Communicating Sustainable Social Interactions

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Preamble [ conceptualized as an intro/entry move joining a conversation* ]

*. . . there are pre-existing conversations (discourses and dialogues, interpersonal and intercultural connections) in the MACS program at Goucher College, the Discourses of Sustainability Lab at the University of Glasgow, the Universidade Federal de Sergipe, Brazil. This collaboration was facilitated in part by The Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage within the Smithsonian Institution . . .  

Tentative/Proposed Strategy: offer this preamble to MACS students as prep prior to the start of the conference. Stretch goal: get it translated into Portuguese, Spanish, Scottish Gaelic and ASL for sharing with members of these language communities…

Sustainability requires cooperation.

While scientists and engineers continue to strive for technological responses, business educators in particular are perfectly positioned to facilitate the “gradual transformation of everyday behavior”1 required by the coming challenges. Gaia Vince2 explains the central challenge:

The UN International Organization for Migration has cited estimates of as many as 1 billion environmental migrants in the next 30 years, while more recent projections point to 1.2 billion by 2050, and 1.4 billion by 2060.” After 2050, that figure is expected to soar as the world heats further and the global population rises to its predicted peak in the mid 2060s.

In other words, the catalyst for recalibrating the future is to place the most marginalized human beings at the center. We have to design layers of interaction that support, embrace and enable nomadism. Sustainability for businesses will hinge on the business case for orienting to constant streams of large flows of humanity on the move as opportunities rather than liabilities. These flows will be both urgent due to unpredictable severe weather events and potentially in accord with new seasonal rhythms dictated by peak heat and peak wet. Vince continues:

The question for humanity becomes: what does a sustainable world look like? We will need to develop an entirely new way of feeding, fueling and maintaining our lifestyles, while also reducing atmospheric carbon levels. We will need to live in denser concentrations in fewer cities, while reducing the associated risks of crowded populations, including power outages, sanitation problems, overheating, pollution and infectious disease.

The mind has a range of responses to the following paragraph. For the Hobbesians and the Rousseauians (per the characterizations in Doughnut Economics)3, a pending Mad Max or Squid Game thriller is apparently appealing. White fragility (particularly in the U.S.) is another related response (wherever it comes up, however it comes up). On the other side are those committed to mutual aid.

At least as challenging, though, will be the task of overcoming the idea that we belong to a particular land and that it belongs to us. We will need to assimilate into globally diverse societies, living in new, polar cities. We will need to be ready to move again when necessary. With every degree of temperature increase, roughly 1 billion people will be pushed outside the zone in which humans have lived for thousands of years. We are running out of time to manage the coming upheaval before it becomes overwhelming and deadly.

That paragraph jolts me out of complacency. If you’re not aware of the effect this scientific forecast has on you (that you can sense, identify, name and explain), it’s likely an indicator for exercising self-reflection. Virginia Heffernan recently wrote Jolted Awake after reading The Dawn of Everything and interviewing the surviving co-author, David Wengrow. The Dawn painstakingly details crucial suppressed truth from the combined archaeological and anthropological record. The scrupulous scholarship exposes the lie of the upstart, tangential, and blatantly biased homo economicus. Putting their historical scholarship alongside Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning (2016) and How To Be An Antiracist (2019) establishes a very tight lens on the brutality and violence intentionally designed and implemented by a tiny subset of the human population against everybody else—human and non-human alike. Simultaneously, cultural survival and liberation movements everywhere persistently demonstrate human resilience and creativity in the face of bullshit exercises of wannabe superiority. An indigenous resurgence across Turtle Island (North America)4 is re-connecting with each other and the land of the mother (and reaching across continents, too).

Migration is not the problem; it is the solution.

Vince suggests an orientational flip brimming with possibilities for remaking the human-engineered world cantilevered on top of this extraordinarily complex biological living planet of countless interconnected and complex flows (e.g., Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013) by Robin Wall Kimmerer).

A chapter has been proposed to a business education textbook on “Teaching Social Sustainability” seeking to include findings from the (2022) multilingual conference on Communicating Sustainability organized through a (tangentially-related) partnership with the Smithsonian Institution and hosted simultaneously in three locations worldwide: Goucher College (U.S.), Universidade de San Sergipe (Brazil), and University of Glasgow (Scotland). The languages of the conference are Portuguese, English, and American Sign Language (ASL).5 We propose treating language difference in parallel with the migration flip: turn languages (in the plural, along with their differences) away from being treated as ‘a problem’ to nurturing plurilingualism as an integral part of the solution. The international business literature dealing with language differences has already documented that “English alone is not able to capture all possible and existing knowledge in an unproblematic and objective way” (Tietze, Back, & Piekkari, 2021, p. 377).

High quality communication within and across language communities, in and across every field, requires explicit attention to the interactive features of communication. The first (2020) conference by Goucher College MACS6 program, 20/20 Visions, was a solo endeavor exploring “Cultural Sustainability as an Act of Resilience.” This second conference has grown to be an international and multilingual partnership with the Universidade Federal de Sergipe with the theme, “Institutional Initiatives for Sustainability,” and The Discourses of Sustainability Lab at the University of Glasgow, who invite “community groups, educationalists, policy-makers, researchers, professionals and all those with an interest in issues of sustainability to develop ways of working together going forward.” The Portuguese focus (via Google Translate) appears to be on a self-assessment “sustainability matrix” that can contribute to the conceptual understanding of sustainability.7 According to Goucher College organizer Amy Skillman, this “first international gathering…[is] designed…to be the beginning of a series of on-going conversations. Hopefully, the details of where we go from here will come out of the gathering itself” (personal correspondence, August 26, 2022).

A roundtable on sociotechnical systems during this conference will invite participants to practice collaborative communication skills distinctive to “the turnaround generation” (Raworth, 2017, p. 50). We offer the roundtable involving two Deaf and three h/Hearing participants using interpreted interaction (American Sign Language and English) as a model for developing awareness of homolingual bias, the tendency to prefer communication with others in ‘the same’ language.

1 David Wengrow, a renowned archaeologist and co-author of The Dawn of Everything), summarized by Virginia Heffernan in “Jolted Awake,” Wired 30(9).
2 Quotes from Vince’s (August 18, 2022) long read article for The Guardian, “The century of climate migration: Why we need to plan for the great upheaval.”
3 Kate Raworth. (2017). Doughnut Economics: 7 Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist. 
4 See, for instance, As We Have Always Done (2017) by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Sacred Instructions (2018)  by Sherri Mitchell.
5 Some textual materials have also been translated into Spanish.
6 MACS is the Masters in Cultural Sustainability degree program offered by Goucher College.