February, 2023

Lee Ball, Ph.D., Chief Sustainability Officer, Appalachian State University

As a sustainability program director, I feel a palpable tension between the urgency for aggressive climate action and the hope for a more sustainable future. For many of us working in higher education, hope fuels our idealism in a world dominated with ROIs and VLRs and SDGs…and with competing priorities and fear. We have chosen a profession where obstacles lurk around every corner and failure is the norm. Sustainability professionals are expected to bring everyone together and, over and over again, to provide reliable “real world” solutions that also pencil out financially for the institution.

Sustainability professionals have a unique ability to root out disconnect within Sun shining over a flowerour organizations; yet we risk alienating ourselves when we threaten the status quo.  We exhaust ourselves trying to hold multiple points of view and balance consensus while tap dancing to establish mutual benefits and keeping a positive, “can do” attitude. Extreme urgency fuels our work, but isn’t what we talk about. Hope keeps some of us going, but how do we sustain the sustainers over the course of a career?

Sustainability professionals rarely turn off the climate emergency in our minds. It’s there with us at every meeting, restaurant, and holiday gathering. It’s there with us at the grocery store or at the park with our children. Especially, with our children. Most just deal with it, lumping the climate anxiety as just another of the constant pressures and demands in life. It is a miracle that we keep making progress. We spend so much time focusing outward, explaining the complexities and interconnectedness of the sustainability universe over and over.

We share a primal tenacity for this work: in the bending hours of dawn and in the golden hour of dusk and before and after our back-to-back-to-back meetings. Despite our intrapersonal challenges, we carry on. Is this shared personality trait a skill or a curse? Either way, I am beginning to see that it’s a vulnerability that desperately needs nurturing and support. Sustaining the sustainers can take many forms. Whether it is the standard practices of self-care, nutrition, exercise, mindfulness, hobbies, time with loved ones, or practical tools like time management, team building, or leadership skills, my point is that WE need help too. Our martyr-like tendencies catch up to us in the form of stress, disease, failed relationships, isolation, and depression. We may be self aware of these things, but still, many of us do not prioritize the time needed for ourselves.

Sustaining the sustainers is the new elephant in the room -- not methane release, meat eating, or even the head of a foreign oil company leading the COP 28. It is beyond time to seek help for our own self-care. Committing the space for whatever YOU need might be the decarbonization strategy we’ve been waiting for; a strategy to reduce burnout and create more efficient project implementation.

Another often-overlooked trait of the sustainability profession is the terrifying scale of the work we are trying to accomplish. Dropping the ball is how we remember that particular ball in the first place. The neverending opportunities for service on boards and committees, consulting, and community engagement that we rarely refuse but just add to our workload, like carbon molecules into the atmosphere, tipping and tipping further out of balance. Saying “no” may be another decarbonization strategy worth implementing.  

Now, if hope is not your jam, I get it. Those of us who follow the science closer than the average Joe tend to be motivated by urgency rather than hope. But hope must be a factor in our work: there is always another day, another idea, another student whose love of learning is sparked, another bright-eyed sustainer poised and ready to join the cause. We are each uniquely suited to a particular aspect of sustainability work that is one part of a collective effort that we might not even live to see the results of. Our uniqueness comes from an individual journey that is presently rooted in a community that needs YOU. This community, these roots, are the collective strength that we need and, like mycorrhizae, community connects us, nourishes us, and looks out for us. At the heart of this community is nature, which is part of everything we do. Nature inspires solutions to some of our most challenging and pressing problems, and helps us understand the promise of diversity and inclusion. Nature can heal our deepest anxieties and fears. Nature is our oldest teacher drawing on billions of years of experience, a sort of well to draw from on dark days. Nature is our navigator through these very challenging times.

Let’s spend more time in the places we are trying to save, and witness the animals and insects and rocks and trees who are here with us. Let’s spend more time with each other. Beyond sustaining the sustainers, let’s learn to regenerate each other!


Editor's note: An earlier draft of this work was inadvertently published with The Connection newsletter and has since been updated March 2, 2023. 

Opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the GCSE or its members.