Sustainability Studies: Knowledge for a Healthy World

By Katherine Miller, CHASS Dean’s Office Student Intern
January 25, 2016

2° C has become the much talked about measureable unit surrounding current conversations of environmental degradation. From unnatural precipitation patterns to food scarcity, and the devastating ability of this special two degrees, environmental issues are far from simple. The emergence of a global community has sparked acknowledgment of how our individual relationships with the environment have the ability to impact others, and, as a part of this awareness, the movement toward sustainable practices is growing. But this awareness of environment is not solely concerned with natural resources, it is also understanding the political, economic, and social relationships we have with the earth. There is a heightened need for greater fluency in this conversation, and a place to start is education. In this respect, a handful of innovative faculty members from the Gender and Sexuality Studies Department at UCR have introduced a major that intends to build a base of knowledge for students interested in understanding and contributing to a healthy world.

Sustainability Studies is said major, and, as one of the newest majors offered at UCR, it is spearheading a new approach to education at the undergraduate level. Dr. Marguerite Waller, professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies and Comparative Literature, explains that because of the subject matter, the structure of the major must be innovative. “We simply cannot address climate change and sustainability studies,” she says, “if we hold onto disciplinary boundaries. We have to connect [disciplines], put them in dialogue, and allow them to transform one another.” The curriculum pulls from nineteen departments across campus, and is taking a collaborative approach to education. “The major performs what it is trying to teach,” Waller says. This approach intends to provide the tools—scientific and social—necessary for students to be an active part of the greater conversation about global environmental degradation, in and beyond the university setting. While much of the major has been crafted by faculty members, Sustainability Studies is not a top-down program. Dr. Chikako Takeshita, associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies, explains, “The students have to take initiative and think creatively and critically.” The major welcomes students from across campus, who have their own ideas about environmental crises, to participate—thus deepening the experiences of their colleagues.

The UCR Sustainability Studies Bachelor of Science degree is the first to be offered through a Gender and Sexuality Studies Department in the nation. But for many, the connection between gender, environment, and sustainability is difficult to comprehend. Around the world, the environment, as well as climate crises, are gendered in terms of how women and men interact with and respond to the environment differently. Dr. Waller explains this concept further, “On an empirical level the effects of climate change impact vulnerable people the most devastatingly, the soonest, and for the longest. And the majority of the most vulnerable people are women and children.” This awareness of how climate change disproportionately affects men and women incorporates the department’s social justice mindset. This, then paired with scientific knowledge, forms the building blocks of Sustainability Studies. Joining these elements, the aim of the major is to teach students how to see what is being overlooked, and actively promote a shift in the way we live our lives. Waller continues by saying, “The emphasis needs to be on other ways of relating to one another and to the environment that are not about consumption, not about the accumulation of wealth, and certainly not about income disparity.” And part of this emphasis is looking at what membership in a global community means.

For students in the Sustainability Studies Major, cultivating a sense of global citizenship is important. Dr. Takeshita believes, “We have to understand what we need to do to keep our planet sustainable, and this is a prerequisite for global leadership.” She sees the major as a means by which students can learn to be global leaders, and this includes having a mindset open to new perspectives. Takeshita goes on to say, “A humble attitude is really important in terms of trying to find ways in which we can collaboratively address issues. To put ourselves in each others’ shoes, and see problems from a different point of view is the sort of critical thinking and attitude we want our students to walk away with.” This is a feet-on-the-ground approach to globalization; one that values a collaborative effort to address environmental issues with respect to microclimates around the world.

Part of the major’s construction included the addition of a new position. Dr. Jade Sasser joined the Gender and Sexuality Studies Department in 2014, and is yet another remarkable force that contributed to developing the major. Dr. Sasser believes that academia can shape powerful ideas—ideas that grow from community and can, at the university level, translate into tools for action. Part of this action oriented major is assessment of what sustainability initiatives address. “It is important to think about,” Sasser says, “whether sustainability initiatives are available and accessible to all, whether they actually improve economic and environmental conditions for everyone, and whether social inequalities are being replicated or alleviated.” For her, the model of social justice based sustainability work functions as an integrated whole. And this new major is not only a place to teach the model, but a place for students to grow. Regarding students in the major, she says, “I think the goal for us is to give students as many resources, opportunities, and options as possible.”

Exciting and innovative, the new Sustainability Studies Major remains grounded in that it draws on aspects of everyday life. From environmental, political, and social issues, the major has been designed to put forth a knowledge base that will support a healthier global community. As a last thought, Dr. Waller suggests, “The ways of doing whatever we do—growing food, getting around, being in communities—we need to do it in a way that is actively regenerating, rather than just trying to hold the line.” For her, sustainability is indeed part of everyday life. Dr. Takeshita makes it simple; “Sustainability is the future.” As a part of the global shift in seeking solutions for environmental degradation, this new major is another step toward cultivating a healthy world.

For more information and major requirement visit gsst.ucr.edu.

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