Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 31 Number 1
Fall 2008

<< Table of Contents

Mike Keen
Mike Keen’s Global Electric Motor (GEM) car, produced by Chrysler, is fully electric and is legal on streets. Keen says, “You just plug it in like a hair dryer or toaster. It goes 25–30 miles on a charge. Currently, it costs me one penny of electricity for every 13 cents of gas equivalent, and it saves about a pound of carbon output per mile driven."
Photo by Joe Raymond

Deb Marr
Deb Marr
Photo by Joe Raymond

Scott Sernau
Scott Sernau
Photo by Joe Raymond

Studying the Sustainable Future

by Walt Collins, with members of the Center for a Sustainable Future

Indiana University South Bend opened the Center for a Sustainable Future in August 2008. Directed by Mike Keen, IUSB professor of sociology, the center follows on the heels of IUSB's 2007-08 campus theme in which sustainability was explored in classes and seminars. R&CA writer Walt Collins sat down with Keen and two associates in the new center -- Deborah Marr, professor of biological sciences and Scott Sernau, professor of sociology and director of international programs -- to discuss the center, its role, and the future of sustainability research.

Walt Collins for R&CA magazine: Let's start with a definition of sustainability.

Mike Keen: The commonly accepted definition ("meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs") comes from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development, which urged that sustainable development should become a central guiding principle for governments, businesses, and other institutions.

Scott Sernau: The basic idea is to bring society and the economy into harmony through practices that are environmentally friendly, economically sound, and socially responsible.

Deb Marr: In the past we've thought about these as separate categories. Economists are thinking about one thing, environmentalists are thinking about something else, and people interested in social issues are thinking about something else. At a university we've got business, we've got sociology, and we've also got the sciences, so merging these provides a lot of new opportunities for conversations about how can we think smarter about what we're doing. For example, thinking about the urban landscape, how do we structure a city in a way that preserves water and air quality, provides opportunities for jobs, and provides a sound economy?

Sernau: Sustainability is a useful platform for thinking about a variety of things. My area of research is globalization, which has two problems: First, the term is too large and too broad; second, it means different things to different people. To some it means only economic globalization. But another way to think about it is, what's going on around the globe economically, socially, and environmentally?

Keen: The view of sustainability that's developed in the last four or five years challenges people in business and on the economic side; it challenges the paradigm of the environmentalists; and it challenges the paradigm of folks concerned about social issues and social equity. It also challenges the university's paradigm of basic research, which has traditionally focused on the discovery of new knowledge and the integration of existing knowledge. When we deal with sustainability, however, we're dealing with a topic that is fundamentally interdisciplinary and involves engagement. Those of us in the field of sustainability find ourselves sometimes in a challenging position within the university, because some of what we do is basic research, the scholarship of discovery, but much of what we'll do is the scholarship of dissemination and the scholarship of engagement. And this requires new ways of communicating, a growing sensitivity to communicating to a broader public in the form of public intellectual practice in civic engagement.

Marr: Sustainability is being integrated within university curricula and practices. But in universities, where we're trained to think about a particular problem, it's forcing us to rethink what we do.

R&CA: How does this affect research?

Sernau: The topic of sustainability presents tremendous opportunities for basic research, from climate science to decision science, from one end of the university to the other, but it also challenges us to really think about how this research is going to be applied to community needs. There's lots of room for basic research in the area of sustainability, but it does force researchers to think about how their research is going to feed into our understanding of how to build more a satisfying, more sustainable society and local community.

Keen: There are very few programs in sustainability. In essence, we're where the information technology people were 20 years ago--we're largely self-taught. I'm a social theorist, and my research has been on the sociology of knowledge and the history of sociology. My biggest focus was looking at the impact that FBI investigations in the 1940s and '50s had on American sociology, and the impact that Communist Party structures had on sociology in Eastern Central Europe. That doesn't have much to do with sustainability, so I'm retooling myself and re-teaching myself, even as I take on new issues and new problems. Sustainability is one of the fastest growing areas in the academy right now, but it's one where we need to develop new degree programs and expertise. We are kind of pioneers, and we don't have the disciplinary structures and traditions that our disciplines--our academic day jobs, let us say--have traditionally given us.

R&CA: Talk a bit about the IUSB Center for a Sustainable Future.

Keen: The center's mission is to foster faculty research into sustainability issues, to develop new courses and degree programs, and to engage the community around these issues.

Sernau: Our campus theme this past academic year was "Sustainable Communities," and one reason for choosing that theme was, it seemed to be a way the whole campus could fit in. It could include the biological communities, the ecosystems that Deb works with, and the social communities that I'm interested in. There's room for economists to get on board and for our business school as well. I hope the center will draw people from a real mix of places. We have 17 faculty members on the center's board, and they come from every school or college on the campus.

