Last year, Lewis & Clark’s Sustainability Council featured a Hot Topics series, which as you’ll see in the featured image covered art, biodiversity, climate, decent work, divestment, energy, environmental justice, living wages, and place-based learning…whew!
My theory head spins reading all those titles. In the ENVS Program we try to move thoughtfully with our students with each, so that we don’t overreach and come at reality with an eight food wide paintbrush. And my EcoTypes initiative is all about helping students build skills and self-awareness in the Big Words they encounter—such as, among many others, sustainability.
Just this morning I read Naomi Klein’s critique of the New York Times essay “Losing Earth,” and my head spun again with the Big Words she repudiated, as well as the Big Words she substituted: in Klein’s shortcut reading of the NYT piece, it e.g. faults “human nature” vs. “capitalism”/”neoliberalism.” And I’m a cautious fan of her critique. But Big Words may be too big a shortcut if we really want to understand and meaningfully act on reality.
So this is nothing special to sustainability. But campus sustainability seems to want to do it all, and act in solidarity with every Big Word out there that campus communities love. Just glance at the 2018 conference schedule for AASHE, the main campus sustainability organization in the U.S., and you’ll see all the Big Words featured in the Hot Topics series and many more.
The Browning quote at top suggests one possible defense: Big Words are to inspire. They give us a reach far exceeding our grasp: we work for peace, for sustainability, for justice, for democracy, for freedom—even if we those words don’t really help us get there, nor clarify what things will look like when we arrive. I’m all for inspiration! But I’m also for getting places. And I’m definitely not for righteousness, which Big Words can inadvertently inspire among some of us. We don’t want to pursue inspiration at the expense of clarity—and humility.
Maybe the solution (again) is to strive for paradox, in this case to bring inspiration and clarification into conversation with each other. Inspiration feels great!…while clarification feels like critique, as in the “What do you mean by…?” sorts of questions students encounter when exploring their EcoTypes. If we lose either in Big Words, we’re in big trouble. Let’s get (reasonably) comfortable doing both.