Taking the Road Less Traveled to a Sustainable Future

Tue, 05/09/2017

What does it mean to be “sustainable”? In this year’s Daffodil Lecture, Professor Paul Barten summarizes how the definition of the word has changed over time and how his own understanding and consciousness has changed as well.

In the early 1900s, sustainability, then known as conservation, was defined as “the greatest good for the greatest number in the long run.” This concept was expanded in 1987 when a United Nations Commission coined the term “sustainable development” to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Then, later in the 1990s, “sustainability” was described as the nexus of ecology, economics, and ethics, and the term “resilience” came in to popular use.

About a decade ago, sustainability was defined yet again as “decoupling environmental degradation from economic growth.” However, these days, as David Owen [i] notes, sustainability has come to mean to us as “pretty much the way I live now, though maybe with a different car.” And yet, despite the change of cars, climate change is still an incredibly pressing problem. Should we consider a different path to combat climate change instead?

The possibility of this different path is something that Professor Barten has made the focus of his research and teaching and the focus of his recent Daffodil Lecture (an annual lecture whose theme represents UMass Amherst’s commitment to sustainability research, teaching, and outreach).

As a scientist and STEM professor, many would assume that Professor Barten’s investigation of this alternative path is through experiments, equations, and graphs. However, as Barten goes on to debunk, his research, teaching, and scholarship is actually more holistic in nature. Traditional scientific methods are only one part of the process.  The scope of Barten’s work also includes environmental history, the arts and literature, and Native American culture and values.

What good are psychological values, people may ask, in comparison to innovative technologies and progressive actions? However, if we look at the chart[ii] presented by Professor Barten, we may begin to consider why these values are so important.

Native American Values

Dominant Society Values

Group (take care of the people)

Self (take care of #1)

Today is a good day

Prepare for tomorrow

There is a right time and place

Time (use EVERY minute)

Age (knowledge and wisdom)

Youth (rich, young, beautiful)



Be patient

Learn to be aggressive

Listen (and you will learn)

Speak up

Give and share

Take and save

Live in harmony (with all things)

Conquer nature

Great mystery (intuitive)

Skeptical (logical)


Self attention (ego)

A spiritual life

Religion (an optional part of life)

Side-by-side, these sets of values seem very different from one another. However, as Professor Barten argues, we do not have to adhere strictly to this binary.  Moderating some and merging others may be the best way to address daunting challenges such as climate change. To quote Fikret Berkes, a Distinguished Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Manitoba,

“It is often assumed that indigenous peoples have only two options: to return to an ancient and ‘primitive’ way of life, or to abandon traditional beliefs and practices and become assimilated into dominant society. Increasingly, indigenous groups have been expressing preference for a third option: to retain culturally significant elements of a traditional way of life, combining the old and the new ways that maintain and enhance their identity while allowing their society and economy to evolve.”

By not only acknowledging these other viewpoints, but also merging and adapting them, we change not just our cars, but our guiding principles and consequently our behavior and culture. By adopting Native American values, we can understand the importance of taking care of each other and listening to nature, rather than conquering it, and move toward what Aldo Leopold called, “an intense consciousness of the land." [iii]

And then, each person can truly take the path less traveled to a sustainable future for everyone. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, [iv]

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.  As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.

We need not wait to see what others do.”

[i] Owen, David. 2012.  The Conundrum: How Scientific Innovation, Increased Efficiency, and Good Intentions Can Make our Energy and Climate Problems Worse. Riverhead Books, New York, NY

[ii] Adapted from "Teaching and Learning with Native Americans: A Handbook for Non-Native American Adult Educators" http://literacynet.org/lp/namericans/values.html

[iii] Leopold, Aldo. 1949. A Sand County Almanac … and Sketches from Here and There. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK, 226 pp.

[iv] http://www.quote-wise.com/quotes/mahatma-gandhi/if-we-could-change-ourse...