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Monday, May 29, 2023

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Professor Lauer conducting research in the Solomon Islands. Professor Lauer conducting research in the Solomon Islands.

Off the Beaten Course: ANTH 353

This course addresses the cross-cultural dimensions of sustainability.
By SDSU News Team

Course title: Sustainability and Culture
Professor’s name: Matthew Lauer

1) What inspired you to create this course?

This course was created to address some of the most pressing human-environmental problems such as climate change, biodiversity loss, rising inequality, and increasing urbanization.  I think there’s a realization that the 21st century will (and must) be the century of the environment.

To achieve long-term social-ecological sustainability many social and natural scientists are adopting new approaches to explore the interaction of ‘environment’ and ‘culture’. But this push for a sustainable world tends to be understood in a historical and cross-cultural vacuum.

All human societies throughout history and cross-culturally have had to organize around resource use, environmental impact, and human well-being. So the main point of the course is to explore the historical and cultural diversity of human-environment interaction, especially among small-scale, non-western societies, and compare it with the practices in contemporary industrial societies like the US. No other course on campus addresses the cross-cultural dimensions of sustainability.

2)    What can students expect to learn from this course?

Some of the key learning goals are:

  • Define sustainability as a sociopolitical and as an ecological concept
  • Understand diverse relationships between consumption and production in different cultures
  • Evaluate debates about the possibility of sustainable development
  • Identify the main issues in debates about indigenous cultures as models of sustainability
  • Develop an appreciation for cultural diversity in approaches sustainability
  • Identify the strengths and weaknesses of various actions for sustainability
  • Evaluate SDSU as a sustainable campus
  • Develop the ability to act toward creating a more sustainable SDSU
  • Communicate effectively about the meanings of sustainability in your life

3) What makes this course different from similar courses?

The key difference is that we explore sustainability from a deep-historical and cross-cultural perspective. No other class on campus exposes students to, for example, how small-scale fishing communities manage their fisheries or how the people of Bali, Indonesia manage their water resources.

4) Is there one day on the syllabus for this course you most look forward to? If yes, why?

There are two days. The first is when we discuss the industrial food system in the United States. Many students know very little about how their food is grown or where it comes from. Moreover, they generally don’t understand how important food is from a cultural point of view. Food isn’t just about nutrients; it has been imbued with cultural meaning since the dawn of humanity.

My second favorite day is when we talk about consumption among small-scale societies. The idea that for most of human history we always knew who made things we consume and where they were made is very strange to students in the US. And that objects in many small-scale societies were thought to contain the essence of the person who made them. This freaks students out when we discuss how in our society most of us know very little about who makes the things we buy and that most of those people (clothing is a good example) making our objects make very little and live in horrible conditions. The idea that the people who make our clothes leave some of the ‘spirit’ in the items is a little creepy and makes students aware of the gap we have created between consumption and production. Closing that gap will lead to a more socially and ecologically sustainable world.

I also like the day when I show a video by George Carlin where he makes the point that the environmental movement is not really about saving the planet, it’s about saving humans and maintaining a planet for our own habitation. The planet doesn’t really care what we do and in the end we won’t every really be able to harm it permanently. This point draws attention to the fact that sustainability is about people and that this course is an anthropology course not a class in biology.

5) What’s your favorite thing about teaching this course?

I love this course because a big portion of the students are genuinely interested in the topic. There is a palpable level of energy and enthusiasm in the sustainability movement on campus and most of those students take my class at some point. Students regularly come up after class and want to discuss topics in more detail and they also are constantly sending me examples (videos especially) that illustrate topics we discuss in class. This energy level is contagious and makes me want to give the best class possible and to keep on top of the rapidly changing topic.

I also love this course because most students are usually surprised by what we learn. Most students think about sustainability in terms of ‘saving the planet’ but as mentioned above, we learn that in fact sustainability is about humans as much as about the environment.

The cross-cultural aspect of the class is also really enlightening for students because there are not any other classes that expose students to how indigenous people managed resources. In many ways it gives hope to students that we can have a more sustainable world and that we don’t have to end up like many past civilizations (e.g., Maya) and collapse. Many, many societies maintained a long-term relationship with their environment, so why can’t we!

6) Any other thoughts?

It should be noted that the new sustainability major was in fact a result of the input and pressure from SDSU students and especially the leadership of e3, or the SDSU Envirobusiness Society. Without their support, this course and the major probably wouldn’t exist. These students deserve a lot of credit for bringing sustainability courses to SDSU.