Sustainability Practicum Reflection #3

We began the class three weeks ago with a broad macro-scale perspective on sustainability, and quickly worked toward a micro-scale perspective, focusing on methods directed at small, targeted goals that address specific vulnerabilities for a specific system. Reflect on the pros and cons of these two perspectives. What do we gain and what do we lose by adopting one or the other of these perspectives? What do you think are some solutions or strategies for addressing issues of sustainability that would allow us to retain all of the benefits without suffering from the negative consequences.


Provide your answer as a comment to this post. Remember – your comments are public.


  1. Jennifer Damian says:

    I think that by adopting a micro-scale perspective on sustainability, we can show to others that sustainability is tangible. The results of working to be sustainable to achieve a goal may not be tangible or evident at a given time, but in showing others that the broad definition or idea behind sustainability is not just an abstract notion is something that is important. Micro-scale perspectives make it easier for people who might not necessarily have had experience with strategizing to take part in the collaboration for coming up with solutions. If people focus too much on the broad concept, which is mainly the case for mainstream sustainability, then as John Ehrenfeld warned, its meanings would constantly get shifted. Most environmentalists want humans to be more sustainable, so if we make it accessible and concrete, that would make it easier for more people and systems to adapt. This I believe is a crucial strategy to incorporate more people who may not necessarily do what they do to support the environment. They can still be sustainable even if they do not aim to be or want to claim that title. This inclusion takes away the stigma that some people associate with sustainability and allows people to move faster and in a more qualitative way to completing the actions. Having a micro-scale perspective also makes people think about what micro-sustainability actually means, and this thought process can make people ponder questions on their own (and also with each other) without having people like us having to spoon-feed them the concept of sustainability. I definitely believe there is more to gain with approaching issues with a micro-scale perspective as it is something that society in general has not done; there have been scientists, environmentalists, researchers, etc. taking this approach but to scale it up to have more people thinking in this framework will be beneficial.

    One of the consequences that can come from this micro-perspective is that people will start thinking they meet the guidelines to being sustainable once they tackle issues with specific solutions. They will work on small-scale strategies and feel accomplished with their small-scale solutions/doings. These accomplishments won’t be a problem, but then it will be harder for people to tackle issues with sustainability that are large-scale. If people try to tackle large-scale problems in a sustainable way with micro-scale perspectives and then forget to go back to the larger picture, that is when we end up losing sight of our goals in the long run.

  2. Laura Berry says:

    In order to come up with practical and tangible strategies for addressing the sustainability of a social-ecological system, it is incredibly important to consider where to draw the boundaries of the system in the first place. A macro-scale perspective on sustainability allows for a systemic analysis of widespread and long-term challenges such as climate change across countries and cultures, but any recommendations for actually dealing with the problem are generalized and often seem too complex to deal with. On the other side, sustainability at the micro scale allows one to consider place-based nuances and specific social-ecological dynamics to make concrete recommendations for sustainability, but this often leads to these efforts becoming disconnected from or failing to recognize larger, cross regional issues. For this reason, most “realistic” strategies for sustainability are generated at the micro-scale and revolve around local communities and individual choices: shopping at farmers’ markets, putting solar panels on your roof, etc.
    However, I believe it is vital to recognize that local, micro-scale efforts must occur as part of a broader, collective movement in order to contribute to macro-scale sustainability. For example, while some families may be able to afford the upfront costs of installing photovoltaic solar panels, greater issues of economic inequality mean that others are prevented from doing so; even this one part of local sustainability is connected to trends and patterns at the macro level of the social-ecological system. Similarly, it is important to gain an understanding of which strategies for sustainability are general and transferrable from place to place while maintaining the flexibility to figure out how to “make sustainability work” depending on local cultural, social, and environmental factors.
    Because of this, a holistic effort towards sustainability requires one to see the trees for the forest, the forest for the trees, and the connections between each of them. Ideally, managers of a social ecological system would try to take an integrated micro-macro approach to sustainability drawing from general principles of sustainability and using that understanding to experiment and innovate possible solutions for specific issues that affect their individual communities. A transdisciplinary understanding of what “sustainability” would mean in specific locations is also critical to consider – truly representing and integrating as many community perspectives into innovative “solutions” to sustainability (as discussed in the principles of human centered design) is the only way that local sustainability efforts will be successful in the long term. Rather than the solutions themselves, the process of creating sustainability through social learning and making connections is what is required to connect the micro and macro scales. Rather than “think global, act local,” a more appropriate slogan for this kind of integrated approach would be “think local, act global.”

