For my STEP signature project, I chose to do something I’ve wanted to do since I started here at OSU- study abroad. I took a month-long course based in New Zealand, titled “Sustaining Human Societies and the Environment”, which utilized the South Island as a case study for the topic of sustainability. Throughout our month-long experience, my classmates and I traveled up and down the length of the South Island, experiencing its natural beauty and wildlife, hearing from guest lecturers from universities, farms, and conservation workers, and visiting unique sustainable businesses in the tourism sector.
Cheesy and cliché though it may sound, spending a month studying in such an amazing country really did change my life. This trip invigorated me, and filled me with stronger convictions, a sense of purpose, and some much-welcomed optimism. Perhaps the biggest changes were, 1.) my views on what it means to be ‘sustainable’, as one would hope/expect would occur after taking an internationally-based course on the concept of sustainability, and 2.) my more general increased conviction in the belief that small, individual actions really DO make a difference, and that holding on to this belief isn’t just some optimistic ideal we tell ourselves to make us feel better; it is a powerful way of life which can shape individuals, communities, and the world.
I learned that “sustainability” is a complex issue, and that no matter what, humans will have an impact, but that sustainability isn’t just keeping humans from an area; rather, it’s maintaining the integrity of a system, allowing it to flourish and remain healthy for generations to come. I learned that sustainability is holistic, rather than solely focused on environmental science. Sustainability is about people, about community. Western society so often places economic priority over human wellbeing and happiness, and that is absurd. Yes, there are always trade-offs, but there don’t have to be “losers”; we can find solutions in which both sides can win. There are amazing people and amazing companies all over the world which genuinely care about the environment and their community, which have integrity, which stick to their values. A sustainable, environmentally-friendly, community-focused business or lifestyle isn’t idealistic, doesn’t ignore “reality”, but really and truly is possible.
Now, how exactly did all of these life-changing epiphanies happen? With regards to my outlook on sustainability, the course content was perhaps the biggest culprit. Specifically, readings which focused on human well-being as an element of sustainability, a Maori professor emphasizing stewardship and pointing out how economics have “hijacked” our discussions of how we can be sustainable, and some lively class debates, in which we represented different stakeholders in conservation issues, helped me re-define what it means to live sustainably. These all challenged the concepts and parameters I’d placed on sustainability, and forced me to reconsider how to be holistically, practically sustainable in our modern day-to-day life. And, as much as I hate to admit it, the assigned essays in which we had to discuss what it means to be sustainable in different contexts really helped me organize my thoughts and pinpoint my views.
As far as my sense of efficacy goes, it was a collection of truly inspiring experiences, of learning how so many sectors, private and public, of the New Zealand lifestyle are invested in conservation and sticking with their beliefs which led to this change- I’ll try and hit the highlights. These include the visits to multiple sustainable businesses, such as ZipTrek, a zip lining company which follows and teaches an environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable business model. This helped me see that “business success” and “sustainability and moral values” weren’t mutually exclusive terms, as our society’s classic corporate tyrant trope would seem to suggest. We also visited a sheep farmer who is committed to making his living, but also to taking care of the land- this had a similar effect as the trip to ZipTrek, and was particularly heartening as it came from a sector (agriculture) which has traditionally been posed as an “enemy” of sustainability.
In addition, one of our course readings focused on the story of “The Guardians of Fiordland”, a diverse group of locals who put their personal interests aside to conserve the natural resources of Fiordland National Parks, and requested their appropriate, well thought-out legislation from the government. It was inspiring to hear of not only how successful their conservation efforts had been, but of how a group of people, from all different sectors and lines of life, came together of their own initiative and put their own interests aside for the greater good. Perhaps one of the most impactful experiences was the Maori cultural tour given to us by a Maori family in Kaikoura. This family-run business weaves the Maori ideals of integrity and stewardship into everything they do. Not only do they try to leave their guests with a message of care, kindness, community, and responsibility, but they fully practice these things. It was so incredibly inspiring to see a family so dedicated to their values, and to choose these values time and time again, even when circumstances were difficult.
To be fair, I do realize I likely had a rather biased view of New Zealand- the course itinerary took us to places where sustainability is an active part of the local or business agenda. However, I feel this doesn’t diminish the impact of the lessons I learned- the fact that people are out there doing such great things at all is enough to give me hope, especially when there are enough wonderful people and businesses to fill an entire month-long course on sustainability. These experiences have been so incredibly valuable and significant in my life already, and I truly believe they will continue to shape me and my outlook on life. I will strive to be more mindful of my actions, and more determined to make as much of a difference as I can, as my belief that I can indeed make a difference will empower me to do so. With all of my New Zealand lessons in mind, I have adventure-filled plans to make small changes, to get involved in my community, to continue to act with integrity, and to do my part to solve the piece of the global puzzle I’ve been given, both as a zoology student and a young woman- with the assurance that I am doing my part to make the world a better place.