The sustainability course I teach has students from many different faculties and departments. The first half of the semester we look at, what are commonly referred to as, the pillars of sustainability: economics, society, environment, and culture. I talk about how I disagree with the language of pillars though because it implies that these are indeed separate entities. The reality is that they are deeply interrelated and interconnected. Therefore, once we have introduced each area we dive into sustainability issues like food and climate change and, at present, the COVID-19 pandemic.
The issues are helpful because they support seeing the interconnections between the sustainability pillars. Take an issue like local food as an example. First off, who defines what is local? Environmentally we might think of something like the 100 mile diet where all food should be grown or raised within 100 miles of where it is consumed. But this local food is often more expensive so we have economic and societal implications. This could also mean that people may be unable to access food that is part of their cultural traditions and identity. In short, it’s never just one thing.
One of the challenges to this integrated way of thinking though is that it isn’t how we are typically taught. Wayback in elementary school I can remember disconnected lessons focused in subjects rather than questions. I went to music and art, science and math, social studies and language arts. And even though I had the same teacher for many of these subjects there were distinct lines drawn between each and every one. Moving onto junior high and high school, the lines became even more distinct. Subjects were separated by walls and hallways and with the notable exception of my physics teacher who asked my calculus teacher if the method a number of us had used to solve a problem was valid, the subjects rarely even overlapped.
So how do we expect anyone to get from the silos of these isolated curricula to the integrated thinking required to solve today’s problems of climate change, hunger, and global pandemics? Burnard, Colucci-Gray, and Sinha (2021) have a suggestion. STEAM or science, technology, engineering, arts, and math has seen growing interest; however, they are typically still treated as separate disciplines with arts tagging along like an unwanted sibling. They are taught differently and assessed differently. Burnard, Colucci-Gray, and Sinha propose that we use two approaches that took me back to my doctoral studies: rhizomatic inquiry and diffractive analysis. The discussion of these is beyond the scope of my writing here but what I took from their discussion is that there is an unruly and unpredictable nature to inquiry (similar to the growth of rhizomes which spread out horizontally underground) that is stifled by imposing rigid boundaries on and between disciplines. At the same time, foundations of knowledge within disciplines can interfere with each other in meaningful ways, much the same way that waves in water or in light will create patterns based on how and what part of the waves meet each other. It is not then, that STEAM are separate and potentialy hierarchically organized disciplines but that they are growing together in ways that support different ways of knowing.
This is where we come back to my sustainability course. We find that if sustainability is supported by pillars, they are pillars that have been interconnected by the unpredictable and unruly rhizomes. They interfere with each other in ways that are both constructive and destructive. Therefore, once the pillars are built they must be questioned and chipped away at, taken apart and put back together until they are not pillars at all. This is the value of looking at sustainability issues, they help us to inquire into our own ways of knowing and question if those are the only ways. If we want to solve the challenges we face in the world today, perhaps we need more opportunities at all stages of learning to be unpredictable.