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Orlando Taylor delivers the keynote address at Cal State Fullerton's conference on "Sustainable Futures: Diversity and Green Initiatives in Graduate Education." Photo by Karen Tapia

Keynote Address

Orlando Taylor Delivers Talk on the Human Dimension of Sustainability

March 16, 2010

Orlando Taylor, president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology's East Coast campus, delivered the keynote address at Cal State Fullerton's Feb. 18 conference on "Sustainable Futures: Diversity and Green Initiatives in Graduate Education."


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The following is the transcript of Taylor's address.

Jochen Burgtorf, professor of history and chair of the university’s Graduate Education Committee, introduced Taylor.

Burgtorf: You will forgive me, a professor of medieval history and a European, if I welcome you with the traditional university greeting, which is of course in Latin: Salvete commilitones, which means, "Greetings. fellow fighters". (laughter)

The university is not a place of complacency. It is a place of discourse and challenge and I hope that this forum on sustainable futures will reflect that in all its intellectual duty. I bring greetings to you from the faculty, student and staff members of the graduate education committee of California State University, Fullerton, which I have the pleasure of chairing. It is with enormous delight that I introduce to you as the keynote speaker of this graduate forum, Dr. Orlando Taylor, who is the inaugural president of the Chicago School of Professional Psychology's east coast campus in Washington, D.C.

If my sources are correct, and for a historian, that's an important thing, Dr. Taylor is a native of Chattanooga, Tennessee. To start us of with a piece of strictly non‑academic trivia, it seems that Orlando Taylor got a rather early start in the world of communications. Namely, in 1952, and I will let him tell you how old he was then, he hosted his own show, called "Teen Time," on the local radio station.

He went on to receive a bachelor's degree from Hampton University, his master's degree from Indiana University, and his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. Dr. Taylor holds honorary doctorates from Purdue University, Indiana University, Ohio State University, Hope College, DePaul University, Dennison University, and Southern Connecticut State University. If he were in Germany, we would have to call him Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Dr. Taylor.


Dr. Taylor served at Howard University for more than 35 years, first as a member of the faculty, professor in the school of communications, and then later as senior administrator. Ultimately, as Howard's Vice‑Provost of Research and Dean of the Graduate School, Dr. Taylor has been involved in a wide range of major national and international grants to develop collaborative academic and research programs between universities in Brazil and Europe with Howard University and several other academic institutions in the United States. In light of these grand activities and in light of the fact that the major language in Brazil is Portuguese, and that among the two most widely‑spoken languages of Europe are French and German, I would be curious to hear Dr. Taylor's views on a current campus debate concerning the elimination of the degree programs including, two graduate degree programs in these languages. But maybe some other time.

(laughter and applause)

Among the accolades one can find on Dr. Taylor are, and I quote, those which refer to him as a nationally recognized leader in graduate education, and as a higher education icon. While it is always a great joy to introduce a scholar, the author, and Dr. Taylor is the author of, for example, "Treatment of Communication Disorders in Cultural and Linguistically Diverse Operations." He is the editor of "Making the Connection: Language and Academic Achievement Among African‑American Students," as well as "Our Voices: Essays in Culture and Ethnicity, and Communication," the letter published by Oxford University Press in 2003. It is an even greater drawing to introduce someone who himself has been the subject of scholarly investigation, and I mean this in a good way.

Thus, Dr. Taylor is prominently featured in the narrative of Mary Ann Wynkoop's 2002 study, "Dissent in the Heartland, the Sixties at Indiana University." We find him surrounded by anti‑war protesters, civil rights activists and members of the counter‑culture. I wish he could talk to us about that.

Moreover, Dr. Taylor has an entire chapter, namely, chapter 11, dedicated to his fascinating research and teaching in the 2006 volume, "Black Pioneers in Communication Research," by Ronald Jackson and Sonja Brown‑Givens. Ladies and gentlemen, come le tomes, please join me in welcoming Dr. Orlando Taylor, who will speak to us about the human dimension of sustainability, people first. Dr. Taylor.

Taylor: Thank you very much. The first lesson to be learned today is to never let an historian introduce you. (laughter)

For the record, I was 2 in 1952, just for the record. Do your own math on that. If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I would like to talk to you about as well. Real joy to be here. Thank you Dr. Smith, Dr. Huizinga, so many colleagues, many of whom I have known I think since 1952, one way or another. I consider this to be my second home. I've told Dean Murray that. He and I have done some things together. We have worked on some common interests. This is really a special place and I hope you all recognize the joy and the privilege that you have to be a member of this academic community.

