Sustainability and Specialization

Much like everyone else these days, conversations I’m involved in frequently invoke the Gulf oil spill and whatever the latest iteration of disappointing news on the subject might be. It’s another one of those topics that I find it difficult to have anything to say about, because so little is in any way surprising, and more than anything else, it’s just yet another manifestation of the massive fault lines built in to the system of free market capitalism.

The truth of that broad, general, almost hopeless statement was brought home to me at greater depth yesterday, however, during a conversation with a friend who is doing his PhD at the business school here. Said business school is unquestionably recognized as one of the top, if not the top, institutions of its kind in the country, and easily represents the flagship program at this university. My friend’s focus is on business strategy and specifically, on environmental sustainability. Yesterday, his comment – not directly relating to the spill, but simply as part of a discussion on his research in general – was that thinking about sustainability as part of business strategy, or indeed, as part of ‘business’ in itself, is extremely unconventional (though possibly trending more towards the mainstream). It’s not that we have to find ways to deal with environmental regulations, or engage in barely-tenable-at-the-surface ‘green’ marketing efforts, or establish a separate-but-connected department that will deal with these kinds of concerns. It’s more like we’re studying astrophysics, and you’re asking us to consider how the works of Shakespeare fit in.

I frequently react with skepticism (to use the polite term) when I read articles that reference experts with PhDs in such areas as business and business strategy, and this is why. In the current North American academic/social/political structure, the PhD is an interesting beast in a number of different ways. It’s an oft-quoted cliché that as you move through the academic system and become a specialist in something or other, you learn more and more about less and less, but that doesn’t quite capture the bigger picture of what happens. The push towards interdisciplinarity and joint research projects among various kinds of experts doesn’t, it seems to me, affect the roots of this structure. Getting a PhD in a particular discipline still means that you read particular scholars, reference a particular disciplinary past, operate within particular disciplinary expectations. In my own work, I notice this a lot, because my work puts me squarely on the boundary line between two closely related disciplines, and selecting which of three PhD offers to accept was as much a matter of choosing my discipline as choosing my school/department. Talking to classmates and colleagues on either side of that boundary really makes me realize how much difference there is in how we each talk about the same subject matter. The frame of interpreting the same information is fundamentally different, which becomes a matter not only of reaching different answers, but also of asking entirely different questions and noticing entirely different aspects of the story.

Specialization happens at a deep, rather than a surface level. The media, it seems to me, with its more widespread publication of expert quotes, is incapable of recognizing the limitations of that expertise. The people who get to talk about what is happening with BP at a corporate level, or with the ongoing financial crisis in general, are often those with PhDs in business, finance, or corporate governance. Sometimes it’ll be economics, and with the oil spill, sometimes it’ll be something more environmental, depending on the specific subject matter of the article. But the media and the general public, in their interpretation of these statements, are not likely to distinguish the differences between these types of expertise. They’re not going to recognize that the individual with the ‘business strategy’ title is operating within a world that erases the question of ‘sustainability’ from observation. It’s not that they’re anti-sustainability, it’s that they don’t have the tools to see it at all.

This is the context in which these conversations are happening. This is the context in which people are searching for solutions to yet another crisis. This is why, yet again, I don’t even know how to talk about what the problem is, let alone any potential solutions.

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