  3. Benjamin Harris says:

    Sustainability strategies should simultaneously engage high-level science and ground-level eyewitnesses who are caught in extremely vulnerable systems. In some ways, sustainability draws its legitimacy from the macro-scale. Supranational governing bodies, powerful religious and educational institutions, and international icons can all lend credibility to the sustainability cause. For instance, the recent papal encyclical issued a clarion call to the whole world, not just one system. The document invokes the idea of “our common home” to support global goals such as “sustainable and integral development.” Official reports and rallying cries from world leaders are needed to strengthen people’s objective belief in sustainability. Yet a planetary (macro) perspective also creates the notion of a global spiritual crusade, or “a moral obligation,” to save all of humanity. Not only does sustainability gain followers when it receives high-profile endorsements (like Pope Francis), but it also acquires a greater sense of urgency. Comprehensive studies, such as the National Climate Assessment, include laundry lists of vast environmental problems: tropical deforestation, desertification, chronic food shortages, and water scarcity reveal that sustainability problems are largely pandemic. Although mass media has maybe overused the apocalyptic plotline, a macro-scale view of sweeping issues and sensational natural disasters may galvanize people faster than gradual or local ecological degradation—what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence.”

    In addition, aside from its ability to capture the full spectrum of social-ecological problems, the large-scale sustainability lens is advantageous because it promotes whole-system solutions rather than piecemeal ones. Whereas specialized technology is often targeted, with narrow socioeconomic and geographic applications, philosophy and social theory suggest that broad behavior change is needed to better the world. For example, Ehrenfeld’s Flourishing adopts a macro-scale framework (he rarely references specific case studies or small systems), advocating for a paradigm shift in consumption patterns, lifestyle choices, and social values. Because it recognizes sustainability’s transnational implications, a macro-scale outlook can tackle entrenched systems such as capitalism, environmental injustice, and materialism. This sort of sea change probably cannot occur on the micro-scale.

    However, though macro-scale sustainability advances the idea of a global village that collectively overcomes challenges, it tends to homogenize the world. The value of the micro-scale perspective is that it acknowledges heterogeneity, addressing multiple, diverse, local systems. The tipping points of an individual system may be too subtle for the macro-scale eye to discern, but the micro-level approach can recognize the specific vulnerabilities in a system. For instance, the finer detail of the micro-view detects political, economic, and social microclimates. A local observer might predict, with greater accuracy than objective outside science, the influence of a threshold factor: the length of the local growing season, the subsequent crop yield, and the consequences for the local economy. Also, as opposed to the large-scale outlook, the micro-level perspective is close enough to the ground that it can track slow degradation—social and ecological losses that are mostly invisible to a broader worldview.

    Also, the micro-scale lens may ascribe higher value to ecosystem services than the macro-scale perspective. At the local level, human and wildlife communities often hinge on the health of a specific habitat, like a wetland. Grassroots, citizens’ initiatives would recognize this social-ecological link and protect it. Conversely, when it comes to ecosystem services, the macro-scale perspective seems to prioritize global quantity rather than local quality. The EF/BC accounting model differentiates between regional “deficit” and global “overshoot,” which suggests that local habitat loss is “OK” as long as it is compensated for elsewhere. Similarly, “Our Common Future” states that, “a forest may be depleted in one part of a watershed and extended elsewhere, which is not a bad thing.” Forest inhabitants would beg to differ with this opinion. As the Brundtland Commission shows, a major shortcoming of the macro-level perspective is that it overlooks geographic gradients and local diversity. However, the micro-level view is not without its flaws. For one, it can emphasize locality to the point that it neglects regional, national, and global interdependence. As we discussed in “Understanding Place,” the myopic bioregional perspective neglects the distant, marginalized places that sustain insular bioregions. Perhaps consciousness of so-called “shadow places” emerges when someone transcends self and home and sees at the macro-level. What’s more, sustainability at the micro-level may sometimes be as self-serving as it is selfless. “Green” often does not mean sustainable; this label may be more about absolving corporations and groups of their complicity in the problem.

