By Joern Fischer
Just a few days ago I spoke to a colleague from the UK about the challenges of working in modern academia: “Why is it that these days, an average professor appears to be doing about two people’s jobs?” – His response: “I did the calculation for my own job. I came up with three full-time jobs equivalent.”
So, are we just whinging, or is there something to this? Of course we were whinging. But I also think there’s more. All over the place, it appears that people’s lives have more things packed into them than in the past. When we’re not working, we’re travelling, or planning to travel, or renovating our houses, or who knows what else. We’re constantly wired, on the phone, the internet, or reading some stupid blog that really isn’t very interesting. (Uh-oh, should you keep reading at this point?)
I think it’s a fact that most people in the Western world are busier than they used to be. Are they happier? Of course I don’t know, but I suspect not. But definitely busier.
Academia seems to take the lead in the general trend for busy-ness, often reaching insane levels. We’re assessed by our output, or should we call it throughput? – Of papers, students, grants. Nobody really asks whether we did well. Not in an honest sense anyway. The question rather is whether we did a lot. If you do a lot, it’s implied that this means you’re doing well.
The result of this is that people get involved in more projects than they can reasonably manage. They supervise more students than they can fully pay attention to. They teach more classes than they can be thoroughly prepared for. They write more emails than they can remember.
To anyone who has watched academics over the last decade or so, this trend is obvious. It’s not equally obvious in different places, and much depends on the leadership of particular departments or institutes. But what does this trend mean for those of us working in sustainability science?
Well, frankly, it shows that we are not doing terribly well at practicing what we preach. Sustainability is meant to involve ecological, economic and social considerations. Well, environmentally, our busy-ness tends to translate into millions of meetings, including many which we fly around for. Flying means carbon, which means global warming, which doesn’t mean sustainability. (Yes, over-simplified, but if you want the less simplistic version, you should read journals and not a blog …) On the social stuff it’s even clearer. How can you work three jobs and still maintain meaningful relationships with your family or friends outside work? In the past, and still in the not so wealthy countries, people worked long hours because their livelihood depended on it. Now we work long hours because … because why exactly? Because everyone does. Because it’s part of our culture to always be busy. And academia is leading the way.
Call me a fundamentalist, but I think one of the challenges we have to face is that, indeed, sustainability needs to start at home. Those of us advocating for a more sustainable society need to try to practice what we preach. If our own lives are in working (sustainable) order, surely our thinking will be more balanced – and instead of just contributing more quantity to sustainability science, we might contribute a kind of more nuanced quality, too. And it’s quality that we need, from both head and heart: not just more stuff.