Faculty disputes sustainability myths


Ethan Uslabar

Individualizing sustainability problems can be counterproductive.

Ethan Uslabar, Arts and Entertainment Editor

With so much buzz around climate change and sustainability in the wake of worldwide climate strikes, UW Oshkosh professors aim to dispel myths and reinforce facts surrounding sustainability.

While it’s without a doubt important for students to monitor their consumption of natural resources and be conscious of the products they use, individualizing the problem can be counterproductive to the goals that environmental advocates aim for.

According to faculty members, the real key to addressing climate change and sustainability lies in shifting the focus from the individual level to see a bigger societal picture.

“Without a societal effort—societal change—we won’t be sustainable,” Kevin Crawford, director of the Sustainability Institute for Regional Transformations said. “There’s some big changes that have to happen and individual awareness is a part of what gets us to that place.”

“The idea that kind of gets put in our heads is that it’s up to me, so if there’s a problem, it’s a failure of the individual,” Paul Van Auken, chair of the sociology department said. “If you don’t know what the other options are, then you might just stop there.”

Van Auken said that this can be very discouraging and that it can even prevent people from taking action altogether.

“A lot of the bigger picture is just left out,” Van Auken said. “Instead of thinking ‘the only thing I can do is try to use less water, recycle and such’ we can think, you know, ‘What are we doing on a household level?’ if you’re living with other people.”

Focusing on larger groups helps redirect the attention from the individual consumer toward entities with greater ecological impacts. Van Auken said consumers have been duped into thinking they can fix the problem with their consumption habits.

“This message we’ve gotten in the post-World War II era with mass production and consumption and marketing of all the same things, we see ourselves more as consumers than citizens in a lot of ways,” Van Auken said. “The idea is that we can consume ourselves out of this problem, which, if you think about it, is absurd.”

The university has been making strides in reducing its ecological impact. In 2015, UWO was ranked third on the Sierra Club’s list of Cool Schools and in 2018 earned a two-star Green Electronics Council Electronic Products Environmental Assessment Tool sustainable purchasing award for the third consecutive year.
According to Brad Spanbauer, co-chair of the Campus Sustainability Council, by the end of spring 2020 UWO will no longer use coal. There are still areas in where the university can improve, especially following the merger with UW-Fox Valley and UW-Fond du Lac.

“What’s been happening on those campuses related to sustainability is not the same as what’s been happening on our campus, and so how do we want to homogenize that and bring that all together?” Crawford said. “We need to continue to invest in what we do in sustainability and look at new ways we can improve what we do as we join from three campuses into one,” Crawford said. “One of the issues is transportation.”

Cars are an integral part of life in Wisconsin and they make school possible for commuters, despite being environmentally problematic.

“If you live in the suburb—and that’s the dominant norm, for people to live in the suburbs in our nation—it’s not conducive to driving less in most places, and that is a huge contributor to our environmental problems,” Van Auken said.

UWO has also set itself apart by including the study of sustainability in its University Studies Program.

“It’s helped solidify sustainability as an interest of UW Oshkosh, and a signature of UW Oshkosh,” Crawford said of sustainability in USP. “It doesn’t mean that we produce that interest once students are here, but hopefully there’s some interest in students who choose to come here. They see this as a place to come because of their interest in sustainability, and the USP just helps formalize that.”

According to Spanbauer, sustainability and environmental studies are not mutually exclusive from any other area of study.

“In my opinion I think almost every class could incorporate a sustainability angle or look at a problem at least one unit of a class through a sustainability lens because sustainability is so interdisciplinary,” Spanbauer said. “It’s very much tied to how we as humans live on the planet. I think you’d be hard pressed to go throughout your day and not do something that isn’t related to sustainability in a pretty direct way.”

According to Van Auken, while it’s helpful for students to do their ecological best on an individual level, for change to occur, it’s crucial that they understand the ways which they are able to get involved and make an environmental impact on a bigger-picture level.

“Real solutions don’t arise from trying to consume our way out of the problem or posting thoughtful things on social media,” Van Auken said. “Way more effective is getting out there and rubbing elbows with people and seeing what the real issues are.”

The environment isn’t the only thing that benefits from individuals getting involved, Van Auken said. People also have an opportunity for personal growth through getting involved with conservation and environmental groups.

“You’ll benefit so much more because you’ll get to know people and you’ll understand more of what’s actually going on, and it’ll probably lead you to taking action that is more transformative for you than just buying a green cleaner,” Van Auken said. “It’ll be more transformative for you and your surroundings.”

“Where a lot of our problems come in are from corporations, municipalities or governments that need to have a bigger and more broad approach to addressing these sustainability issues,” Spanbauer said. “The two ways we address that are one; voting for politicians who support those kinds of initiatives and who make policy decisions based on and rooted in science, and then the other thing is to getting that policy in place.”

Spanbauer stressed that when corporations, municipalities and governments aren’t held accountable, there is little hope for improvement, and the impact can especially hurt the health of people of lower economic status, who often live in areas of lower property values near industrial areas.

“It ignores putting the true cost, the environmental degradation costs, off onto somebody else, and oftentimes the people who bear those burdens tend to people who are of a lower economic status,” Spanbauer said. “You’ve got all these people with health issues, but in the meantime, the business is getting all this profit through policy not being strict enough and getting financial relief, and the earth suffers and the people suffer. Is that fair?”