    To reiterate last week’s themes, I think that human-centered design (HCD) is an ideal model to combine the micro and macro scales. For instance, HCD’s emphasis on empathy—interviewing people on the ground and integrating user feedback—means that it will tailor its remedies to match the micro-level situations of specific communities and individuals. The fact that HCD embraces optimism and “creative confidence” makes this methodology charismatic. In other words, HCD’s hopefulness in humanity’s potential to better itself—a macro-level view—enhances HCD’s appeal to a wider audience. It’s similar to how the Pope’s stamp of approval, for certain people, increases the validity of climate change. Finally, through the cyclical, creative process of converging (focusing in) and diverging (zooming out), HCD combines the best of both local and global worlds. Suddenly, sustainability is “glocal.”

  4. Aidan McLaughlin says:

    Macro-scale sustainability thinking, like that of John Ehrenfeld, is absolutely critical if we are to have any hope of achieving sustainability on a global, national, or even regional level. This type of thinking allows for a solid philosophical and critical foundation to be established before the real action starts. We have clearly been lacking this kind of big-picture, large-scale perspective on sustainability, as our global economic and social systems indicate. Until wide-spread thinking on the true roots of UNsustainability and potential avenues to achieve sustainability is done, we will not be able to take any meaningful steps toward sustainability.

    That being said, such broad and general thinking can be a major drawback. Without small-scale steps and solutions on hand to present as economically and socially viable, such broad talk is counterproductive. Dissenters of environmental friendliness (unfortunately a large percentage of our country and world) will take the vague language of Ehrenfield’s as impractical and foolish. That’s why micro-scale planning and focus is so important. With this frame of thinking and acting, it is easier to get things done, even if the overarching philosophy for sustainability isn’t complete.

    It is vital that we find a way to marry these two methods of thinking, however, in order to achieve the distant goal of ‘sustainability’. One potential way of doing this is by somehow establishing a communal understood philosophy and goal to define sustainability, and then from there acting through future-planning and human centered design to chip away at the mountain of environmental and social issues that stand in the way of sustainability. The key to this process of problem solving would be to have a diversity of strategies to account for the complexities of our world, while maintaining the overarching mission of the global sustainability movement.

  5. Ali Surdoval says:

    I often visualize macro thinking as expanding horizontally (components of an issue along the x axis) and micro thinking as expanding vertically (depth of analysis of each component along the y axis), then I imagine maximizing the area that my thinking covers by moving both horizontally and vertically. I imagine that solutions to problems come out of the area covered by my thinking, so I wouldn’t get very far by thinking in only one direction.

    Minimizing the negative consequences while still retaining the benefits from macro and micro level thinking includes finding a delicate balance between the two ways of approaching an issue of sustainability.

    First, we need to look from the macro level with the goal of understanding the problem most holistically. The macro level perspective encourages us to recognize the heart of the issue, be aware of how multiple systems interact, and keep a larger goal or image in mind. A comprehensive understanding of an issue gives the best foundation for designing effective solutions. Getting too caught up in the macro perspective, however, could be detrimental to effectively addressing issues of sustainability. For example, attempting to process too much information could be stifling and overwhelming rather than motivating. Even more, it can also be easy to lose sight of where you can actually affect change. Thus, after developing the comprehensive, broad understanding, it is absolutely necessary to zoom in to a micro level so that change can actually be made.