When I was asked to give this inaugural talk, I didn't understand this was the first graduate forum. Now you make me nervous, because I figured I needed to say something memorable. That of course, is a challenge. But the topic of sustainability made many of my colleagues, when I told them I was going to do this, ask, "Why you, you are not a environmental scientist, you don't do work in sustainability per se." And I had to talk about some of the reasons why I thought they might have asked me: they are running short of talent, couldn't find anybody else and things of that nature.

But as I go through this talk today, I think you will see that this is a topic for everybody, it is not just a topic for environmental engineers, not just a topic for those who work in environmental studies. It is a topic for everybody and I hope we show that, because at the core there is always going to be people.

I have some personal reflections I'd like to make at the beginning. And if I do this right, this is a test of my ability here. There were some personal moments in my own lifetime that led me to my topic today. The first one was a moment in Portland, Oregon, about six or seven years ago, at a major meeting sponsored by the Tokyo Foundation around international topics.

We met on the campus of Portland State University. At the end of the day we were told there was going to be a reception downtown and to take public transportation bus to a certain address. And all of us thought this was a very odd thing to do, because in our society if you have a reception somewhere else, they would maybe say rent a bus for you to come and pick you up and drive you there, but certainly not take public transportation.

But more importantly, they said it doesn't cost anything, just get on the bus and ride. That seemed odd, because I live in Washington and nothing is free there, so it didn't make any sense to me. Then I later heard in the conversation and determined that the city of Portland understood that it was cheaper for them in the long run to provide free public transportation in the downtown area than to have all the carbons emitted from autos, for example, and that it was in their health interests and their economic interests to encourage people to ride a bus, not to mention the fact that they saved a lot of money.

And so anybody, even to this day, even the rail system there now, downtown, the light rail system, you get on anywhere, public transportation, take a bus. Interesting idea.

The second thing that triggered my thought for today's talk was more recent. Starting this year in Washington, D.C., if you buy groceries at a store and ask for a plastic bag, they charge you a nickel. Everybody of course complained because it was perceived as a norm. You go to the store, you buy groceries, they put it in a bag, plastic, non‑degradable of course, you take it home, you throw it in the trashcan, you don't worry about how this absorbs and there is an endless supply of it. Now they charge you a nickel.

It's amazing what's happened in the last six weeks in Washington. People walking out of grocery stores with their canned goods and their frozen foods in their hands, bringing their old plastic bags back just to save a nickel, great idea. And the giant store which is our major food chain reports an almost 80% drop in the use of plastic bags in six weeks in Washington, D.C., Amazing change; small idea.

The store gets one cent of the five, the remaining four cents goes into a fund to cleanup theAnacostia River, a highly polluted river along with the Potomac, I might, add in Washington, D.C.

Humans first, people made a difference, people bought the bags. All the scientists did the work to make plastic bags possible, but people use them, people passed laws to charge the nickel, people stopped using them, people happened to be a part of this equation.

A third topic that influenced my thinking today has to do with some of my professional activities, activities which also cause people to ask "Why you?" I served on the board of directors for six years of the Corporation for Atmospheric Science, UCAR. Those of you in the atmospheric sciences know what UCAR is in Boulder -- he University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, a nonprofit consortium of research universities that manages the National Center for Atmospheric Reserch on behalf of the National Science Foundation and the university community.

And I currently serve as a member of the Advisory Council, which is the major council for the Geosciences Directorate to the National Science Foundation. I'm not an atmospheric scientist and I'm not a scholar in the geosciences. As a social scientist, I find that the most interesting thing about both of those experiences is that much of the conversation focuses on human dimensions of the atmosphere and of their science systems.

And as a social scientist, I get to make a lot of observations and make a lot of suggestions regarding the research priorities and staffing and things of that nature. That has also given me a notion to say that this conversation is one that involves everybody in the room. I don't know what your disciplines are, but it doesn't matter because there is something for everybody.

The fourth topic that has been an important one for me is a conversation that occurred about six years ago with a fellow by the name of John Frazier, a geographer on the faculty at the University of Binghamton in New York. John convinced me at the time I was serving as a vice‑provost of Research and dean of the Graduate School at Harvard to become a co‑sponsor institutionally with the Biannual Conference on Race, Ethnicity and Place, an interesting topic for a conference.

At the time when we first started this — I guess about six years ago now ‑‑ we brought about maybe 200 people together -- geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, environmental engineers, people from a variety of disciplines — to look at the inner connection between peoples’ location and race and ethnicity.

And that led to a lot of discussions around who is most vulnerable to living in unsustainable communities, who were most victimized by living in an environment that are unhealthy, and they often correlate with issues of race, ethnicity and, I might add, socioeconomic status.

