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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 involves culture.

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.


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