Reframing Sustainability: A Teacher's Perspective

What do you picture in your mind when you hear the word “sustainability”? No, seriously. Close your eyes and think about it.

Do you picture wind turbines, solar panels, and electric cars? Or perhaps flowing rivers full of fish, protected tundra robust with the local flora and fauna, and communities living in harmony with the land?

Now, I’m going to go out on a limb here: do you picture an open pit mine? An oil and gas platform? A power plant or a refinery perhaps? Anyone? Bueller?

Which is sustainable?
Image left: Fire Island Wind, credit Judy Patrick Photography
Imagine right: Fort Knox Mine, credit Alaska Journal of Commerce

I really can’t blame you if everything in the latter category was not only miles away from what you pictured, but rather what you might have visualized had I asked just the opposite question.

Now the real question: can sustainability and resource development co-exist? Can we go one step further and say that sustainable resource development can (and already does) exist? These are hard questions that many would scoff at. Again, I really can’t blame them. It’s been engrained in our brains that these two concepts are not only different, but perfect antonyms of each other.  

At Alaska Resource Education, this is an area where we are trying to push the envelope. Our mission is to teach students about Alaska’s natural resources. Beyond that, we are trying to teach students how to think critically about the world around them, how to find and use credible information, and become informed citizens. Informed citizens that will definitely use, and might even vote on, natural resources and the way they are managed today and in the future.

Responsible resource development is the name of the game in Alaska. In fact, if you don’t want to play that game, you can take your business elsewhere – because your project most likely won’t be permitted. One important distinction between natural resource development here versus other places in the world is the level of social and environmental law that must be adhered to. Compare a (theoretical) cobalt mine here to one in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, where absolutely no regulations exist to protect the environment or the people working in or living around the mine. Does the world still need cobalt for battery technology and many other uses? Yes. Does where the cobalt comes from matter? I think most would argue that it should, but it unfortunately does not. That cobalt will still be mined and refined to make the battery for the electric car that appears sustainable on the surface but maybe isn’t upon an inspection under the hood.

Reframing sustainability, Image credit: World Bank

So what do we do with this? Realizing the inextricable link between resource development and a clean energy future is the first step. This is information that many people do not know, but luckily, it’s the job of ARE to teach. The second step is finding a cure for the all-pervading NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) syndrome. Because the truth is, environmental and social degradation being done in the Congo or in China is still environmental and social degradation, whether we have to face it or not. This is a complicated issue to which I am not pretending to know the answer. However, I don’t think the answer is to throw in our hats and dismiss all development as bad. I also don’t think giving automatic hall passes to any project ever proposed in Alaska to meet the rising mineral demand is the answer either. There has to be a pragmatic middle ground.

Perhaps what we need to do is re-frame what sustainability is and can look like – in other words, some combination of the aforementioned visualizations. Wind turbines and mines. Electric cars and oil platforms. Thriving subsistence communities and resource refining. A balance of people, planet, and profit. And for students rightfully interested and concerned about the environment and the future of the planet, we challenge them to think about what a sustainable career might look like.

Time and time again we have heard of people moving into careers within the resource development industries because that is where they feel they can make the biggest impact on the planet - where they can oversee development being done firsthand and ensure that it’s being done safely and responsibly. This in turn has a positive impact on both profit and people. Therefore, a sustainable career can include being a mining engineer, an oil and gas permitter, or an exploration geologist just as much as it can be a wind turbine technician, an energy manager, or an environmental scientist. And let’s not forget about the trades – someone has to build and service that electric car, after all.

So the question I pose to you now (and what ARE poses to the students we teach) is: is it possible to live in a world where not only sustainable resource development exists, but one in which everyone can accept that as reality? Can we have our electric cars, and feel good about driving them too?

About the Author: Taylor Ferguson has worked in a variety of STEM-related positions during her time in Alaska, but is currently an Assistant Program Director for Alaska Resource Education. She is passionate not only about the natural world, but humankind's role in it, and learning about ways we can live and use our resources sustainably and with longevity.