Leading the Way in Sustainability: A Conversation with One of North Carolina’s Female Maverick’s

>>lubarskyMeet one of the millions of North Carolina women working hard to make a difference: Dr. Sandra Lubarsky is one of the creators of the field of sustainable development. She developed one of the first graduate programs in sustainability in the country at Northern Arizona University and directed the program for 15 years. Now she’s chairperson of the >>Sustainable Development Department at Appalachian State University.

Women AdvaNCe talked to Dr. Lubarsky about her experiences in and vision for this growing field. Here’s an edited version of our interview.

Q: People know about pollution and conservation, but sustainability isn’t a word they hear often. How do you define sustainability?

A: Sustainability is an effort to live in ways that promote the health and well-being of the planet and the many forms of life that constitute the planet. That means that it’s about much more than ensuring the health of ecological systems. It also involves questions of justice, equity, compassion and happiness.

It’s much more than an understanding of the scientific dimensions of life. Much of environmental education has come up with an emphasis on science, and I think that’s great, but it’s not sufficient. Science is one part of learning to live well on the planet, but it also involves politics and policy-making, it involves religion and forms of spirituality, it involves all of those human efforts to develop life-supporting relationships.

For me, the best way to understand what is meant by sustainability is to use the language of life affirmation. Sustainability in higher education is devoted to life-affirmative education. How do we learn to live in ways that promote life? Because right now, we’ve got systems in place that do not promote life or they promote only a small sector of life to the detriment of everything else – and then of course it comes back to bite you.

Q: You used the word “justice.” How do you see the concept of justice playing into the idea of sustainability?

A: We need to shift the paradigm, and that involves—and this is the hardest part for people—it involves reassessing the way we use the natural world. Right now, we use it in ways that deplete other forms of life, and we also use it in ways that promote relationships of injustice.

I’m talking about, to a large extent, our economic system. The economic system, of course, is based on patterns of consumption. So we have patterns of colonialism and neo-colonialism: the whole horrible tragedy in Bangladesh, with the factory that just fell apart. These are sweatshops, and they’re producing cheap clothing based on a consumptive model that is deeply unjust. But that whole consumptive model is based upon an unsustainable economic system which is based on an unsustainable relationship to the earth. Justice issues play into this because it’s about our large patterns of behavior that have to do with our relationship to the natural world.

Many people still maintain that we can have sustainable development with an endless growth pattern. But in fact, there’s no evidence that that’s possible. That’s the really worrisome part. And the really challenging part is how do we move to a new economic model that is just and equitable, where people can learn to live well without destroying the planet?

Q: It seems like you are one of the first women to really delve into these issues and lead. And you are talking about a combination of science and economics and policy, which all tend to be male-driven fields. What has your experience been as a woman in this field?

A: The people who are engaged in this expansive, richer notion of sustainability, where it’s not simply a science approach— it’s less gendered. Because once you talk about sustainable communities, once you put in that word “community,” it opens up a landscape in which women have been very engaged. As long as you limit it to scientific examination of ecological processes, then you have a pretty male base to it.

What I see in the program here, of about 300 students, is pretty equally divided. About half of the students are women. What’s very interesting, what I’m really thrilled about – we have a track in sustainable agriculture, and half of the students in that track are women. So there’s going to be a whole new population of farmers who are young women.

Q: What advice would you give to women who want to do something to make their communities more sustainable?

A: Ask yourself, where is your passion? What do you care most about? Because sustainability is a very broad concept, it has to happen everywhere at once and one place at a time. There are so many threads in the fabric of community that I think people just need to figure out which thread they want to be attentive to and help strengthen.

The thing about sustainability is it’s clearly not an ideological issue. It’s been made into an ideological issue, but it isn’t one. That’s a false understanding of it. Of course, clean water and clean air and healthy food supply are not ideological. So it really is a wonderful arena where people can transcend their own ideological prejudices and work for the common good.

I think that one of the places I’m most optimistic this can happen is around the food system. We all eat, and we all are concerned about our own health and the health of our children. So food is not bound to the political divisions, and I really think that’s a great place for communities to come together and put aside their political differences and simply say, okay, how do we create a healthy food system?

Q: A lot of these decisions regarding water quality and food systems are policy decisions. What is the conversation in your department given our current legislature?

A: There’s a lot of concern that the current legislature doesn’t understand the value of higher education as a community good and not simply as an individual good. And the same thing in regard to practices of sustainability. There’s a lot of concern about the practices and policies that will dismantle our ability to build sustainable communities.

The practices of privatization greatly weaken community life. Community life is something you cannot purchase. It is not subject to capital. It is about non-capitalized relationships that depend upon having a healthy public sphere. It does require then a commitment of funds to promote the public good and not simply private good.

The public versus the private – that’s the wrong division to make. The private always depends upon a healthy public core, and that dependence has been neglected. And at this point, it can’t be neglected anymore, because the whole system will fall apart – both public and private. Right now, we’re sacrificing the public for the private because we haven’t understood the importance of the public good to support private well-being.





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  1. Laura Edwards

    This is so timely and relevant in today’s society. Thanks for this informative and thought provoking article.


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