The Importance of Sustainability with Jonathan Kay ’20

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The following is an interview with Jonathan Kay ’20 on his work with sustainability through the PSRF program. 

How did you become involved in sustainability and environmental advocacy?

I’m from Santa Cruz, California, which is kind of a hippie, college town. It’s very environmentally conscious, and I also grew up during the California drought. Some of the mindsets you have around preserving water really carry forward to a general mindfulness around resources. I mean the four-minute showers, not flushing when you pee — that sort of thing. But it was really this PSRF (President’s Sustainability Research Fellowship) program that moved sustainability to “Oh, this is something I actually want to do with my life.”

I actually did the GA training during pre-orientation and I’m not sure exactly what changed. I think it was having to wrestle with, “Yeah, this is a problem — this is really, really, really bad,” in a way that I had known intellectually before but hadn’t felt obligated to spend much time thinking about. Having the PSRF program as something that demonstrated, “Oh, now here’s something you can do about it,” and learning about stuff like carbon pricing which was like, “Oh, I’m interested in political science. This is something that connects to that. This is where I can make a change.”

Why did you apply to be a PSRF?

My resume wasn’t big enough. [laughs] It was actually kind of that. I applied on a whim, not really knowing that much about the program. And also, I mean, it was cool, I knew on some level that sustainability was something interesting. The idea of having an independent project for an entire year and being able to work on that kind of scale was really appealing.

What project are you currently working on?

I’m actually working on a bit of two projects. I started out the year focusing on staff engagement with our Sustainability Advocates program, which partners students with staff volunteers to work on open-ended workplace sustainability initiatives, and is also about training the staff to serve as sustainability resources in the workplace. Melissa Tier from the Office of Sustainability runs that program, and my job was to document it, evaluate it, make recommendations to “make it excellent.” And about halfway through last semester I was running out of things to do.

So I pivoted a little to focus more on sustainability in the curriculum. It definitely took a while for that program to find its direction but I think it was – I went to this conference in San Antonio of AASHE, which is the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, and there I went to a few sessions on faculty learning groups and sustainability in the curriculum and one thing that really stood out was, you know, why don’t we have this here? Because I think at Swarthmore, we have not had an organized conversation about sustainability in the curriculum beyond Environmental Studies, and my impression after this year is still that even in Environmental Studies, there weren’t necessarily the critical conversations or some of the deeper questions that were being brought up. And I think that’s true not just at Swarthmore. I’ve been kind of shocked by reading the literature on sustainability in higher education. From efforts from Emory University to the United Nations, there has been a lack of critical reflection on what we’re trying to accomplish with sustainability in the curriculum.

Why do we need to be having those conversations?

Sustainability issues are the most pressing problems we face today. Most of the problems we’ve had to face for the last — essentially, all of human existence — they haven’t been existential threats. Climate change is an existential threat. Sustainability issues are existential threats, with the theoretical capability to wipe out all of humanity, but at least a very reasonable capability to kill millions and millions and millions of people, and just change life as we know it in a way I think people don’t really understand. Or, they understand it intellectually but it’s not something they really have to grapple with. It is an era-defining problem, and there are a few reasons why we have to approach it as a school.

One is we have a moral obligation to society. That is clearly stated in the College’s mission that we want to produce students of value to society. Across this campus, there’s this notion of “we need to work towards the social good,” and as a small liberal arts college, how we do that is not by conducting research or partnering with government corporations on big engineering projects; how we do that is producing great graduates that will hopefully go on to change the world. And, you know, if we’re doing the same thing we were fifty years ago — before we really understood the scale of this problem — we’re probably doing something wrong.

What have you found is the biggest challenge to doing the work that you’re trying to do?

There are a lot of challenges. I think the challenges range from lack of theoretical clarity about goals to institutional roadblocks — problems of implementation. That can be anything from generally understanding what you want from an educational experience. And then trying to evaluate it is just really difficult. Evaluation in education is hard. And the flip side of that is it’s hard to tell people what they should do in education — particularly at somewhere like Swarthmore, or at most schools, where professors have a huge amount of freedom over what they decide to teach and departments have a huge amount of freedom over what they decide to teach. The provost or the president can’t simply say, “OK, you have to teach sustainability now,” even if by some miracle they figured out exactly what that means, what it means to teach sustainability and the most effective way to do that.

