March 13, 2016

Humanities Professors Discuss Implications of Sustainability

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Cornell humanities professors and students discussed the present and future implications of emphasizing sustainability on Thursday as part of the “Big Ideas in Humanities” series.

Prof. Karen Pinkus, romance studies, identified inconsistencies in sustainability’s usage and definition. She said the goal of sustainability is to meet “the needs of the present, without compromising the abilities of future generations to meet their own needs.”

She explained that this view of sustainability introduces the future as something that must always be considered in the present, yet operates within its own timeframe.

“The time of sustainability is certainly out of joint with geological time,” Pinkus said. “The time of sustainability fails to synchronize with the temporality of carbon based life forms compressed underground.”

Prof. Sara Pritchard, science and technology studies, discussed her research on light pollution and the campaign for dark night skies.

Pritchard explored the negative implications of reducing light pollution, saying that light and electricity can benefit many developing countries.

“We need more thoughtful reflective strategies that benefit from the lessons of conservation, environmental and colonial histories,” Pritchard said.

She added that dark night skies — unpolluted night skies — should be “recognized, conserved and ultimately protected but … in a way that advances both environmentalism and social justice.”

Prof. Aaron Sachs, history, connected sustainability with the humanities by indicating that environmentalists and humanities researchers take themselves too seriously and should use humor to appeal to the general public.

“Humor can bring you back to the present,” Sachs said. “That might actually be quite beneficial in the context of environmental issues, given that environmentalists tend to get hung up on the future, especially the doom that is headed our way.”

The discussion was the third panel in the College of Arts and Sciences’ “Big Ideas in the Humanities” series.