Keen: Center research will include a series of working groups whose membership reflects the challenge of sustainability. For example, one will be a group on food, values, and civic agriculture, and we have a couple of members interested in doing basic research into the history of food, into farmers' markets and how they interact with local communities and what drives commercial success or failure. Also, some of our master's students have created a community garden, and they'll be part of that same group. So while some people in the group are doing basic research, others will be involved in applied research, and still others in civic engagement. Then a couple of times a semester they'll meet to share ideas. Another group will focus on the intersection of wellness and sustainability. A nurse who does research into complementary and alternative health will be teaming up with a local doctor who does acupuncture, and also with a couple of patients and a woman who's involved in homeopathic practice. And we've got a group interested in the built environment and behavior. It will involve social and behavioral scientists, as well as some architects who've been working in energy-efficient development and green-building certifications.

Sernau: This approach allows us to incorporate research at various levels. One of the challenges of being on a mid-size campus rooted in its community is to know what the research mission should be. Should it serve the region? We certainly have people who are doing exciting things in the region. But we also have people doing national research and people whose research is international in significance. There's a place for everybody at the table when we're talking about sustainability.

Marr: I am a plant ecologist and evolutionary biologist. I study plant-fungal interactions. My research has enabled me to develop an appreciation for how small changes in the environment can have very large effects on community composition and the importance of looking at networks of species (rather than studying species in isolation from their community context). One of my current research projects is looking at species of Fusarium, a soil fungus that causes plant diseases in 80 percent of all crop species and in many wild plant species. I'm interested in how it infects native species of Hydrophyllum that occur in northern Indiana. So far I have found at least six undescribed species of Fusarium associated with Hydrophyllum. There are so many fungi species that we don't even know what they're doing, let alone being able to describe who they are. This is a fast-growing part of research, looking at how below-ground communities drive what's happening above ground. This work has application to understanding how fast a disease will spread in a crop population. Perhaps instead of focusing on genetic-engineering for resistance, we can determine what the soil communities look like and increase their diversity to help control virulent pathogens. And if we bring that approach back to the urban landscape, diversifying our lawns (above and below ground) could reduce some loss of biodiversity and problems with surface water run-off. Increasing urban food production would also address food production issues. We have a tendency to think humans are here, and agriculture is here. But we really need to integrate those.

Keen: One of the interesting challenges of trying to integrate this stuff is to think about the social side. We've had environmental science around for a fairly long time, and it has developed sophisticated means of tracking environmental impact, such as carbon footprints and climate modeling. On the economic side, cost-benefit studies have been developed. What we haven't had is parallel development on the social side. Now we're beginning to recognize that sustainability is not only about being economically sound and ecologically friendly, there also has to be a certain social equity involved. If certain people's needs are not being met, they are not going to be part of a sustainable community, and we won't have a sustainable future. That's a new research area I've recently begun to move into.

R&CA: How can social equity be measured?

Keen: One way is by appropriating the concept of embodied energy. When we talk about a product being made, we can ask, what is the embodied energy? One of the reasons we say people should eat locally or use products made within 500 miles is because such goods require petroleum and energy to get here, so we talk about their embodied energy. I've been exploring the idea that we might be able to get at equity issues by talking embodied equity--because not only are there energy and natural resources in our products, there is also labor. And we can begin to think about the character and quality of the labor embodied in our products, and ask questions such as: Are people making livable wages? Are they getting decent health benefits? What impact does the product have on the workers themselves?

Sernau: In some ways these are new ideas, and in some ways they're not. In my course on urban society, I teach my students about Robert Park and Ernest Burgess and the Chicago School, which looked at human ecology, urban ecology. These people were very consciously borrowing concepts from the emerging field of ecology and applying them to the city. And across town Jane Addams and the Hull House people were bringing in concepts of social justice and cultural traditions--all this was 100 years ago. People have been thinking about these ideas for a long time, but now we have a chance to do it in a little more sophisticated way.

Keen: To a large extent, some of those ideas, particularly the social issues that Jane Addams represents, had to be brought in from outside the academy because Addams was systematically excluded. That's similar to the history of science. The scholastic university had no place for modern science. It developed outside the university, and only in the last century did it come back into the academy to become a dominant force. So, a lot of what's happening with sustainability has been developing outside the academy. Now it's coming back in with a vengeance.

R&CA: Will the sciences be represented in working groups?

Marr: Biology, chemistry, and physics are all on board right now, and physics on this campus also includes geology.

Keen: The sciences are among the leading participants. Once again, for most of these faculty members, sustainability is not their main focus of research. What we hope is that as we hire new faculty, sustainability becomes an area of expertise we'll look for, so that we'll bring in people who have developed their research agendas from the beginning around these kinds of issues. It'll take a decade or two for the academy across the country to develop this.

Sernau: For faculty, sustainability doesn't really replace their basic research interests, but becomes a focus of what they're doing. A physicist might be doing work on energy transfers, a chemist might be working in heavy metals, but all of these have very direct sustainability applications.

Marr: A lot of the challenge is making the invisible visible. For example, when we turn on a light we don't consider the source of the energy that's producing the light. In Indiana, 95 percent of our energy comes from coal-fired power plants. How much energy is being transferred? How many pollutants are going into the air? We don't make those connections because they are simply not visible. More awareness of the local and global connections has become very, very important.

Walt Colllins is a freelance writer in South Bend, Ind.


For more on IU South Bend campus sustainability initiatives, see www.iusb.edu/~isustain/.