Empowering Our Students to Lead the Revolution

By Dedee DeLongpre Johnston
Director of Sustainability
Wake Forest University

We recently hosted a panel event on campus that probed the realms of morality, justice, capitalism and sustainability. Titled Good for Me – Good for Us? Self Interest, Community Values, and a Sustainable Future, the event challenged participants to consider the coexistence of community values and self-interested behaviors. Prior to the event we asked students to contemplate the perceived clash between the “moral” behaviors we teach in our American families, churches, and schools and the “selfish” behaviors inherent in our current economic system.

Julian Agyeman, Professor and Chair of Urban Environmental Policy and Planning, Tufts University; Sabine O’Hara, Dean of the College of Agriculture, Urban Sustainability & Environmental Sciences, University of the District of Columbia, and Larry Rasmussen, Professor Emeritus of social ethics, Union Theological Seminary served as respondents on the panel.

Our panel of experts articulated their visions for a sustainable future, noting that process, and a particular consideration of whose voice is included in the process, are central to our collective way forward. A focus on the moral dimensions of sustainability was a refreshing departure from the usual facts-and-figures sustainability lectures we have hosted in the past. Our students appreciated the attention paid to the fundamental motivations for our – and their – behaviors.

We worked with student groups for weeks before the event to discuss and debate our organizing questions. Several key themes emerged from these debates and discussions that are worthy of consideration by those of us working to empower students to lead the sustainability revolution.

One: members of this generation realize that unlimited growth, particularly unlimited economic growth based on a fixed set of inputs, is unsustainable. As one young woman put it, however, “it’s the devil we know and trying to imagine jumping off into something different is terrifying.”

Two: members of this generation want to care and want to make a difference, but are spread so thin and are so overcommitted, that they don’t act on their passions.

Three: members of this generation recognize that we need radical change, but they are paralyzed by a commitment – to their families, communities, and selves – to be practical.

During these conversations I was reminded of something David Orr said at a conference a few years back: The revolution is failing because it fails to be radical enough.

At his recent acceptance of the NAACP’s prestigious Spingarn Medal, life-long civil rights advocate Harry Belafonte said "What is missing I think from the equation in our struggle today is that we must unleash radical thought... America has never been moved to perfect our desire for greater democracy without radical thinking and radical voices being at the helm of any such a quest."

For the students we engaged in conversation about this event, the discussion continually circled back to the struggle they feel between understanding that the revolution needs to be radical and the pressure they feel to be practical.

Interestingly, a different group of students expressed the exact same sentiment just days before our event, upon their return from an alternative spring break trip in Alabama where they explored the history of civil rights. They acknowledged that there is “so much work still to be done,” and yet that they feel a need to be practical in the work they do and the life goals they pursue.

If this generation feels paralyzed by practicality, how can we empower them to think, and act, for change? In the follow-up conversations after our panel, we found that students valued the transdisciplinary solutions articulated by the presenters. The mix of economics, history, social equity, and ethics gave them a new insight into the importance of multiple perspectives and it added a pragmatic dimension to their otherwise narrowly conceived understandings of sustainability, based on discipline-specific teaching.

I think that the academe is slowly awakening to this insight as well. We still have our silos, and our reward systems that perpetuate those silos, but sustainability research and teaching is chipping away at the divides. Practicality does not equal stagnation.

Perhaps there are some very practical ways forward for students who are trained to think, and act, across boundaries. The keys to a sustainable future are certainly process-oriented and not just knowledge-based. Perhaps the revolution doesn’t have to fail if it fails to be radical enough. Though a practical revolution is a bit oxymoronic, if it’s a way to get this generation activated in the development of a vision for a sustainable future, maybe it’s a route we have to consider.

As someone who works with students every day, I reject the often-stated conclusion that this generation is apathetic. We should not mistake their lack of action for apathy. We should accept that they’re passionate – and overwhelmed. They’re overscheduled – and need to be taught that their habits are unsustainable. It is our job, as educators, to empower them to clear their own plates and to set their own priorities, so that they can fully engage their passions.