I’ve always been fascinated by words; how they come to mean what they do, how their meanings evolve, and how they can mean different things in different contexts. So when we were looking to understand more about the UTS community’s efforts to research, teach and enact sustainability, I had two questions: 

  • What does the word sustainability really mean? 
  • When we use it, are we all talking about the same thing? 

I decided that the best way to get the answers I was looking for would be to draw on the knowledge and expertise of my UTS colleagues, so I interviewed five academics from across the university’s faculties. 

The natural environment 

I had expected the concept of sustainability to be grounded in a concern for the natural environment and this is where Megan Murray of the Faculty of Science’s School of Life Sciences begins. For Megan, whose fascinating research into environmental decontamination discovered that dog fur and human hair is particularly good at cleaning up oil spills, the concept of sustainability can be understood by asking:  

How are we engaging with the Earth’s resources to make sure that we’re not taking more out of nature than we’re replacing? And are we changing nature to a point where it can’t change back?

This emphasis on nature also came out in my chat with the Business School’s Walter Jarvis, who looks at sustainability through the lens of intergenerational responsibility: “For me, it’s about our relationship with nature. We have a responsibility to not undermine, and to protect, natural ecologies.” 

Our future and survival 

Sara Wilkinson of DAB’s School of Built Environment began her exploration of sustainability in the late 1980s, researching the then novel concept of green buildings. In defining sustainability, she highlighted the UN’s future-focused conceptualisation as a useful, broad place to start, being “focussed on meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs”. 

This emphasis on future generations is the first priority of FEIT’s Elizabeth Tomc. She passionately argued that sustainability is not about the environment, but about survival:  

Sustainability is a completely egotistical, selfish concept about making humans survive. If we want to survive, we need the environment because absolutely everything we do, everything we use, everything we depend on comes from the environment. 

Interdisciplinary complexity 

Despite these differences in emphasis, everyone I spoke to agreed that any understanding of sustainability needs to account for its immense complexity and for interdisciplinary perspectives. 

Political economist Elizabeth Humphrys mentioned this explicitly:  

Can we actually deal with sustainability issues in disciplinary isolation? I would say no. Environmental sustainability is absolutely linked to social and political issues. So, we can’t really separate the question of sustainability from, for example, that of poverty.

This perspective is what’s behind her work in UTS’s Climate Justice Research Centre and on the Too Hot to Work project, which draws on Elizabeth’s concerns for “the lived experience of workers, especially with the issues of heat stress and extreme weather.” 

Sara Wilkinson also emphasised the inherent complexity in defining sustainability, noting that “It’s an essentially contestable concept with very different conceptual understandings.” Too narrow a view of sustainability, she notes, results in “the exclusion of people from different disciplines, countries or cultures.” 

People and society 

Both Megan Murray (Life Sciences) and Walter Jarvis (Business) emphasise the need for a social understanding of sustainability. For Megan, sustainability involves “thinking about sustainability from a people perspective,” with the key being the nurturing of “sustainable mindsets.” 

Perhaps the biggest influence on Walter’s interpretation of sustainability is his infectious enthusiasm for instilling management students with a sense of stewardship and with a practical understanding of ethics and morality:  

It’s a social and moral issue. I’m talking about moral accountability and the integration of ethical principles with sustainability, with corporate responsibility and with respect for indigenous values.

This complementarity of perspectives was expressed most directly by renewable energy expert Elizabeth Tomc.  

Sustainability is not about one thing. It’s not about water. It’s not about electricity. It’s not about biodiversity. We need a systemic view, which means every single time we talk about it, we need to understand the bigger picture.

Where does this leave us? 

Am I any closer to understanding the meaning of ‘sustainability’? Definitely. I learnt that it’s a complex concept that requires understanding from every academic discipline to define and enact it.  And while ultimately, sustainability entails a preservation of nature, it’s also inherently about us – our actions, ethics and survival.  

Where does this leave us? If sustainability is such a complex yet vital concept, how does that affect the way we teach at UTS? And how do our students respond to the challenges that sustainability creates? 

My conversations with these five gifted educators continued and I’ll let you know how they responded to these questions in part two of this blog post.

  • Very thoughtful and interesting piece. Transdisciplinary perspectives are the way forward.

  • Thank you Richard! You have initiated such a valuable and pertinent conversation. I look forward to expanding my knowledge of what sustainability really means, and how it is understood across the disciplines, and learning from others about how we can make a difference in the workplace and with our students.

  • Richard, this is such a thoughtful and important piece. What you say about collaboration across disciplines is really important and modelled so well by the practitioners you reference in this piece.

  • Fantastic conversations Richard! A very worthwhile read that illustrates the ongoing need for transdisciplinary perspectives.

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