Experts at AAAS Pacific Division Meeting Explore Strategies for Making Sustainability Popular

SAN FRANCISCO—Students usually arrive at San Diego's High Tech High with a commitment to education, but in Jay Vavra's 11th grade biology class, they get an immersion in sustainability that may be life-changing.

In many schools, their lessons would come from a textbook, supplemented by online materials. But for Vavra's class at the acclaimed charter school, they shape their own projects and then go out into the field to study ecosystems and the humans who inhabit them. When the projects are done, they come back and collaborate on books about their research.


High Tech High 11th-graders Isidro Olvera (l) and Emmanuel Garcia (r) collect a sample from a bryozoan for DNA barcoding as part of their current class study of invasive species in San Diego Bay.
[Photo © & courtesy of Jay Vavra]

“There's something about students knowing their community,” Vavra says. “It's a way for them to know themselves…. And maybe it can encourage them to take better care of their communities.”

Vavra offered insights about his students and their success in a presentation at the annual meeting of the AAAS Pacific Division. For a panel that convened to explore sustainability as a way of life, it was an inspiring suggestion that people—and young people in particular—are most likely to embrace the concept once they experience the connection to it and importance of it in their own lives.

For many involved in advancing environmental causes, it is a central and often frustrating concern: How can the public be roused and galvanized to embrace sustainability, and to weave it into individual and community lifestyles? The San Francisco symposium brought together a group of scholars with diverse approaches to the issue, with research ranging from Arctic food security and environmental justice in Hungary to the “green” semiotics of “South Park” and other popular television shows.


Robert L. Chianese

“Strangely, 40 years into the sustainability era, with a major worldwide crisis calling out for radical alternatives, we are still nudging, coaxing, leading people by the hand toward sustainable alternatives, as if it were not a desperate matter of life and death,” said co-organizer Robert L. Chianese, a professor emeritus of English at California State University-Northridge. “I'd like to suggest some alarms, particularly those that might wake up young people.”

Chianese is a scholar, writer, poet, and activist who has explored environmental themes for more than 30 years. Like other speakers, he brought to the day-long symposium perspectives not always found at a science meeting, but which provided important insight that could help guide sustainability efforts.

“We need this to be an issue that nobody cares about because it's just so darned mainstream,” said biologist Paul Bunje, a former AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow who now serves as executive director of the Center for Climate Change Solutions at the University of California-Los Angeles. “We shouldn't have to have conferences about it.”

The AAAS Pacific Division held its 90th annual meeting from 14-19 August at the California Academy of Sciences and San Francisco State University, drawing more than 475 scientists, engineers, teachers, students, journalists, and others. Marking the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species, the meeting focused on how nature changes through evolution, and how humans must build a sustainable relationship with nature to ensure the future health of all life.

The events at the meeting included a diverse range of issues: the archaeology of shipwrecks; ecological awareness in American landscape art; the use of molecular biology kits in classrooms; and communicating science to the public.

But sustainability was a recurring theme. During one session, presidents and chancellors of several University of California and California State University campuses joined with experts in building technology and related fields to discuss how the huge and influential university systems are contributing to the state's ambitious “zero net energy buildings” goals. At another, some of the world's top San Francisco Bay researchers convened a day-long symposium to explore the current and future impact of climate change on San Francisco Bay.

The sustainability symposium was held at the California Academy of Sciences, where newly built facilities have won international acclaim for innovative, energy-conscious design. What emerged at the symposium was a tempered optimism: The ethics and values of sustainability are transforming architecture, energy, transportation, agriculture and other fields, but it seems to be transforming us more slowly. While scholars acknowledged progress, they seemed to recognize that public attitudes remain a difficult puzzle to solve.

Chianese is a member of the AAAS Pacific Division Executive Committee; he joined with former AAAS Pacific Division president Carl Maida, a UCLA professor who teaches sustainability courses at the UCLA Institute of the Environment, to organize the symposium. Chianese opened the session with a wide-ranging exploration of sustainability in the popular imagination.

