The Digital Cathedral in the Age of Democratic Sustainability

How can the digital revolution and the new social media it has spawned nurture the development of democratic sustainability? By democratic sustainability I mean a social and political process that engages citizens as active agents of social change in the complex task of balancing economic prosperity, effective environmental stewardship, and social justice. As Paul Hawken notes in Blessed Unrest, the democratic sustainability movement has emerged “from the bottom up,” becoming “the largest social movement in all of human history.” It “grows and spreads in every city and country,” writes Hawken, “and involves virtually every tribe, culture, language, and religion, from Mongolians to Uzbeks to Tamils.”

Moving toward democratic sustainability has less to do with technology than a massive change in human consciousness, one that encourages systems thinking and transforms the relations of people to each other and to natural world. Nonetheless, tools are necessary to facilitate this task, and the rise of the Internet and digital technology has provided us with new and potent means to do so. As Hawken observes, “There have always been networks of powerful people, but until recently it has never been possible for the entire world to be connected.” Even as we acknowledge the “other side” of the Internet—its potential to splinter thought and concentration, take time away from reflection, and exacerbate a growing nature-deficit-disorder among youth—its unprecedented ability to construct global movements beckons.

Community is the essential concept underpinning sustainability. Whether an ecosystem or social system, the dynamics of interconnectedness and interdependence are what make growth and health possible. In medieval society, the cathedral embodied this understanding of what was known at the time as the “Great Chain of Being.” An awe-inspiring structure, the cathedral by its physical presence affirmed the vertical hierarchy that held medieval society together, and its construction gave individuals in the community a clear and compelling sense of their place in the world and the links that bound them to each other. “Building a cathedral,” says Robert Scott in The Gothic Enterprise: A Guide to Understanding the Medieval Cathedral, “entailed an ongoing, difficult, yet energizing form of collective enterprise in which people could take enormous pride and around which they could rally a community.”

In the 21st century, instead of the Great Chain of Being, the World Wide Web is the predominant social metaphor. We are moving, as Thomas Friedman puts it in The World is Flat, “from a primarily vertical (command-and-control) value-creation model to an increasingly horizontal (connect-and-collaborate) creation model”. We have yet to discover, however, the digital equivalent of the cathedral-building experience. Although organized along a different axis, we still need “an instrument for creating, strengthening, and extending forms of communitas,” says Scott, if we hope to create a sustainable civilization.

Note: To read the complete article see “The Digital Cathedral in the Age of Democratic Sustainability,” Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments, no. 25 (Spring/Summer 2010): 208-15.

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Code Green for Higher Education?

Thomas Friedman’s new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America, is an impassioned plea for what he calls “Code Green” — a strategy for clean energy, energy efficiency, and conservation that would address global climate change and sustainability while also renewing the spirit of innovation and idealism in the U.S.

So what would “Code Green” mean for higher education? As the National Wildlife Federation’s report on campus sustainability noted last month, the record for colleges and universities is mixed. The survey of 1,068 institutions found that real headway had been made in the areas of research, campus operations, and community outreach, but it revealed much less success in greening the classroom.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that most colleges and universities are treating sustainability either as a fad or as one more thing to stir into the mix, rather than as a transformative process. A good sign — perhaps the best one — that an institution is taking sustainability seriously is when it begins to integrate sustainability across the curriculum. That’s the heart of the matter, after all.

Frank Rhodes, former president of Cornell University suggests that the concept of sustainability offers “a new foundation for the liberal arts and sciences.” It provides a new focus, sense of urgency, and curricular coherence at a time of drift, fragmentation, and insularity in higher education, what he calls “a new kind of global map.”

At the same time, though, Rhodes notes that the “broad range of questions that sustainability raises have no single set of answers.” Experimentation, discovery, and exploration, rather than dogma and indoctrination, are the keys to mining its value as a way to frame the crucial issues of our time.

“Code Green” can provide a vital source of hope and opportunity for facilitating institutional renewal and revitalizing higher education’s sense of mission. Growing out of a keen awareness that the economy, society, and environment are closely intertwined, sustainability fosters a culture of innovation, creativity, and holistic thinking. It provides a way to bring fresh thinking to bear on old problems and identifies new solutions that can move higher education forward even as it better prepares students to be engaged citizens, active leaders, and successful professionals.

Embracing Friedman’s call for “Code Green” in higher education would mean adopting it as a core strategy. As Andrea Putman and I argue in our forthcoming book, Boldly Sustainable: Hope and Opportunity for Higher Education in the Age of Climate Change, it would mean not viewing sustainability as marginal to the real business of colleges and universities or as an “add on.” Instead, sustainability would be seen as the central organizing principle in an intellectual, social, and financial sense. And it would be recognized that these three strands cannot be unraveled and separated out, one from the other, without undermining the capacity of higher education to be an effective force in 21st-century democratic society.

Note: This post originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Building and Grounds Blog here.