Egan Urges Audience to Rethink, Redesign and Replace in Sustainability Lecture

Michael Egan
Michael Egan

Author Michael Egan preceded his April 18 lecture, “The History of Now: Decoding Environmental Sustainability,” by taking a refreshing bike ride with Professor of English Onno Oerlemanns.  Later in his talk Egan mentioned that all five of his family members bike to work or school nearly every day.


But for as much as he leads by example in an effort to curb the world’s current state of environmental crisis, one of Egan’s points was that sustainability cannot be achieved through individual actions. In fact, Egan argued that the current framework for thinking about solving the environmental crisis through environmental sustainability is flawed.  

As the screen behind him projected provocative, though increasingly more familiar, images of an oil-soaked bird, a plane spraying pesticides, heaps of trash and the classic polar bear clinging to a lonely iceberg, Egan urged his audience to consider the history of the environmental movement, and, particularly, the idea of sustainability. He described the intellectual origins of sustainability,  referencing European forestry models of sustainable use dating as far back as 1379, although the word ‘sustainable’ didn’t arrive until much later.

Egan argued that the consideration of time – history – is necessary to cultivate empathy for future generations and therefore to achieve any goals of sustainability. “Our current forecasting into the future lacks empathy for the future, real or imagined,” he said. He argued that sustainability, a word which, in his opinion, has not been ever clearly defined, “is an extension of the long-winded denial of the state of the environmental crisis.” He urged the audience to consider wonder how long sustainability should last. Is it a generation, a century, or forever?  He claimed, “We need much clearer goals than ‘a long time.’” 


Egan continued to critique the model of sustainability in the context of the values it assumes.  He said we need to rethink sustainability – sustainable development assumes we know the limits of our resources and “rests on a critical unexamined acceptance of traditional worldviews of progressive, secular materialism.”  It doesn’t leave a space for ecological ethics but, rather, assumes that nature simply exists to satisfy the material needs of humans. 

Egan didn’t, however, urge to discard of the word sustainability altogether. Instead, he suggested a compromise, to “move toward a more sustainable but resilient future,” by focusing on resilience instead of sustainability. Egan rejects that sustainability is possible: sustainability promises a better future while resilience accepts that change, good and bad, is going to happen. Aiming for resilience means we need to start planning for changes we can’t avoid and recognizing that we can’t control nature. Basically humans need to have a greater sense of humility.

Though Egan joked that he would end his presentation with four easy steps to change the world, he did actually offer a relatively tangible model for creating a sustainable future. The old environmental ethos of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” won’t really change the environment. It is short-range thinking that relies on small individual acts such as turning off lights and switching from plastic to reusable shopping bags. But Egan reminded us that individual consumption represents only a fraction of the total water and energy used and waste produced. Larger social institutions such as corporations and governments use the bulk of the resources.

Instead, Egan suggests that we start to “rethink, redesign and replace” and, ultimately, “re-educate, re-orient, redistribute and revalue.” People need to move back into city centers, shift the power away from corporations, eat locally and build a new economy around what we truly value. Re-educating can even begin with the undergraduate education. In the Q&A session, Egan argued that social engagement is not fostered enough in the undergraduate agenda. Service-learning, which encourages students to be invested and involved in the broader world, is not utilized enough. Undergraduates are too often disconnected from the ‘real world.’

Egan concluded by saying that he doesn’t see a difference between the environmental movement and the peace, women’s and civil rights movements. “The environmental crisis is a social and global one that involves hunger and war,” he said. To solve these interconnected issues, we, as individuals, need to think collectively and to plan for a more resilient future.

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