    The micro perspective allows one think critically and deeply about a system. In order to transform a solution or set of ideas into a practical change, details need to be carefully considered and worked out. It is important, for example, to understand that deforestation occurs for a variety of interrelating social, economical, and political reasons, but attempting to solve all problems of deforestation everywhere in the world at once is much too large of an undertaking for any one solution. Effective and realistic solutions are often tried and changed, which is much more realistic on a micro level. However, there are dangers to micro level thinking as well. Looking in detail at a single system could cause one to ignore the fact that systems all interact and depend on another. With a narrow lens, it could be tempting to find a solution for one vulnerable aspect of one system, which might turn out to be more of a Band-Aid solution than actually addressing the heart of the issue (something that is necessary for truly effective change). Micro level thinking could make it easy to forget about the larger goal that macro level thinking emphasizes.
    Effective solutions (by which I mean ones that consider an issue from many perspectives and are actually implemented) require both creative and critical thinkers in a fine balance of macro and micro perspectives.

  6. Molly O'Neil says:

    Macro-scale perspectives on sustainability, although incredibly broad, can help to create the idea of a global mindset towards sustainability. At the beginning of class three weeks ago, we discussed addressing sustainability on a global scale. For example, through the original work of the Brundtland Commission, sustainable development was coined. Through this report, sustainability came to be known as satisfying the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Although this definition does not specifically describe a means to achieving sustainability, it can be manipulated and localized to apply to specific situations. For example, this definition of sustainability can be applied to agriculture. Farmers can use this definition to use less intense farming practices, such an Integrated Pest Management, to reduce nutrient overload and fossil fuel inputs into the agricultural system. Energy companies can use this definition to increase energy efficiency and reduce, or potentially eliminate, dependence on fossil fuels. Businesses can use this definition to lower their dependence on natural resources.

    This global perspective is beneficial because it can be applied to many different scenarios. We have also seen a relatively global perspective in “Flourishing,” in which John Ehrenfeld encourages a complete paradigm shift away from consumerism in the dominant culture. Although these global ideas sound excellent in theory, they are typically very difficult to carry out in practice. Looking at the world as one complex system leaves a risk for leaving some rocks unturned. Therefore, macro-scale perspectives such as these may run the risk of “reducing unsustainability,” rather than increasing sustainability as a whole. This means that a macro-scale attack would not be enough, in the long run, to ensure a sustainable globe.

    Micro-scale perspectives are much easier to comprehend. They tend to focus on smaller systems with clear boundaries. Within these perspectives, issues can be addressed on a local basis. For example, a small town may be able to develop a sustainable source of irrigation water without depleting the groundwater table. Addressing issues of sustainability on this scale has two substantial benefits. First, it provides local empowerment. If a community is able to solve a problem on a local scale, they will be empowered to share their success with other surrounding communities. One by one, empowerment can spread far and wide until sustainable use of groundwater, to continue the example, is widespread. The other significant benefit of this approach is scalability. Small-scale solutions can also be scaled up to tackle similar problems in a much larger or more influential area. For example, successful groundwater management policies in small towns may be scaled up to help address the massive water issue that California is facing.

    Focusing on micro-scale perspectives, however, makes it easy to get trapped in a local mindset and forget about the emergent issues that are plaguing the entire globe as a whole. For example, it would be much more difficult to address rising carbon dioxide emissions on a local scale than on a global scale, due to the influence of international policy and industry. Therefore, micro-scale perspectives may only be applicable to scenarios that can be scaled down to the local level in the first place.

    Human-Centered Design, when combined with the goals of sustainability, can provide the creativity necessary to combine macro- and micro-scale perspectives. The process involves optimism and iteration, two key ideas that are required in thinking about sustainability. Through Human-Centered Design, ideas can be created that can both scale up and scale down. Therefore, a more global idea could be adapted to address local issues, and vice versa. The best part about Human-Centered design, in my opinion, is that it involves inspiration through trial and error. There are many different ways to address sustainability, but the only way we are going to be able to figure out which one is best is by trying them all out on many different scales and using creativity to our advantage.

  7. Hernán Gallo says:

    Both macro and micro scale perspectives are useful when addressing sustainability. Macro-scale perspectives on sustainability are advantageous for understanding various components and systems that interact with one another because they consider the broader scale. Macro-scale perspectives take into account root issues that restrain us from obtaining a sustainable society for everyone. Although we do gain an overarching view on sustainability through this perspective, we lose individual human perspectives and concerns. By viewing sustainability on a micro-scale, many important voices can be included in the conversation. There are important groups of people that could have a significant contribution toward sustainability that could be left out of the conversation when there is a macro-scale perspective on sustainability. Micro-scale perspectives can greatly improve individual communities. On the other hand, this steers the focus away from other communities in need.

