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Reconsidering ‘Work': Sustainability in Daily Life

As a graduate student, the academic world and research process can often seem to be a never-ending source of anxiety, frustration, and tension. I imagine it to be similar for students in many disciplines or fields–such an intensive process is, by nature, a difficult one, especially since most graduate students, whether masters’ or doctoral students, haven’t been through that particular process before. Our work becomes our life. Leisure time often feels like a guilty pleasure.

The feeling is one which often becomes compounded by the physical spaces in which we tend to spend our time.  As Professor Bruce Hull has noted in an earlier blog post, the university is not an institution in which ideals revolving around sustainability are rewarded, but more likely, such things as competition, on-going growth, and expansion. Institutions, by general definition, are not creatures which are adaptable to change–they have been formed in order to maintain historical patterns of thought, action, or behaviour.  Universities are one of the ultimate institutions in this sense. And such practices designed to enhance growth are resistant–even hostile–to ideas promoting change towards the opposite.

And so, as students of the environment, the dichotomy between learning about sustainability and the ways in which one might transition to such a world, contrasted with the pressures of “succeeding” in a world designed to reward unsustainable behaviour, can be a difficult one to transcend. How can we work to, in the words of one other professor, subvert the hostile institution? It’s a tension that I think that most students (and professors, for that matter) must attempt to straddle.  It can be even more difficult, given that for many students, one’s research (their “work”) can seem the over-riding factor of importance in their lives. That is, their research becomes a key pathway in their lives in helping to make change for sustainable development.

The thing that many tend to forget is the many ways in which sustainability is played out in our own lives. This includes not only volunteer work with organized coalitions or events, but the everyday connections, decisions, and relationships that form our pastimes. Why is our “work” not only that done from 9 to 5, or that time spent working on a paper, but also the time spent cooking dinner with friends, playing sports, gardening, or even just relaxing with a loved one–or by oneself? It seems to me that one of the most fundamental ways in which to think about subverting those unsustainable pressures which exist in our lives (which as students are often based around institutions of higher education) is in these daily connections and commitments we make with others (and with our ourselves), and the level of importance to which we accord them.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be “working hard,”  but rather, that we should reconsider what that really means. Perhaps then, we shall really be living more sustainably.

Darlene Seto is pursuing her master’s degree at the Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. A keen student of environment policy and governance, her current graduate work revolves around diversity and engagement in alternative food systems.


Posted on: March 30, 2011, 9:00 am Category: Opinions, The Life of an Environmental Studies Student Tagged with: , ,

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