Teaching Social Equity & Environmentalism

Dr. Scott Swearingen

Students taking classes from Dr. W. Scott Swearingen benefit from the breadth of his local environmental activism.  He is the author of Environmental City: People, Place, Politics and the Meaning of Modern Austin, a book that details how Austin's environmental movement shaped the city and helped lead to a more sustainable future.

Dr. Swearingen received his doctorate from UT Austin where he teaches two courses that focus on sustainability, Creating Sustainable Societies and Building a Sustainable City. He also teaches at St. Edward’s University.

Dr. Swearingen was interviewed by Hailey Thompson, sophomore in Sustainability Studies.

HT: When you teach, what core philosophies do you think are important to convey?

WSS: I was an environmentalist before I was a sociologist, and obviously the environment is part of the discussion around sustainability. However, in sociology, we talk a lot about equity: who wins and who loses in society. Sustainability is as much about equity as it is anything else, hence the ethics and leadership flags behind my classes. We talk about ethics because why else would we care about the environment and saving it? Core philosophies of sustainability come from a concern for other people at a social level.

HT: Can you tell me a little bit about the classes you teach at UT and how they might influence a student’s career path or future?

WSS: What’s amazing is that these classes were both started from a Green Fee grant. Since the Green Fee is a student-driven initiative, UT students have literally funded classes that focus on sustainability. I love what I teach, especially since I know there is so much student interest around it.

As an environmental sociologist, I hope to offer a new perspective to students. I often say to students: “sorry if you’re a marketing major” because we talk about marketing that persuades people to buy things that they don’t need. I don’t know if anyone in my class will ever decide to have less stuff, but I do think it’s beneficial to talk about consumption. My Building a Sustainable City class is completely geared around getting students into the field, and this directly influences students’ understanding of sustainability and how it’s intertwined with the Austin community. This class in particular could influence a career path because of exposure to what people are doing.

HT: How does your research focus on sustainability?

WSS: I was part of a bunch of people in the 1980s and 90s who were unhappy about Austin’s rapid growth and how it was messing with the environment and our neighborhoods. I took part in the environmental movement at the time, and then enrolled in graduate school, so my environmental passions became my academic work.

Part of my environmental activism included helping run political bond campaigns. We persuaded the citizens of Austin to vote to tax themselves and buy land for conservation, and the Barton Creek Greenbelt is one of the end results. These campaigns, and also the confirmation from scientists that global warming was anthropogenic, led to conversations about rebuilding Austin in a more sustainable way to save our city.

HT: Can you touch on the important concepts of differentiating between local versus large scale sustainability?

WSS: With global sustainability, we can think big picture: humans around the planet need to use less carbon-based fuels. This is a pretty well-known concept, but we’re having a hard time getting there. At national levels, individual governments can pass policies that reduce carbon emissions from factories, cars and electricity. Europe, with France and Germany leading the way, is doing this, and President Obama did work towards meeting the Paris Accord with his energy plan. However, the quick turnover in US Presidents every four to eight years, and the bounding back and forth between the political parties here, has made it impossible to implement meaningful legislation at the federal level.

Because of that lack of federal responsibility, cities are the driving actors for long-term sustainability in the U.S. Right now, over 300 mayors have signed the Mayor’s Climate Agreement. This is a voluntary agreement by mayors around the U.S. who are basically saying, “we’ll try our best!”  This takes form in new buildings being required to meet LEED certification levels, switching to 100% EV cars by a certain year, etc. The problem with this plan is it is completely voluntary. So it’s all about cities right now and that’s why I started the Building a Sustainable City class.

HT: What is the first thing about sustainability you would tell someone who has been living under a rock?

WSS: One question worth noting is, “how do you create a society in which everyone has a reasonable chance to get what they need without causing harm to future generations?” This conversation would have to start with the concept of global warming. You could say, to this person who has been living under a rock, “Well, over the last 30 years, scientists became convinced that humans were changing the global ecosystem in ways that will harm life on the planet.”

HT: Any last bits of knowledge you’d like to share about your work and teaching?

WSS: Students should definitely keep doing what they’re doing through the Green Fee because it’s just smart! They’re taking into account what is going on at UT. The entire university voted on Green Fee, and this fund is allowing students to do what they can where they are with the resources they have.