“Sustainability is about how we live, wisely or carelessly, and the outcome of that will determine the pleasantness and harmony—or ugliness and discord—of our future,” he said. He cited “the difficulties ahead in making sustainability not just a household word... but widespread household practice.”

The current financial crisis is, in many ways, a sustainability crisis, Chianese said. While the financial crisis is seen by many as a function of greed and malfeasance by a small set of players in high finance and politics, “the real culprit,” he said, “is the way we all live now—unsustainably, almost unconsciously, and with a short view of our collective future.”

That is evident, he said, in the inefficient cars and trucks that were produced for 35 years after the first oil crisis of the 1970s. And it is more broadly evident in our consumption-driven, growth-dependent economy, in what Chianese described as “our contorted, conflicted, unexamined love of things.”

Bunje, in his presentation, traced how the environmental movement dating to the 1950s and '60s gives cause for hope. Over time, he said, we have come to take for granted that environmental problems are a shared concern; our environmental practices have changed because of action taken by lawmakers, business leaders, educators and individuals.

But sustainability is a more complex and difficult concept, Bunje told the AAAS audience.

The environmental movement has focused on specific problems such as water pollution and toxic contamination of land and food, and on specific solutions. Sustainability, on the other hand, is “a lot more broad, a lot more encompassing, and a lot more challenging,” he said. It is inseparable from regional conflicts that are driven in part by famine, water shortages, and energy resources, and inseparable as well from global challenges such as climate change.

To achieve a sustainable society, he said, will require “a whole new suite of values.”

But several speakers at the meeting suggested that such values are taking root—and often in unexpected places.


Alison Meadow


One of the fields at Calypso Farm and Ecology Center in Fairbanks, where Alison Meadow researched the Alaskan city's capacity for expanding local food production.
[Photo © & courtesy of Alison Meadow]

Alison Meadow, who received her Ph.D. this year from the University at Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF), explored whether the nutritional needs of Fairbanks could be met using only local food sources. That would, she said, require a transformation.

Currently, only 5% of Alaska's food is produced in the state. Fairbanks has a population approaching 100,000, and while there are 16,000 acres of crops grown nearby, hay accounts for 10,000 acres. But the land and climate could grow barley, cabbage, carrots, oats, and potatoes, along with beets, broccoli, green beans, peas and zucchini. And that could be supplemented with more wild foods, from game to fruit.

There would be trade-offs, Meadow said. That diet might be boring, and forest land might have to be cleared to grow more food crops. And, she said, there's a further challenge: While Fairbanks hosts a popular farmer's market during the growing season, the local food movement is driven by the middle class.

“How are we going to mainstream it across all of our socio-economic groups?” she asked.

Lawrence K. Duffy, a veteran Arctic researcher at UAF and executive secretary of the AAAS Arctic Division, concurred with Meadow's view of the Alaska food system. Further, he said, food from stores is nutritionally inferior to “country food,” and the shifting diet in the past half century has given rise to rising incidence of heart disease, diabetes, and other health problems.

Duffy, drawing on work by his UAF colleague Craig S. Gerlach, said “food insecurity” in Alaskan Bush communities is inspiring renewed interest in older ways of food production—village gardens, non-profit farming, and harvesting more foods from the wild.

But many indigenous Arctic people and others who live in the Far North frame the issue differently. “They think in terms of survival and resilience,” he said, “rather than academic concepts like sustainability.”

Krista Harper, a University of Massachusetts anthropologist, suggested an unexpected parallel in Hungary—among the Roma people with whom she's worked for the past 15 years. The Roma—“gypsies,” to some—account for only 5% of Hungary's population, and though they are long established in the nation, they have long endured disenfranchisement, demonization, violence, and other sorts of racism.

Harper helped organize a “PhotoVoice” project in one community; cameras were distributed to young people, and they went out to document village life, focusing especially on environmental issues.

While the prevailing view in much of Eastern Europe associates the Roma with pollution, Harper said the young researchers reported a different story. Many in the Roma community fish from local waterways, grow gardens, and get around on bicycles. But poverty frequently forces families to live with outhouses and old wood stoves, and with wood in short supply throughout the region, some have to burn trash in the winter. Meanwhile, more affluent communities dump their garbage in the Roma village.

