University of North Alabama Establishes Center for Sustainability Studies

Oct. 14, 2015

By Bryan Rachal, University Communications


FLORENCE, Ala. – The second annual University of North Alabama Sustainability Conference will take place Thursday, Oct. 15, and just like last year, the program will feature an extensive list of guest speakers.  However, one big difference is that this year UNA is the home of a new Center for Sustainability Studies. 

Sustainability has been one of those buzzwords for some time now, but what does it mean, exactly?  According to Dr. Mark Puckett, UNA professor of geology and the new director for the UNA Center for Sustainability, it’s pretty encompassing.  In quick terms, sustainability is the endurance and health of processes and systems through time.  

“Sustainability is looking at the challenges that face humans in the next several decades and looking into some solutions for those problems, “ Puckett said.  “We’ve been pushing our environmental system beyond its capability to renew itself. For example, this past August we actually used up the earth’s ability to recycle the materials we extract out of it for the whole year.  At the pace we’re going now, we’d need to have several different planets for our natural resources.  So we’re using way too much to keep it up sustainably.” 

Puckett said we’ve been pushing other systems too, like carbon dioxide (CO2).  CO2 is something that is a byproduct of the internal combustion engine.  During the Industrial Revolution, the earth had about 280 parts per million of CO2.  Recently, that number exceeded 400 parts per million.  

Puckett said the curve is accelerating as well.  “So people involved with sustainability are asking the question, what do we do next?  We have to start changing now before it’s too late.” 

While climate change is a part of sustainability, Puckett said wealth plays into it also. “Since about 1980 it’s been a massive redistribution of wealth,” he said. 

Puckett said this results in things like more people needing loans.  Those loans could be for housing or more commonly, education.  He said it’s a positive feedback type of thing.  “One of the top ways to earn more money is through advanced education.  But since it costs more to do that, people are choosing not to or they’re taking out high loans that will take multiple years to pay.” 

“You may be saying to yourself, ‘Okay I see climate change and I see wealth equality, but how do they connect?”’  Puckett said the human effects on the planet are multi-dimensional and multi-disciplinary by their nature; therefore, they must be understood by means that are independent of any particular discipline; in other words, it is the way the different components interact with each other that determines the functioning of a system, and thus its sustainability. 

So basically Disney said it all when they called it the “Circle of Life.”  All these things work together to form the world we know.  An increase in CO2 can effect crop growth.  If the crop size diminishes, prices for said crop will go up etc.…  

And that’s where UNA’s new Center for Sustainability Studies comes into play.  “The reason we started this center is because the issues are multi-dimensional and multidisciplinary,” said Puckett.  “We had no mechanism here at UNA to get people in those different groups together. That’s really the purpose for this, so we can get together and collaborate.  We’re a lot stronger together than we are apart.”  

The Center doesn’t have a building yet, but Puckett said that’s one of the hopes for the future, in addition to starting a journal that will be distributed bi-annually.  

The goals for the center, according to Puckett, depend on the expertise involved; but one area they want to push is the new major offered by UNA, Earth Systems Sustainability.  

“What we’re hoping to do is generate a learning center where students can learn from each other and from others around the world, and we’ll help facilitate that,” Puckett said. “I consider that to be a large part of my job, because everything’s not figured out yet, and hopefully, the students coming in will help figure out solutions to these problems.”