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Remembering the roots of social sustainability

When it comes to sustainability, race and equity aren’t usually the first things that come to mind.

“We’re on a very unequal playing field when we begin thinking about
people in sustainability,” says Pedro Ferbel-Azcarate, Assistant Professor
of Black Studies at PSU. Giving a lecture as part of Social Sustainability Month on Monday, Ferbel-Azcarate pointed out that sustainability requires a component of social equity, which is often overlooked.

This fall, Ferbel-Azcarate is teaching a class called Race and Sustainability—the first Black Studies sustainability course ever offered at PSU. Yet before “sustainability” was a popular label, PSU departments such as Black Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, and Women’s Studies were addressing contemporary equity issues, which are the backbone of social sustainability. “There’s always been a movement toward social equity and sustainability in these disciplines,” said Ferbel-Azcarate, “it was just never called that.”

He discussed how the roots of sustainability go far back in human history, and changed when societies shifted from indigenous to colonized ways of living. Colonization and the resulting oppression of Africa and most of the indigenous world had a lasting detrimental impact on societies and ecosystems. This fairly recent human tendency to oppress fellow peoples signified a shift in how we think about our relationship with the environment. Instead of understanding the interconnectivity of all cycles of living things, we began to view the environment as separate from society.

Ferbel-Azcarate suggested that we shouldn’t celebrate hierarchical, elite, oppressive civilizations like the Romans, Egyptians, and Aztecs, and should instead value small indigenous societies that adhered to natural boundaries of geographic place and time. Such societies are often ignored in traditional accounts of world history, which is where disciplines such as Black Studies can greatly contribute to our collective knowledge and efforts toward sustainabiltiy.

Perhaps identifying the roots of social sustainability—equity struggles—can help us remember our indigenous beginnings of living in harmony, instead of competition, with the earth.

photo: flickr CC/Zoomy Photography