Students learn about the true meaning of sustainability

Dr. Brian Fisher, Director of the Office of Sustainability and professor of political science, spoke to students about what it means have sustainable systems. (Photo by Olivia Cohen)

On Tuesday, Feb. 26, students eagerly filled a Maybank classroom to hear Dr. Brian Fisher, Director of the Office of Sustainability and professor of political science, talk about what sustainability means to him and the College of Charleston campus.

“It’s hard to pin down exactly what sustainability means,” Fisher said. “It’s culturally contextual, so it’s up to us at the College of Charleston to decide what it means to us.”

For most people, sustainability is synonymous with environmentalism. However, Fisher believes that this is a treacherous and all too common misconception. “The environment isn’t the problem,” he said. “The environment isn’t the solution. The problem is many-fold.”

The way Fisher sees it, the environment is simply a convenient lens through which people can tangibly see the damage caused by unsustainable systems. However, these environmental effects, such as higher levels of carbon dioxide, changing ecosystems and rising temperatures are a direct result of poorly designed, complex systems that range from global politics at a large scale to individual happiness at a small scale.

According to Fisher, the secret to creating a sustainable future lies not in the newest science and technology, but rather in finding happiness and a sense of purpose within one’s own life.

“We’re not happy enough,” he said. “The corridors that we traditionally look to to make changes aren’t working anymore – community, American ideals, neighborhoods, trust in government and corporations…This is the problem with society when you scale it up. These are real, fundamental problems.”

Although the direct link between personal fulfillment and sustainable systems may seem a stretch at first, the connection between the two really lies at a simplistic level. People who cannot find meaning and purpose in their lives are less likely to make individual sacrifices that would achieve a sustainable future because they do not feel a responsibility to anything larger than themselves.

“It’s important that meaning and purpose align with how you’re trying to change things,” Fisher said. “People need to be personally vested.”

The idea of making an investment is important not just at the personal level, but in the industrial realm, as well. “The vast majority of your products are built to fail,” Fisher said. This built-in incompetence increases profits for companies, but it also increases the amount of serious toxic elements that end up in landfills, poisoning water supplies and creating uninhabitable environments.

Fisher uses this scenario as an example of how sustainability increasingly depends on interdisciplinary solutions, rather than relying solely on the environmental sector. Problems such as these, he said, are much better handled by technology designers.

Fisher plays a direct role in deciding what sustainability means to the College. His job at the Office of Sustainability is to create and then share visions for the future with the hope that the College will cooperate in adopting his ideas.

Some of the visions that he hopes to see realized during his career include a green roof over Rita Hollings and a greywater system installed in either Rita Hollings or another currently unsustainable building. In addition, Fisher has a plan to make College of Charleston zero-waste and carbon-neutral as soon as 2050.

The approach that Fisher created for achieving these goals is the first of its kind to be used on college campuses. The approach, called Process Improvement and Systems Integration, requires integrating the College with local and regional communities so that all of the groups involved are working towards a common goal. “You can’t transform your practice and be sustainable without transforming everything around you,” Fisher said.

Although his goals may seem hard to achieve in so short a time frame, Fisher’s belief in his own work and the willingness of others to cooperate and support these ideas is strong. “I’ve sacrificed a lot to put myself here,” he said. “I believe not only in my generation, but your generation to solve these problems.”

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