration of natural “services” is good for people, too. We learned years ago to protect soils from erosion. Now, many people are changing habits to protect rich, but dwindling, communities of pollinator species.  Strategic areas of land are taken out of development in order to protect urban and suburban water supplies. Rates of deforestation in Brazil slowed a lot when the effort was made. Protected areas in general serve as nurseries and oases for species we value and species we don’t even recognize.

Ashland Middle School students assess
fish resources at the Black Fork Wetlands
Environmental Studies Center.
Environmental sustainability is about people. The environment is where we live, and we make choices about how to go about doing so and who and what else matters. We create change, and we respond to change. This year’s CAS Symposium on Sustainability presents a series of opportunities to learn, reflect, question, challenge, problem solve, and consider our individual and collective actions. Our choices make a difference.