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Q & A: Sustainability

Peter L.K. Knuepfer, associate professor of geological sciences, serves as director of Binghamton University’s Environmental Studies Program. He answered Discover-e’s questions about sustainability in time for Earth Day.

Q: How do you define sustainability?

A: Can we maintain the kinds of things we like to do and allow for the next generation to do them as well? What we do now is not sustainable in energy, in agriculture, in a huge number of areas.

Q: What’s the biggest issue facing the “green” movement now?

A: The single largest issue that faces our global society in terms of sustainability is answering the question of how can we maintain, improve or reorganize our standard of living? How can we become a renewable society? That’s what sustainability is ultimately all about.

Q: What sorts of changes can people make that are both doable and meaningful?

A: We have to make some real sacrifices, but if everybody does a little thing, it starts becoming significant. Changing to compact fluorescent light bulbs and driving more fuel-efficient cars are examples of the little things that, added up, can make a big difference.

Q: What role can a research university play in this area?

A: Universities can lead by example. For instance, we could put more solar panels up, or develop green roofs. Showing that we can generate electricity with approaches that are sustainable in the long term is important. We also have roles as educators. We have to challenge students to understand the difference between being “green” and being truly sustainable.

Q: What does that mean for individuals?

A: We are going to run out of the resources we are using. We can either adjust and go about our lives totally differently or face the collapse of society. We’ll hit some point where what we do not only isn’t sustainable in the long term, it isn’t sustainable in the short term.

Q: How do you compare this “green” movement to others?

A: There’s a sea change in terms of how people are thinking. Is it enough? No. People are still buying SUVs, mining coal, looking at exploiting other fossil fuel sources. Those are not sustainable things. I think we are going to see a continued high level of interest, desire and demand in this area. It has been cyclic over 40 years, and I do expect we’ll see a peak and a trough. But I don’t expect the trough to be as deep as the last one was in terms of interest.

Q: What about student engagement in sustainability?

A: We’re seeing a big growth in student activism across the country. The students who are engaged in environmental issues are more engaged than any I’ve seen since the late 1970s. At Binghamton, we have more than doubled the number of environmental studies majors in two years. These students want to change the world. I am, at heart, an optimist. I see a change in the last five years or so among our students and in society as a whole. I really trust, hope and have faith that we will figure it out.

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