The photo project raised consciousness, Harper said, and not just among the Roma. Exhibits of the photos drew the attention of environmental organizations, scholars, and policymakers.

“This is a method I've begun to think of as 'ecologies of hope'—how you get young people organized to address these issues at a community level,” Harper said.

Chianese suggested that for young Americans, it might take ecological disaster movies—not “An Inconvenient Truth,” but something on the order of “Mad Max” and “Blade Runner”—to awaken environmental idealism.


Marty Rapp Sayles

Hip sitcoms like “The Simpsons” and “South Park” may not be a crucial part of the answer, said Marty Rapp Sayles, who has taught courses on popular culture at California State University-Northridge. They can advance green ideas, she said, but they can be so hyper-ironic that it's hard to tell whether they're aiding the cause or undermining it.

Sayles focused on episodes with green orientation—“Smug Alert,” for example, a 2006 episode in which one of the adult characters buys a hybrid car but then becomes a paragon of self-righteous environmental smugness. The episode seems to both embrace green values and to mock them, making conclusions difficult to draw.

“As people in Hollywood will tell you,” Sayles said, “it's much better to be made fun of than to be ignored.”

For insight into attitudes about sustainability among young people, schools may offer a clearer—and sometimes more hopeful—lens. Perhaps the most important lesson: Hands-on, project-based learned is crucial to engaging students

That is the key to success in Jay Vavra's classes at High Tech High. For four years, he has led students in an exploration of the illegal trade in African bushmeat, or meat derived from wild and endangered animals. They have studied the economics and cultural dynamics of the trade, and they have extended their study by traveling to Africa, where they have talked with tribal leaders and game wardens and to collect DNA samples from meat that could help lead to poachers. In July of 2009, they held a Bushmeat Identification Workshop in Tanzania for wildlife officials in East Africa.

At the same time, Vavra's students have conducted an extensive study of San Diego Bay, a busy, highly developed natural harbor that's central to life for millions of people who live in the region. The studies are up-close and the lessons direct, Vavra told the AAAS audience. Besides their assessment of biodiversity the goal is to “get the students wet and dirty, get them really in touch with the Bay and its creatures.”

Over the years, they have published a series of books and field guides, with subjects ranging from the economic and environmental issues of growing mussels and the troubled tuna fishery to ecosystem restoration, biomimicry, and DNA “barcoding” of Bay species. The latest work “San Diego Bay: A call for conservation” came out this month, with a foreword by E.O. Wilson and preface by Jane Goodall.

In rural British Columbia—an environment and a culture far removed from San Diego—Wolff-Michael Roth has spent years watching students go through a similar process of learning and growth. Roth, the Lansdowne Professor of Applied Cognitive Science at the University of Victoria, has specialized in science and mathematics education; his interest has been sharpened by the knowledge that many students lose contact with these fields as soon as they leave high school.

He described a project that required students in one community to do extensive fieldwork in a local watershed—not just chemical analysis and plant identification, but interviews with elders and politicians about the creek. Roth said such projects come with a range of challenges: Teachers untrained for environmental studies; indigenous “First Nation” students suspicious of environmentalism as another vestige of European colonialism; other students remaining aloof even from the hands-on approach to studies.


Terry Gosliner, former president of the AAAS Pacific Division, leads a tour of sustainability features at the new California Academy of Sciences building.

Roth and his colleagues in the schools see education as something not just for students, but for the entire community. It builds resilience, he said, and resilience can lead to a deeper understanding of sustainability. That, in turn, further strengthens a community.

“We provide space for kids who normally would drop out of school to find that they can contribute to human, community, and environmental health,” he said.

“What we have found in all of our learning research is that it's very important that kids will buy into a project that they have helped define,” he continued. “They will be adults in the future, they will be police officers and teachers, and they will be making decisions about [these issues]. And their decisions will be different than the decisions being made today because they will be informed by this learning experience.”