And I would urge those of you with an interest in this topic of sustainability and with a particular interest in people that you visit the website of Race, Ethnicity and Place, go to one of their meetings and present a paper. They meet in Binghamton, not in the wintertime fortunately. Binghamton is not a place you want to go, Washington either this year, but it is a very wonderful place to visit in the springtime. Go and participate in this conference.

I tell you about all of this because it shows a wide range of personal experiences, some somewhat trivial, others a bit more substantive, that led me to the topic I was graciously invited to come here today to discuss the human dimension of sustainability.

I, like many of you, look for a definition of sustainability. I was curious about what different sources would tell me and I just threw a few up there. Harvesting or using a resource so that it is not depleted or permanently damaged was one. Another place I got one that said the capacity to endure, to improve the quality of human life while living within the carrying capacity — a term we'll come back to in a moment — of supporting ecosystems. A third one was potential for a long‑term sense of well‑being, which of course depends on the well‑being of the natural world and the responsible use of natural resources.

Those first three definitions all include the human dimension. The notion of well‑being is a human issue. What makes people feel that they're living well? And of course it is a culturally‑determined concept. If we have diverse people and diverse communities and diverse nations, by definition we'll have diverse definitions of well‑being.

A few years ago, I was talking with one of my closest colleagues at Howard in the department of civil engineering — she's a general technical engineer — about a particular project underway in a certain part of the world, which led me to ask the question, "How much social science is a part of environmental engineering education programs?" And she said, "Very little." She talked about ABET accreditations, for example, and how much room there was for the "soft" sciences.

And I played the game with her. I asked, "What does civil engineering mean?" And of course the word "civil" relates to a "civil society." That sounds like people. And for me, I can understand, how could you have an engineering program without a major component of social science in it, so if you're talking about using application of science — engineering in this case ‑ to make life better for people.

We had a long discussion about it, and one day she called me and said, "You know, I just read an article about a project in a country where it was decided that this particular society needed to have indoor plumbing, So they got a grant from somebody and invested resources and time and built wonderful toilets inside the homes of the people. And to their amazement, the people didn't use them. They continued going out into the woods every morning, where they would see their friends and neighbors and swap stories.

To make a long story short, it meant that the use of the moment was a social occasion first and foremost. It was a time of gathering, kind of like men gathering in barbershops or on front porches in the old days or playing checkers or something. Building the indoor toilets failed to take into account the social dynamics of the community. And so the sense of "well‑being" divorced from the social construct of society was a poor investment.

But what is well‑being in a society? If you've gone to Japan, you know that rooms of homes are much smaller. If you've come to California, particularly Southern California, well‑being is often defined by the auto, not mass transportation, as what I would consider more likely for well‑being. The temperature of a room, the love of gadgets for convenience are all a part of well‑being.

And so if we talk about the topic of sustainability in a serious way, we have to build a cultural component into the question.

Sustainability is everywhere. And while one may say, "I'm not working in that area, " you cannot get away from it. It's applied to almost every facet of live on earth. Long‑lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems. You can go on into the chemical cycles. You could go on to the first ecosystem. All of the Earth, the planet on which we live, is impacted by human beings.

And it's a global issue. In 1983 or thereabouts, the United Nations commissioned a Commission on Environment and Development. In 1987, the so-called Brundtlandt Commission issued a report called "Our Common Future attempted to reconcile sustainable development with of economic factors, societal factors, and environmental factors.

The social aspects of sustainability cannot be discussed devoid of the environmental, or cannot be discussed devoid of the economic. They all interact together.

So we have this global question. Not just one for Southern California, just for the Untied States, and not just one for some disciplines, but something that's an issue for all of us on the planet Earth. There are some issues we all have to pay attention to. There are great challenges for us to face. And I think the biggest one, of course, is the population — the number of people on the planet.

And those in Environmental Studies will give a much better talk on this part of it. They talk about the volume of resources required and the waste produced and the ability of the Earth to absorb it, per person — what they call the carrying capacity. And it turns out already that we are already using 30% more than the carrying capacity of the Earth. That's really a frightening statistic, if you think about that.

And as the Earth becomes more heavily populated with people, there will be more demand for food, for shelter, for clothing, and everything else that contributes to well‑being. And so population explosion becomes a very critical issue.

And of course countries like China are making efforts to control family size. Western Europe is seeing a net decline in population, at the same time that there has been an enormous in‑migration into European countries.

