Profile in Sustainability
October 31, 2007
What do history, art, and culture have to do with sustainability? The folks
at the Office of Sustainability asked Stephen Trzaskoma, associate professor
of the classics just that.
1) Was sustainability important in ancient Greece and Rome?
Yes, though we may not always recognize it. Pre-industrial societies, even
ones as sophisticated as those of the Greeks and Romans, did not have the capacity
to affect rapid global change, so there was never fear of, for example, global
warming. On the local level they knew about the dangers of polluting water,
overworking farmland, reducing animal and plant diversity, and so on. But they
did not have the massive information gathering capabilities we have, so there
are many examples of ancient cities damaging their environment severely but
so slowly that they did not realize it until it was too late. Deforestation
was a major problem in parts of ancient Greece.
2) Most people may not think of history, art, and culture when they think
of sustainability. Why should they?
Because we make no decisions individually or collectively on the basis of
complete and accurate information or on thought processes that are purely rational.
Everything we do is affected by what a robot or computer would consider extraneous
information. For human beings, culture in the broadest sense of the word is
often more motivating than good.
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 our lives, and that
3) What motivates you personally to be involved in sustainability?
I grew up in Northern California, which has been talking about sustainability
for a long time, so to some degree it has always been a part of my own culture.
At UNH, it's easy to be involved in sustainability because it is a persistent
element in our idioculture due to the UOS and its delightfully broad view of what belongs in our discussions about the subject.