On Sustainability: Education and Empathy

by Joshua

If ever there was an academic subject known for looking at the world through a big picture lens and a microscope simultaneously, it is the discipline of Sustainability. You probably know our unofficial tagline: 

“Think globally, act locally.” 

As the Chief Sustainability Officer at the University of Texas at Arlington, every day I work with many incredible and passionate people to shine the light on both sides of this same coin. I have worked with the UTA Office Green Teams to implement environmental programs in their offices, and I have also engaged with stakeholders across the north region to establish a North Texas Regional Center of Expertise (RCE) for Education on Sustainable Development, an initiative of the United Nations University.  

Sustainability is all about systems thinking — everything is part of the puzzle. It is impossible not to see the coronavirus pandemic through these telescopic and microscopic perspectives. The pandemic has affected families, disrupted economies, tested friendships, highlighted racial and health care inequities, challenged institutions, and changed people’s behavior everywhere. In my academic discipline, for instance, the pandemic has brought attention to the inefficiencies in the food systems across the world.  

Until recently, most people have not thought that much about sustainability. The idea sometimes feels abstract to many people and the impact too slow to change behavior.  

But something as challenging as this pandemic brings the gift of opportunity to redefine how we operate and function in the society, which is really what sustainable living is all about. Did you know that while around 13% of U.S. households were food insecure pre-pandemic, campus studies suggest that as many as 59% of students now experience food insecurity at some point in their college careers? 

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Food insecurity is an end result. Where does it begin? It begins in part with how much pressure mankind is exerting on the Earth’s ability to function. The current drought index in north Texas shows mostly abnormally dry to moderate drought across the region. The impacts of climate change are visible in the floods in Germany, fires in California and Oregon, and the heatwave that the U.S. has been experiencing this summer. A recently released U.N. Climate Change report is sounding “code red for humanity”: 

“Amid summer of fire and floods, there is a moment of truth for climate action. 
Amid a year of pandemic, there is a moment of truth for humanity!” 

I am an educator, and I firmly believe in the power of education to bring about change. Education empowers people of all ages with the knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes to address the interconnected global challenges we are facing, including climate change, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity, poverty, and inequality. I think it is time to move above and beyond replacing CFCs, installing energy efficient lights, or recycling and composting. 

Empathy should be our guiding principle!  

We should understand how hunger and food insecurity affects individuals and work towards helping them, even it is small steps such as food pantry or starting a food recovering network to donate food and reduce waste. Forming community gardens not only help grow food but provides a sense of community and support that people need and thrive on. Hosting a Hunger Banquet creates awareness of hunger and inequality and encourages a deeper understanding of world food distribution and poverty.  

At UT Arlington, I teach a class “Introduction to Sustainability.” It is very difficult to narrow down the sustainability challenges of the world in one semester and offer solutions. But the students in my class are changed people at the end of the semester. Some have replaced their pantry items or the household items they use, and others have started volunteering at farms and food banks. It gives me great joy as an educator that I was able to enlighten my students on how their actions and choices are impacting the earth, and what they can do to mitigate. My hope is that the empathy they feel will be translated into actions and, in turn, educating others.  

One must tap into the moral imperative that everything is part of the puzzle. You can have a telescopic lens to see the sustainability challenges of the world, but we need a myopic lens to bring about change and difference. It starts with you, and it starts with education! 

I am inspired by these powerful words by Iris Murdoch: 

“Education doesn’t make you happy. Nor does freedom. We don’t become happy just because we’re free – if we are. Or because we’ve been educated – if we have. But because education may be the means by which we realize we are happy. It opens our eyes, our ears, tells us where delights are lurking, convinces us that there is only one freedom of any importance whatsoever, that of the mind, and gives us the assurance – the confidence – to walk the path our mind, our educated mind, offers.” 

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