The work that I did in Europe was mentioned in the introduction. I've looked at the great movement of persons from the former colonies and from Eastern Europe into Western Europe that have made a great impact on those societies. Today there are seven billion people on the planet, nine billion projected by 2050, with 90% located in what we would call today the developing countries.

Which raises questions about the role of affluence in sustainability. Because those very countries are trying to be like the Western countries, they define well‑being in terms of greater use of the Earth's resources, and perhaps even use of resources that will damage the Earth's ecosystem. And so you have unsustainable consumption.

A few years ago the United States used 30 times more energy than India. I suspect that that percentage has been dropping as India's become more affluent, its population more middle class. Therefore using more energy, right? More energy that's not applicable. Then that gap is smaller, but it's not good for the Earth. So that's a variable.

Another one is the impact of technology. Some of it being good, and I'm very impressed with what you're doing here at Cal State Fullerton brick by brick, one program at a time, one building at a time.

But there are good efforts going in water power and solar energy and so forth. And I saw a number of the projects and the posters downstairs that looked at some of the efforts that are taking place. But we also have some bad ones. We have technology that we produce that ends up not being good for the benefit of the Earth.

Another one would be attitudes and beliefs. Another issue, because in our global media we project a sense of what the good life is. And the good life often involves gadgets and material possessions that are not in the best interest of our environment.

And finally we have the geopolitical considerations. The recent Copenhagen Conference and the response of the Chinese and other countries resisting the calls from those in the West for more sustainable policies which seem in competition with their plans for their own economies.

The country of Botswana, to give you one example, has recently discovered large deposits of coal. And they see this as a great opportunity to advance their economy. And they don't want to hear anyone saying, "Well, let's wait until we get clean coal so you can use it." They say, "No, you guys used it. You guys did it for all these years. We want to be like you. We want to advance our economy."

Geopolitical questions have a negative impact on our efforts to sustain our environment. Notice, we can do all that we do in the United States or in Southern California. And if somebody else is doing something somewhere else that is not in the best interest of the ecosystem, we all suffer. I'll give you two examples — deforestation and climate change.

I think we all recognize that trees are important, for more than aesthetic reasons. Yet we know that trees are being depleted at a very rapid rate. By some estimates more than 50% of the planet’s tree cover has disappeared due to human activity.

I read an article in preparation of the talk that described the impact of the colonization in Australia — a continent that has been damaged more in the last 200 years than it's been thousands of years before.

So we see the fact of forests being depleted in some parts of the world for reasons that we all understand. Urban and construction purposes. We need to grow more crops, so we need more land, and create grazing lands to produce more food to use for fuel and things of that nature.

You say, "So what?" Well, you see the results in this picture I am showing of an African dust storm. — erosion of soil, disruption of the water cycle, loss about diversity, flooding, drought and climate change.

African dust storms have been heightened in recent years for a variety of reasons. Drought, of course, being one, deforestation being another. And it's led to considerable issues in water resources, food production and poverty, and has increased dust storms. If you read in this area you will note there was a dust storm in Sydney, Australia, about two years ago where the sky was totally red for a better part of three days.

We know that dust storms are related to hurricane activity in the United States. We know that the dust storms bring with them microbes that are deposited on the shores of North America. We can actually see the similar results in other parts of the world. But these microbes have a great deal to do with asthma and other respiratory diseases in places like South Carolina and Florida.

So now we'd look at this, let's talk about one planet. Drought, deforestation in Africa, resulting in more dust storms in that part of the world. But the key point is that while you may feel independent of what's going on in Africa regarding deforestation, if you understand the fact that those microbes being brought in the hurricanes are now being deposited in your backyard, it could result in greater asthma, mortality, that you could see it's all one system.

And you can see, again, the great impact of people, people first. And so while we don't have a major movement in this country around deforestation, we should. Because it's very important for our environment.

I believe that we must work on four fronts. We must define the issues in a interdisciplinary manner. I'm glad Dr. Smith talked about interdisciplinary programs, because the topic of sustainability is one that can only be addressed by the interconnectivity of people across many disciplines.

We must expand our efforts and innovations to enhance sustainability. And I see I have five, not four. We must intensify our advocacy of Earth‑friendly policies and practices. We must intensify our efforts with communities and students of color. We do have too little work going on in communities of color and too few students of color in these programs. Having worked with the Race, Ethnicity and Place conferences, I have documented this.

So we must be particularly — I added this one just this morning. There is a wonderful report and I do have the name of it, it is not at my fingertips, that looked at the impact of which communities on the planet are most vulnerable to unsustainable situations on the planet. And there are disproportionately people who are poor themselves, who live in poor societies, who are less capable to adapt to these situations.

