This post is by Ashela Richardson, a 2013 UST Environmental Science graduate.

Pilobolus dancers (reprinted with permission)

Pilobolus dancers (reprinted with permission)

In a class this last semester called, Urban Ecosystem Ecology, I had the chance to collaborate with Pilobolus, a modern dance company.  Pilobolus’ mission is rooted in communicating science, and the interactions between humans and the environment through movement, or dance.  I participated in their choreography of a dance by contributing to discussions about environmental science with other students.  The artistic directors used the content of our discussions as inspiration for the dancers and the story of the dance.  On the first day of our collaboration, we dealt with the idea of being interconnected.  The artistic directors from Pilobolus had us push the desks aside and stand in a circle.  In a firm, but friendly voice they said:

“Secretly pick two other people, and remember who they are, but don’t say.  Now, we are going to start moving, however you feel… pick any kind of movement you want, but you must keep moving, meanwhile staying equidistant from the two people you picked.”

Ashela Richardson

Ashela Richardson

They were so full of energy, and enthusiasm to share their exercise with us.  Many of the students in the room felt some uncertainty and discomfort with the whole idea.  “What’s the point?” They later admitted thinking.  As we moved, we developed an understanding.  At first, it was like a competition.  Some people started moving faster and faster, like they were being magnetically repelled and accelerated by their two counterparts.  At one point, it was like we created a vortex with a few people “trapped”, albeit equidistantly, in the center of our blob of people.  Once we realized the goal was continuous movement, we started making eye contact with other people, paying attention to their direction and movement; we had created our own system.

In ecology, we think a lot about connectedness; organisms, cells, animals, people that are constantly interacting with their environment and other counterparts. In my Environmental Science capstone course, some of my colleagues were interested in microbial-environmental interactions.  In order to better understand biodegradation of contaminants, they want to know what factors affect microbe communities, and how community-level dynamics affect lake ecosystems.  Understanding these fine points allows them to understand the overall functioning of the lake system.  Studying the smallest interactions in system gives meaning to how a system functions at a larger scale.

We can take this idea of connectedness and think about the connections within urban ecosystems.  We are currently pressed with serious environmental consequences that have resulted from human activity on the Earth.  Focusing on the connections of urban systems can bring support and research to inform city planners.  Donella Meadows, author of Thinking in Systems defines a system as an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.  As a society, we need to address what exactly we are trying to achieve.  Sustainability is a hot topic today in the discussion about the environment.  What even is sustainability, and why should we care?  A system that functions without new inputs from outside of the system, and one that is able to turn its waste products into new products.  Total sustainability seems like an impossible goal for any city unless we change the whole fabric of city structure and functioning.  So, to answer the question, I think the most important thing about sustainability is to allow it to creep into all of your thoughts, decisions, and beliefs.  Being mindful of what you care about, what you choose to do, and what you believe (and who you believe) will allow all of us to be able to communicate our goals and understand deeply our role in society.  People make decisions every day that have varying degrees of importance on the surface, but our choices accumulate impact over time.

People participate in sustainability politically, as consumers and sometimes professionally.  You may choose to implement expensive “green” renovations to your home, or you may choose to buy bamboo toilet paper.  Everything comes with a set of trade-offs that we must consider.  People, Americans especially, need to be aware that the choices they make affect the lives of others, and the lives of generations yet to come. Some people define sustainability as living in a way that promotes a better world for generations to come.  This definition makes it sound like there is a simple solution to the environmental crisis that has been building since the industrial revolution. This history has resulted in a worldview where humans dominate nature.  We are so deeply connected to the world around us, that we cannot consider life without it.  We depend on many ecosystem services that allow life on earth to persist.  Denying this and rejecting moral responsibility will only proliferate the end of any chance to remediate the damage that has already been done.

“The American Dream” is to live a life of prosperity.  I would like to see upcoming entrepreneurs have dreams of developing business plans that promote others to challenge themselves into critical thinking as they make daily choices.  We need businesspeople who focus their goals on providing services to society, and the ones who provide the best services to the environment should become the most prosperous.  In the dance exercise I shared, I explained how our system was barely functioning until we (the parts of the system) knew what our goal was.  Whether it’s the type of toilet paper you buy, how you landscape your yard, or how you develop your business plan, our dreams and goals need to be holistically focused, not pressing on futile goals of endless economic growth. The pursuit of these goals should challenge the citizens of this country to be stewards of the world who act for the betterment of the whole. 

About Adam Kay

I study urban ecology and urban agriculture
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