    Approaching issues of sustainability with open minds and critical eyes can help maximize benefits and minimize negative consequences. By being critical and thinking of all possibilities and groups of people that would be affected, we can be proactive with possible problems that could arise from an action toward sustainability. We must look at smaller systems and environments while keeping in mind the grander system they are interconnected to. A possible strategy is to begin at the micro scale and then branch out to the macro level. After assessing the issues on the macro level, the perspective can be brought back to the micro level to improve smaller circles.

  8. Darrell Davis says:

    In discussing the macro and micro scale perspectives of sustainability, I think that it is important to talk about the idea of complexity. In Flourishing, complexity is described as “a system whose parts are so multiply interconnected that it is impossible to predict how it will behave when perturbed.” The idea of complexity is important here because it relates to the idea that there is no such thing as an individual or the individual. The pieces of society are all connected by a web, and they all feed off of each other. The huge “pro” to a micro-scale perspective of sustainability is that we can identify the large issues, it gives us the ability to truly navigate systems in a big-picture perspective. The con to this is that it might make it harder to grasp the small complexities of sustainability.

    The micro-scale perspective does not undermine the idea of complexity delivered by Flourishing. The reason is because the micro-level complexities also connect micro-level dynamics together. The pro or advantage to micro-scale perspectives of sustainability, is that you can map systems in an easier and more integrated way. Local or small scale thinking creates the ability to overcome the contradictions that macro-level decisions might cause. The con is that it is too specific; it creates the possibility for decision makers to get preoccupied with minutia. The key to overcoming this dichotomy is coordination between the two. The micro-level perspective needs to inform the macro-level perspective to create scenario where bottom-up measures and top-down measures work together for a sustainable future.

  9. Timothy Harper says:

    Sustainability is complex goal with complex solutions that will require work and innovation across many scales of space and time. Much in the same way that resilience theorists design institutional arrangements that are effective at multiple scales, our strategy for addressing sustainability must be dynamic enough to address the individual challenges to be found at the micro and macro scales individually.
    At the macro scale, we have the chance to effect change on huge scales, with possibly the greatest “return-on-investment”, however strategies developed at this scale tend to ignore local cultures and the individual experience of those that are feeling the ill-effects of unsustainability. At the global scale any sustainability strategy is subject to the meddling of geopolitics, which has generally been unresponsive to the issues of sustainability in practice. If we restrict our scale to the national level, I believe we have the opportunity to start developing the new environmental ethic and culture that John Ehrenfeld writes about in Flourishing, because of the more homogenized culture found within. The drawback here being that national sustainability movements have largely been corporatized already and the very concept of sustainability has lost its meaning. However at these scales we have the ability to address institutionalized unsustainability, like burning fossil fuels for energy, that are an integral part of a majority of our lives in the United States.
    At the micro scale, organizations and institutions can adapt their strategies to the communities that they are serving. There is opportunity for collaboration in a way that is not possible at larger scales that lends sustainability efforts credence and adaptability and has the ability to change the culture of a small area. One grassroots drive for sustainability will not be enough to make the world sustainable however. At this scale we are unable to address system wide unsustainability, such as in the energy system or transportation system. Small scale efforts are generally able to make these systems less unsustainable but are rarely able to achieve true system wide transformative change.
    A comprehensive strategy for creating sustainability would address both of these scales. Small scale planning at the grassroots level to begin to change the cultures of communities and develop equity and large scale sustainability drives to effect change at the institutional level with constant feedback informing the multiple scales. Every scale and location needs its own strategy, however that strategy needs to be informed and connected to other sustainability efforts if we are to achieve global sustainability.

  10. Caitlin Haedrich says:

    If there’s one thing that clear about the changes that need to occur to deal with climate change, it’s that we must transcend all regional, national and cultural boundaries. Addressing climate change and the welfare of our future generations requires that we all work towards a common goal. Understanding this big picture view of how the world works as a system, how one place influences another and the scale of the human impact on the natural environment will be key. But, the large scale also has it drawbacks. Thinking on a global scale, issues of sustainability are too complex to fully understand. Further, at the global scale, it’s incredibly difficult to make large-scale changes.