So the issue of poverty, disenfranchisement and marginalization must interconnect with our work in the environmental sciences. But what we must do and can do, we can certainly reorganize living conditions. We must reappraise what our economic sectors produce, what drives our economies. We must use our science increasingly to develop new technologies, and particularly to change lifestyles.

The bag tax spoke to a lifestyle change, the bus ride in Portland talked about a lifestyle change, greater use of mass transportation. We can try to get more disciplines involved in addressing the issue surrounding sustainability. So it goes beyond, for example, environmental engineering to involve the department of communications for instance or a department of political science.

We want a high quality of life within the boundaries of the supporting ecosystem, which I called it well‑being at the beginning. Certainly we must embrace interdisciplinarity and diversity of thought and methodological pluralism in all of our disciplines. This particular conference reflects that. As you define sustainability in the social and the cultural and the scientific and other context, you have by definition brought people into the room who don't ordinarily everyday communicate with one another.

That's an important first step, because as I said, to address this question involves a connectivity across all disciplines. We must consider broadening our curriculum, our degree and certificate offerings especially at the graduate level in sustainability.

The topics are so complex and require advanced thinking to a level that it is probably difficult, I won't say impossible, for a person to achieve the level of competence that is required to address these questions with an undergraduate degree alone. But we must start the students at the undergraduate level where they begin to think about these topics early and will see the relationship between the topic of sustainability and their preferred academic disciplines.

We must seek to expand the emphasis on sustainability in communities and student bodies of color with an interdisciplinary core course for all students including graduate students. Now I know that's wading out into deep water, but think about it for a moment.

We often ask questions what is required to produce an educated person. At the undergraduate level, we have the general education curriculum. We say well math and English, probably social studies. If we don't have a planet, what difference does it make? If you really take seriously the importance of this topic, and if you really believe that it requires all the disciplines of working together, why not consider adding a required core course.

What about at the graduate level, no matter the discipline, where you ask students to engage with the question, "How does my discipline contribute to sustaining the Earth and its people?" And of course this is my most radical thought I have had, even I did not succeed at this when I was in Harvard. Increasingly we do joint work, right? And increasingly, particularly in this field, it is interdisciplinary, but we train our students to do uni‑dimensional work: my thesis, my work, my discipline, my department. I urge, and there are some universities that have brought into this, joint dissertation of a joint thesis. Some experience for a student to do a joint paper where they work together as you would if you are prefacing a paper and a journal or writing a book.

Oh yes, one person may have a primary emphasis on one part and another person may have primary emphasis on another part based upon their own particular academic specialty, but they would all have a working understanding of the others so they can have an intelligent conversation. So what would happen if you had a communications major working with the sociologist, working with the environmental engineer on a water project for example? An interesting idea to me.

And I think we can do some creative things to think about that possibility of doing joint interdisciplinary work for our students so that when they graduate and become the next generation of intellectual and research leaders, they will have experienced the challenges and benefits of working across disciplines and in groups and doing research in teams. We do it in the natural sciences or usually in a department, chemistry students working together in a lab but they are not connected to the sociology students and so forth.

I want to conclude by saying that there is room for everybody. In the natural sciences, of course, we expect you to continue providing us with the scientific basis of the earth systems; from the folks working in the area of technology, we expect insights drawn from computer science and other design friendly technologies; we trust architects, city planners to give us ideas about green communities; our social scientists to help us have a better understanding of how people define well‑being; our folks in mass communication and media studies to help us in communicating to the global community.

The images that people see watching American TV shows in India or Botswana help shape what their perceptions are of well‑being and the good life. And often those images that we project not just through advertising, but through some of the programs that we produce show ways of living that are not in the best interests of our planet.

Our political scientists need to draw the appropriate connections between diplomacy, international affairs and sustainability. Many are. That's another big area of work, that humanists reflect topics of sustainability in their art and their literature and their music. And I could go on and on; there are connections to be made with every possible discipline, there is a role for everybody.

And as we think about reforming graduate education around the theme of sustainability we have at the core a way of allowing disciplines to connect with one another, students to be prepared to work in a very important and complex area, all to the benefit of sustaining this planet.

These are some random thoughts that I've had. We can already see bits and pieces of these issues being worked on in different places in the academic community. We see a major in environmental studies. But we rarely see this interconnectivity that I've just described. We have people working in pockets, somewhat isolated from one another.

But if we look at the three pillars identified by the Brundtland Commission — the economy, society and the environment — within the context of population growth, expansion, affluence and the planet’s carrying capacity, we have little choice but to address these issues head‑on, keeping both people and the planet first. Thank you very much.

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