Talking Sustainability

The Many Definitions of a Sustainable Society at ASFA Talks 2013

Economist Jeff Rubin speaks at ASFA Talks on oil and job creation. Photo Corey Pool

The diverse and seemingly unrelated disciplines of economics, international development, psychology, health sciences and agricultural studies share at least one common concept—the broadly defined, elusive idea of sustainability.

That’s the message behind ASFA Talks 2013, a speaker series presented March 14 at Concordia by the Arts and Science Federation of Associations.

“Sustainability is not only relevant within ecology,” said ASFA VP External and Sustainability Carlotta Longo when opening the talks.

Longo noted that sustainability is at the back of our minds whenever we think about our well being or health, about the ways we organize our economy and produce our food or about how we might help others to recover from a natural disaster.

Recalculating Growth

The economic growth we’ve enjoyed for decades is no longer sustainable in the long term, said Jeff Rubin at the talks.

Rubin is a Canadian author and former chief economist at CIBC World Markets. According to him, fluctuations in the price of oil have, in recent years, led many developed countries to look for alternative fuel sources for generating power. Most transport systems still rely on oil, though.

“And that’s why every major global recession that we had in the last 40 years has oil’s fingerprints all over it,” he said. “The most recent recession, the devastating 2008-09 recession, followed on the heels of no less than $147-a-barrel oil.”

Oil not only contributes to climate change, but can also hurt the economy, he said.

Many economists believe the root of the last recession lies in the subprime mortgage crisis. However, Rubin argued that it was a rising inflation rate—the result of increasing oil prices—that put an end to the cheap credit that created the housing bubble in the first place.

So what has changed in the past few decades? We’re no longer finding cheap, easily accessible sources of oil, said Rubin.

“Take the tar sands, for example, in Alberta. […] At $20 a barrel, you can’t get the tar sands. At $100 a barrel, all of a sudden, it’s the world’s third-largest oil reserve.”

The global economy isn’t growing at the same rate that it used to, Rubin said, and that’s because oil prices are rising.

Rubin predicts that the future will bring an end to growth, resulting in a static economy that will generate fewer jobs.

“The notion that we would have one job […] is in the rear-view mirror. I think that in the new economy, we’re going to have multiple jobs and that job sharing is going to become the norm, not the exception.”

Given the high rates of youth unemployment in much of the developed world, Rubin said many young people will choose to stay in post-secondary education and live at home with their parents longer than before.

Sustainable Aid

A lot of good is being done around the world through humanitarian aid, but there’s also mismanagement in the system, said David Tordjman.

Tordjman was the director of public works and urban planning for the city of Côte Saint-Luc until he decided to go to Haiti to help with the relief effort following the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake. He started working for the United Nations Office for Project Services there.

He said developed countries often send heavy machinery and trucks to regions affected by a natural disaster because it looks good in photo-ops, but won’t provide the funds to maintain the equipment in the long-term. In the receiving country, the equipment inevitably falls into disrepair.

The way the humanitarian effort has been managed in Haiti has created a dependency, he said, so that now the Caribbean country would struggle to get by without the constant infusion of foreign aid.

Different organizations started projects after the earthquake to provide employment to Haitians, but most of those jobs were unskilled make-work positions, according to Tordjman.

“A lot of them were very useless jobs,” he said. For example, people were paid to move garbage from one side of the street to the other.

“There was no training involved. […] These are not the jobs that people needed.”

Tordjman said that helping to upgrade workers’ skills would be more productive and would result in a more sustainable, lasting change.

“They don’t actually need 50 [people] to come down and build a school. They know how to do that. If you sent down a couple of engineers to tell them how to build it better, that’s a different story.

“If you help them, once they build the school, to make it sustainable—so that they can afford to pay their teachers and to train their teachers—that would be quite helpful.”

From Psychology to Agriculture

Alexandra Côté spoke about the pillars of a relatively new field of psychology, positive psychology. She explained that rather than just trying to treat mental illness, positive psychology examines how we can make our happiness and wellbeing sustainable and longer-lasting.

Côté is a recent Concordia graduate, having obtained a bachelor’s degree with a specialization in human relations. She is now completing a professional coaching program at the Adler Graduate Professional School.

Later, Robin Lim spoke about her charitable organization—Yayasan Bumi Sehat, or Healthy Mother Earth Foundation—which provides prenatal care and birthing services for free to women in Indonesia. According to her, disadvantaged women aren’t treated very well in for-profit Indonesian hospitals.

Lim argued that the more supportive midwifing techniques that Bumi Sehat clinics practice—which include keeping the baby with their mother after birth and the somewhat controversial practice of delaying the clamping and cutting of the umbilical cord—are better for the mother and result in healthier and more intelligent children.

“A baby born without trauma is going to have an intact capacity to love and trust,” she said.

Following Lim’s presentation, Aaron Vansintjan, a graduate student in the Department of Natural Resource Sciences and the School of the Environment at McGill, spoke about the place of organic foods in our industrial food production system.

He said that healthier and more environmentally sound organic foods will continue to be an expensive niche product and inaccessible to the masses unless we completely rethink our entire food production system with a particular focus on local and community-based agricultural programs.