State of the Planet

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Seminar on the History of Science and Sustainable Development

By Emily Thibodeaux

On a recent afternoon, a panel of Columbia University faculty members sought to make sense of the emergence of sustainable development as an academic discipline. While each faculty member brought a different perspective to the discussion, a consensus was reached that academia should produce solutions to the challenge of living on a planet that does not have infinite resources.

The discussion accounted for the academic year’s fifth and final Sustainable Development Seminar, which was entitled, “History of Science and Sustainable Development.” Patricia Culligan, vice dean of academic affairs and professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics, moderated the discussion among Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences; Robert Pollack, director of the Center for the Study of Science and Religion and professor of biological sciences; and Peter Schlosser, Vinton Professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering and associate director of the Earth Institute.

Kavita Sivaramakrishnan cited her own research on the history of the politics of development in India since the 1950s, when British-run development programs promised people access to modern comforts. Development was seen as a linear path to catch up with the West, and Sivaramakrishnan posited that the current politics of sustainable development are mired in a similar view of progress. The top-down colonial plans for agricultural and structural development failed in many instances because the model was not developed for large-scale implementation, nor did it take into account the culture of rural Indian communities. Instead, that model of development instigated civil unrest, and ultimately it failed to improve the quality of life of Indians.

Since then, the United Nations has become the “high priest” of sustainable development, as Sivaramakrishnan put it. An important question that arises is: How can the focus on sustainable development be both large, at the level of theory and modeling, as well as small, at the community level? Schlosser responded by saying that one way to bring sustainable development solutions and discussions to the public is by incorporating sustainable development as a discipline within universities.

The definition of sustainable development as a discipline is a work in progress, Schlosser said. Still, he emphasized the moral responsibility of academia in responding to the needs of the public and to think of ways to manage the “anthropocene”–an age defined by human-induced changes to earth systems. One of the ways that Columbia has contributed to the growing field of sustainable development is by founding the Earth Institute, which jointly appoints its faculty members from various disciplines and organizes educational programs at the university level, research units and centers, and community-based practice funding programs. According to both Pollack and Schlosser, the most important step for sustainable development would be to become recognized as an established discipline at the university level.

Pollack witnessed the rise and fall of the field of molecular biology, and cautioned against fragmentation of the sustainable development field before it has defined its goal or produced a cohesive textbook. Pollack wryly presented himself as a “troglodyte.” Over the course of 40 years, he said that he watched his field “speciate”–zoology and botany combined to form biochemistry, which then developed into molecular biology; the only vestiges of the original, unified discipline now exist in fields like bio-information, drug development and genetic mapping.

He also cautioned that as much as new ideas matter, one particular concern when considering sustainable development as a discipline is to also remember the people who are being studied and affected by the research. Quoting Vaclav Havel in his 1978 essay, “The Power of the Powerless,” Pollack stated: “‘A better system does not necessarily mean a better life. Only by creating a better life can a better system be created.’ It’s important to care about subjects, as researchers.” Schlosser added that researchers can fortunately draw on research in existing disciplines to organize knowledge that can be used to address problems, and also to predict the repercussions of new models of sustainable development.

In closing, Schlosser offered one reason to feel hopeful about the future of sustainable development as a discipline: The birth of the discipline has been more gradual than that of molecular biology, whose life as a singular discipline was in the end eclipsed by vast strides in technology. The focus of sustainable development is international and collaborative, as much focused on innovations in research as on education and practice. There is an effort from sustainably-minded organizations, such as the Earth Institute, to bring together multidisciplinary experts to research, educate and solve problems.

So while no one structure for sustainable development as a discipline has yet emerged that accounts for research, education, and public practice, there is an effort to use models from existing disciplines, as well as an emphasis on transdisciplinary collaboration. When forming a new discipline, as Pollack suggested, there must be flexibility, a willingness to view the problem through many lenses, whether medical, economic, scientific, humanistic, and openness to the possible existence of a new and better model. There is a shared hope that expert research coupled with education at the university and community levels can continue to inform innovative solutions in the field of sustainable development, and that one way to ensure the longevity of the field is to push for an official recognition of sustainable development as a discipline.

Emily Thibodeaux is a writing student and MFA candidate in the School of the Arts, a Columbia teaching fellow and an intern in the Office of Academic and Research Programs at the Earth Institute.


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