Sustainability for Whom?
Students need to grasp the human-Earth connection.
Opinion by Andy Lau
Sustainability is all the rage these days, but what does the term really mean – and how should it be taught?
After decades of working to understand and apply the concept in engineering education, I’ve reached this simple definition: Sustainability means fulfilling human needs in harmony with the Earth. To be truly sustainable, design must put people on par with green technology.
My quest began in 1987 with publication of the World Commission on Environment and Development’s Brundtland Report, Our Common Future. It defined sustainable development as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Like most of my engineering colleagues, my first response was to see sustainability as a challenge to reduce pollution and the use of vital resources by developing renewable substitutes. If we could stretch resources without producing more harmful substances than Earth could absorb, then human life could be sustained for a very long time. Our relationship with the planet’s living and material systems would be in harmony.
So I continued to make buildings more efficient while using solar energy to provide heat, light, and electricity. From this green buildings work, I developed a first-year design project that guides students through a conceptual design of a net zero-energy home (NZEH).
Despite this technologically progressive attitude, I had a growing sense that a sustainable future required rethinking progress and our day-to-day lives. Consider housing. We now build homes that are better insulated, have lower air leakage, and are more efficiently heated and cooled than ever before. Yet they use record amounts of energy. Why? Because houses are bigger and there are more of them.
My eureka moment occurred when one of the first-year teams made a video emphasizing how redesign of technology like the NZEH can achieve sustainability without requiring any change in behavior or lifestyle. It broke my heart because I knew that attitude was unsustainable. And I had failed to help the students see that.
The belief that growth can go on forever prevents humans from ever being in harmony with Earth. Engineering educators must therefore look closer at the other aspect of sustainability – what it means to “meet needs.”
Investigating needs is right up our alley. Our engineering codes of ethics guide us to hold paramount the public’s health, safety, and welfare.
Scholarship in the area of needs has produced valuable insight that can help guide our work. Beyond Maslow’s pioneering work in 1943, recent scholars have included David Braybrooke, Meeting Needs, 1987; Manfred Max-Neef, Development and Human Needs, 1989; and Martha Nussbaum, Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach, 2000. These scholars have shown that for people to lead fulfilling lives, they need much more than food, clothing, and shelter. Humans also require safety, affection, social interaction, expression, recreation, and a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves. It takes all of that to sustain a healthy, life-supporting world.
This past spring, our client-driven first-year design project was to produce something to make Penn State more sustainable. While most teams focused on reducing resource use and waste via a new technology, one team developed a design that was not only more in harmony with Earth, it also facilitated the fulfillment of needs of students living in residence halls. Their design removed the mini-fridges and microwaves now crammed into each double-occupancy room and created a common space on each floor with two full-size refrigerators, two microwaves, a television, a sink, and a sitting area. Not only did their concept cut electricity use by about 90 percent, it also encouraged social interaction and sense of community. In fact, their project addressed and nurtured nearly every aspect of human fulfillment.
Think about what this team achieved. The students significantly pared the use of materials for appliances. They drastically reduced energy consumption. And they still paid attention to the needs of young people to socialize. Their sustainable structure should make residents’ lives more fulfilling – by design.
Andy Lau is an associate professor of engineering at Penn State.