In the modern world, a general opinion about an issue can be hard to come by. Whether it be economics, politics or academia, competition and specialization can often lead to incompatible ideas and polarization. Nonetheless, the many backgrounds and disciplines represented at the International Symposium on Sustainability Studies, held last week on the Montclair State campus, were in agreement that human populations are consuming the resources allotted to us by our planet faster than they can be replaced, and that these trends are in dire need of attention. In other words, we’re wasting our natural resources.
Some of the most active leaders in the field of sustainability science gathered on the seventh floor of University Hall for three days to discuss topics that included ecology, evolution, economics, social science and philosophy. Between talks, the blinds on the windows were lifted and those present could take in the view of suburban New Jersey. The New York skyline rising from the horizon to the east served as a reminder of the challenges confronting the assembled men and women.
The symposium, which took place from Oct. 25-27, was hosted by the PSE&G Institute for Sustainability Studies. The young Montclair State think tank is charged with reconciling the simple truth that unlimited economic growth as described in capitalistic models conflicts with the fact that the natural resources of our planet are finite. The three days consisted primarily of talks given by leading scholars representing a variety of disciplines. The lively question and answer sessions that followed each talk highlighted the challenges of a discipline that takes into account the interests of stakeholders.
The conspicuous challenge of true sustainability is that it must consider more than just the rate of depletion of any particular natural resource — it has to work in the “real world” too. Economics, politics, behavior and the negative externalities (or negative side effects) associated with that system must be considered and reconciled in addition to the environmental costs. Dr. Mike Weinstein, Institute Director, is quick to emphasize that sustainability science requires a wide perspective.
“Effecting a sustainable transition in the [age of human dominance], requires a new degree of transdisciplinary training along with better forecasting of the consequences of human actions,” he wrote in a recent editorial.
Dr. Simon Levin of Princeton University was the final keynote speaker of the symposium. He was the man responsible for incorporating the topics discussed over the course of three days as a well known and respected scholar within the field of mathematics and biology. His talk titled “The Challenge of Sustainability: Lessons from an Evolutionary Perspective,” argued that in order to more effectively understand what makes a system sustainable, one should look to nature.
“Sustainability, I would argue, while focusing on the macroscopic properties, has to recognize that the control of those macroscopic properties are at lower levels of organizations; at the levels of individuals, individual genomes and populations,” he said. He made the connection that in order to achieve results, we must first better understand human behavior and leadership.
“On many core environmental issues, the scientific consensus is very strong. The reason we haven’t done enough about that is not because we don’t know what to do about it scientifically. The limitations are not scientific, they are rather sociological and political. The willingness of people and governments to commit to the common good and cooperate with finding solutions that will benefit everybody,” he said.