You know, I’ve been working on this for a year, and most of the recommendations I can make are about further evaluation, further exploration. It’s still not clear what we should do. There’s this great quote by Lawrence Veysey where he referred to “unreflective activists,” making reference to the educational reformers of the 19th century. We don’t want to be unreflective activists, because if we don’t reflect on the role of sustainability in the curriculum there is a non-trivial risk that we will harm the educational project and the educational mission of the College. Those are some of the major problems. There’s not even a single definition of sustainability, like what that means.

One of the problems for me as a student, as someone working on this is that I am not faculty; I’m a random student who doesn’t know shit about all of this stuff. So not only do I not have the authority to make recommendations, but I don’t even know what questions to ask. Every few weeks throughout this project I’ve had a massive change of heart as I’ve learned some new thing.

You mentioned the College’s goal to create students who are working for the social good, and Swarthmore students care about a huge range of issues and are actively working on a huge range of issues. Why is sustainability the one that we need to focus on? How would you convince students that this is where we need to put our time?

You often hear the argument that sustainability is just one cause among many. Generally at universities and colleges, if you commit resources and time in one direction, you have to take away from something else. So in some sense, it can feel like a zero sum game. The scale of sustainability issues, like climate change – sustainability isn’t just climate change, but that’s one of the more obvious ones – it’s difficult to overstate how scary it is, just the scale of the problems. I don’t think that there is a single other societal problem that has the potential to wreak as much havoc, to destroy livelihoods, to reshape the world as we know it than climate change. We care a lot about social justice at Swarthmore, and I think there are two ways to go about that argument. One is that, in order to have social justice, you have to have a society, and climate change has the potential to unmake society as we know it. Sustainability issues and climate change — they are social justice issues. When you have massive natural disasters — we see it in Katrina and you can see it in looming environmental catastrophes — those who are the worst off suffer the most. That’s true for the consequences of climate change and it’s true for the causes of climate change.

Right now, very close to home we have the Covanta incinerator, which is a huge environmental justice issue where you have a poor, predominantly African-American community that is having their air polluted because they don’t have the political power to say, “we don’t want this incinerator in our backyard.” That’s close to home but on an entirely different scale than, say, when you’re looking at rising ocean levels, what countries are disproportionately impacted? What countries are going to lose most of their land mass? What populations are going to be displaced by that? It’s predominantly poor populations. Their capacity to be able to deal with that is going to be greatly diminished. Something like climate change can be conceived of as a massive shock to society, and generally shocks induce further injustice or highlight injustice. So that’s one way of going about it: saying that sustainability encompasses all these issues and that sustainability is a society-wide phenomenon that includes social justice. But I think we haven’t really processed, in a way that we need to, the fact that we haven’t seen something like this before, that these causes aren’t equal, and that this is really, truly terrifying. We just haven’t emotionally handled that.

How has this changed what you see yourself doing in the future?

So I’m an honors political science major, statistics minor. I imagined myself going into charitable organizations, trying to work for Give Directly or one of these societies that are trying to do good in the world and trying to use data or statistics to help more people. So that was more focused on global poverty and global health initiatives. And now I’m more focused on sustainability because I think that is a more pressing issue than global poverty or global health — it encompasses global poverty and global health. So, it’s a more important medium to put our efforts into. Now I’m thinking of international ecological governance, various carbon pricing campaigns, and that’s interesting at the state level, at the national level, and then internationally. If I can consult for some international organization to help implement, help encourage, help pricing negotiation —  that is something I want to do with my life. That was not the case a year ago.

Do you have anything else you want to say to the Swarthmore community?

Sustainability connects to every single discipline at the College, and I think every student should take a good hard look at the opportunity that they have to avert catastrophe. It’s – I don’t know. It’s terrifying. Maybe that’s the thing: we need to look at it and actually face it, not just intellectually, but also emotionally. We need to face the level of consequences and then ask ourselves, “is this something we’re going to do something about? Or, are we going to have to answer to our children and our grandchildren about why we fucked the world up?”

Abby Diebold

Abby is a senior from Portland, OR. She has probably asked you if you're registered to vote.

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