    At the regional or micro-scale, addressing sustainability is much easier. Finding ways that Middlebury College or the town of Middlebury can change to become more sustainable is much easier than finding ways that the US could. Likewise, addressing issues at a local scale allows for more creativity and the ability to try many different strategies in different areas. For example, if Middlebury tries one type of Micro-grid system and Harvard tries another than they can be compared and improved. The final and, in my opinion, most significant advantage of working on the small scale is that solutions can be tailored to specific locations and translated to other locations or up in scale. There is no one-size fits all sustainability model. Rather, each community, region and culture will have to find a way to work within their unique environment and honor their own traditions and culture. But what works for one community can be “translated” to others and together and, with all these small-scale changes, eventually the change will reach larger scales and eventually the global scale.

    If it’s not clear, I think working at the local scale is the best way to approach sustainability. It is tangible, more measurable, easier to understand and easier to implement. But, I think that, because of the global nature of the environmental crisis we find ourselves in, we need to keep “translatability” in mind. We need to envision how solutions, methods or changes we come up with locally can be moved to other areas or broadened to larger regions.

  11. Sage Taber says:

    Both macro and micro-scale perspectives involve analyzing systems (local to global) and where in the system, sustainability can be achieved. With a micro-scale perspective, there is a deeper level of analysis of regions and specific communities. Consequently, sustainability strategies can be designed to suit the community’s needs as a result of looking at the local system as a smaller scale human-ecological system. Additionally, micro-scale efforts can emphasize individual social responsibility towards their local environment (e.g awareness of household energy and water use, support for farmer’s markets and local businesses, etc.) In many ways emphasis on the individual can be empowering and result in increased self-sufficiency and understanding of local issues. However, micro-scale thinking can also become a limited scope at which to view the world. If people are too focused on local (seemingly more isolated) issues of sustainability, then this can lead to disconnect from larger, more global issues. A macro-scale perspective on sustainability allows for analysis of global environments, often with respect to long-term consequences of climate change. Macro-scale solutions to sustainability often result in systemic change through policy (eg. Clean Air Act of 1973) and other avenues of governance. However, such regulations often offer too wide-ranging of recommendations that underemphasize individual impact.

    Ultimately, I think that a combination of both perspectives is necessary to address issues of sustainability. Micro-scale solutions can be translated to other regions and encourage people to have a part in sustainability initiatives. As a result, macro-scale change can serve as a response to micro-scale analyses of sustainability. A combination of the perspectives would be a form of holistic thinking, and in many ways that is what we are encouraged to do at SoE. A term I’ve recently become familiar with is glocal, to achieve sustainability we must consider both the local and global contexts of place.

  12. Hannah Root says:

    Often, macro-scale is a good place to start when approaching an issue. Before focusing in on the intricacies of a system, it is important to understand larger goals, themes, and connections. Macro-scale is not something to be ignored just because those issues may seem too big, bulky or hard to grasp. Working in macro-scale is about wrestling with things that might not be easily quantifiable but are essential to the whole picture. The micro-scale perspective is just as important to the whole picture. It allows people to focus in on something and become an expert. I think that micro-scale is how I naturally think, focusing on my immediate surroundings and concerns. These intricate understandings are essential, but they’re only useful when tied together with the macro scale. A shortcoming of the micro-scale perspective is that, in isolation, it can lose its relevance.

    The combination of the micro and macro in environmental studies makes it a revolutionary way of looking at the world. Traditional sciences are partitioned into different disciplines, with little to no collaboration among them. Environmental studies teaches us that it is always better to add the macro-perspective to micro-perspectives. Of course, we couldn’t have the macro without the micro. We need experts in different fields to teach us, but then each of the experts need a larger picture view of how their work fits into everything else. I think that one way to move away from the partitioned nature of science is to focus on interdisciplinary work all the way through school, starting in elementary school. There shouldn’t be a divide between different subjects, rather a fluidity of understanding how they are all connected.

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