Dr. Stephen Trzaskoma - Profile in Sustainability

Was sustainability important in ancient Greece and Rome?

Absolutely, though it may not always be recognizable to our eyes as such, and it was not a consistently articulated value. Pre-industrial societies, even ones as sophisticated as those of the Greeks and Romans, simply did not have the capacity to effect rapid global changes, so there was never fear of, for example, global warming. On the other hand, on the local level they knew about the dangers of polluting water sources, of overworking farmland, of reducing the diversity of the animals and plants they utilized, and so on. At the same time, they did not have the massive information gathering capabilities that we have, so we have plenty of examples of ancient cities damaging their environment severely, but so slowly that they did not realize it until it was too late. Deforestation, for instance, was a major problem in parts of ancient Greece. We moderns are in a unique situation that tens of thousands of years of human societies would not have recognized: we can literally destroy our world. For most of our ancestors they could only conceive of the opposite, namely, a world that could destroy them. I think we face a lot of problems because we inherited a view of nature from the ancients that combines in a very paradoxical and uncomfortable way an adversarial fear with a love and positive respect.

Most people may not think of history, art, and culture when they think of sustainability.  Why should they?

Because no decision we make as individuals or as parts of larger communities is made on the basis of complete and entirely accurate information or on though processes that are purely rational. In other words, everything we do is affected by what a robot or a computer would consider extraneous information. But for human beings, culture -- in the broadest sense of the word -- is often more important than good science or intelligent laws. The key, I think, is in finding ways to remove the apparent conflict between those competing imperatives. Science, reason, and culture can evolve together to find solutions that people won't reject out of hand or stop practicing down the road. Those solutions are going to have to be part of people's lives, and that means culture.

What motivates you personally to be involved in sustainability?

I did much of my growing up in Northern California, a part of the country that has been talking about sustainability for a long time. So to some degree it has always been a part of my own culture. More particularly, it's easy to be involved in sustainability at UNH, where it is a persistent element in our idioculture due to the University Office of Sustainability and its delightfully broad view of what belongs in our discussions about the subject.


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