Moving Past “Sustainability Light” in an Age of Borrowed Time

Photo of Arlene Plevin, Ph. D. at the AASHE 2019 Conference
Photo by Betsy Evans

This past October I attended the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) Annual Conference in Spokane, Washington with my colleague and psychologist Dr. Bibi Gutierrez. We went as part of our university’s strategic planning initiatives and spoke about, among other things, ‘doing sustainability’ in conservative climates. That’s probably fodder for another blog post all together, because what I’d rather talk about now is my favorite session of this year’s conference: Dr. Arlene Plevin’s session called “Self-Congratulatory Sustainability/Sustainability Light: Just What Are We Teaching?”

Just as sessions involving libraries and librarians are rare at AASHE events, Plevin’s environmental justice-focused session was unique in that it questioned what and how we are teaching sustainability in higher education settings, prodding discussion around issues such as our Western consumption habits and the different privileges that exist in systems of sustainable living. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the session’s audience was more student than staff. Students around the small room nodded along, and some raised their hands to chime in about their dissatisfaction with program X or promotion Y at their own institutions.

To be clear, I actually showed up about ten minutes late to the session, having lost track of time talking about corn-based to-go containers in the exhibit hall. But I didn’t have to see it all to know that what was great about it was not the speaker or the audience or the PowerPoint presentation in a too-bright room, but the fact that it existed at all. A post-conference review of the full program reveals there were many sessions this year involving agile approaches to achieving sustainability on campus – and more sessions than I have noticed in recent years focusing on diversity, social equity, and inclusion in sustainability – but no other session suggested that we needed to work harder; to be more honest, inclusive, and radical.

As a teaching librarian and one of the biggest sustainability cheerleaders/worker bees on my own campus, I realized that I engage with sustainability light a lot: hashtags and green signage; an annual clothing swap; talk of ‘changing the world’ with small steps if everyone would pitch in. Whether it is imposter syndrome, fear of polarization or even of retaliation, the thought of going hard and real on sustainability is scary from my position as a librarian in far West Texas at a university without an official sustainability program.

I have been involved with sustainability-focused programming for as long as I have worked at libraries (however rogue, such as when I programmed double-sided printing into the Xerox machines to the chagrin of a few seasoned reference librarians at my first clerk job). Growing into librarianship and making the jump from special to public to now academic libraries, I realize that librarians are a special breed of people who want to provide access and guidance – essentially, to assist in problem-solving. We want to solve problems ourselves, too. And we want to serve our audiences, whoever they may be.

With the new series Borrowed Time, I realize more librarians are recognizing that our role as service providers and problem solvers means we must take climate change seriously and provide opportunities for access, education, and measured change related to sustainability principles and practices.

As I look forward to a new year with new challenges, I look forward as well to the unfolding or Borrowed Time and how I might weave these collaborative resources, discussions, and programs into my work at the university as well as in my small town public library: as a librarian and as a community member. We all have opportunities to more radically address local challenges – here in west Texas we have concerns with water scarcity, energy development, and waste management for starters. With collaboration among libraries, safety in numbers, and a commitment not to settle for sustainability light, we can move forward together, even if it is on borrowed time.

Dr. Plevin’s focus on environmental justice spans much further than this presentation, and I urge you to check out her writings.

Betsy Evans, Education and Outreach Librarian, Sul Ross State University, Alpine, Texas