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When will sustainability get more personal?

Marc Lefkowitz  |  12/14/11 @ 1:11pm

Jeremy Bendik-Keymer, Beamer-Schneider Professor in Ethics at Case Western Reserve University argues that without human relationships at its core, sustainability is bound to fail. He says that Case and other university sustainability programs will be piecemeal until they replace theoretical and even practical with 'relational' sustainability.

"We have a long, long way to go if we wish to promote the study of sustainability rigorously on campus," he writes. "Our program around, not on, sustainability is fundamentally arbitrary, because it is not rooting in attention to the human."

"The core challenge for the study of sustainability is keeping open the human," he continues. "What's key here is being responsible to the meanings which ?together-make our life worth living. Call these meanings the human. The human is then the locus of the sustainable in that only through the human do we recognize the meanings that make life worth living, i.e. sustainable (worth maintaining)."

When we lost site of this, we lost touch with nature. Is this why we continue to fail in our response to the planet in peril from manmade climate change? Bendik-Keymer will discuss this 'perfect moral storm' of the failure to act on climate change tonight at the Natural History Museum.

He'll explore the debate raging on why ecosystems cannot be the subject but they can be the site of justice. For example, Raquel Nelson's April 2010 ordeal crossing a highway in Atlanta, due to poor public transportation siting and a lack of pedestrian walkways.

"Here, the structural injustice of shoddy urban planning for those who do not own cars creates a situation rife with persistent patterns of injustice, e.g. to a single mother struggling to get her kids home and eat dinner," he writes here. "The system's lack of capability leads to patterns of injustice."

Bendik-Keymer hopes to engage the Cleveland community on similar cases (The West Shoreway?). His insights-Are eco-systems too conflictual, in fact, to be sites of structural injustice? The rugged species which flourishes while more fragile species die off due to pollution says, "Yes!"-are sure to provoke conversation.

* * * *

Nature's Climate Change issue explores-sometimes unknowingly-the human paradox of climate change and a lack of response. What's interesting is how two articles on human behavior underscore the very weakness they attempt to expose.

Geoffrey Beattie at the Sustainable Consumption Institute at University of Manchester studied responses to An Inconvenient Truth, and found that 'humanizing' the impacts of climate change are needed. Feelings of empowerment rose when subjects watched the "Rising Sea Levels" clip which shows the consequences of rising sea levels on coastal communities in Florida, Shanghai and Bangladesh.

But in his review of Gore's latest film, "24 Hours of Reality" Jeff Tollefson knocks Gore for trying to show a human face. To be fair, his largest criticism is reserved for the way the film ignores inconvenient truths about extreme weather causes (like La Nina) and rather allows the viewer to conclude that all big destructive storms are a result of a warmer climate. But Tollefson cannot separate the political and the rising chorus of Gore critics long enough to see the value in "24 Hours"-that it does 'humanize' what's happening on the planet today as a result of extreme weather events. Gore might be a policitally compromised messenger-and he may be culpable in not drawing on latest results from the scientists who have inextricably linked extreme storms and climate change-but Tollefson's conclusion-to find this 'boring'-is acting worse than a rejected climate skeptic.

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