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Constructing Perceptions: Georgia State University and Sustainability in the Student Imagination

Logan A. Kirkland

Methods in Sociocultural Anthropology

Georgia State University

May 7, 2010

To quote a man by the name of Mark Twain--―You can‘t depend

on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.‖ The human

imagination is intimately responsible for the construction of

our reality—it is a forge, fueled by perceptions—smelting the

iron of externality and turning it into the world that we

experience; the reality as we see it. There is an ethereal space

between these two points—the presentation of something, the way

that process is represented; and then there is the experience of

that presentation—the way that it is perceived. Between these

points something discrete happens—there is a conflict. In the

research that follows, one conflict is such explored. Georgia

State University as an institutional entity and the processes of

sustainability that it publicly displays and rhetorically

presents constitutes one side. The other, in this particular

exploration, will be a specific subset of undergraduates—those

that live within the University Commons.

How these students perceive and imagine the University‘s

sustainability is, of course, a reflection of how the University

presents these ideas of sustainability to these students. In


this research, I used this concept to inspect notions of the

University‘s sustainability—to understand the ‗sustainability-

scape‘ of Georgia State, we can explore how groups of people

think of, see, and use any aspects of these supposed sustainable

programs or developments. In contrast to this we then look at

how the University rhetorically positions itself in relation to

these ideas and processes—together, this helps us see and

understand what is actually happening on the ground concerning

Georgia State‘s sustainable development and sustainability


To begin, we must lay a certain foundational framework—this

will allow us to better understand some of these ideas. First, a

question that will be asked repeatedly—one that is integral to

this entire venture. To quote a few of the informants:

―What exactly is sustainability?‖

―Could I get a definition of sustainability?‖
―What specifically do you mean by sustainability?‖
That seems like a rather critical place to start—what does

sustainability mean? For many, it is one of those somewhat

insubstantial terms—something one sort of understands to be

involved with recycling and car pooling, turning the lights off,

that sort of thing. ‗Being Green‘; maybe eating organic food.

Perhaps even vegetarianism or veganism—ideas of that nature.


These are rather narrow ways to construe sustainable

practice, though, and are only small facets of a much greater

concept. Let us look at a couple of more academic definitions

for sustainability:

―…meeting the needs of the present without compromising the

ability of future generations to meet their own needs.‖
(Oregon State University Department of Biotechnology 2009)
―Sustainability means that present and future persons have
the same right to find, on the average, equal opportunities
for realizing their concepts of a good human life.‖ (Ott
and Thapa 2003, 60)
This angle is simple—sustainability is a process that attempts

to reconstruct the current system to be, ultimately, more energy

efficient. This system would be able to survive with minimal

impact so that it could sustain (and hopefully flourish) without

harming the ability of future generations to sustain (and

hopefully flourish). This is the ultimate basis for

Sustainability‘s philosophy—to sustain now in order to sustain


There are numerous critical parts involved in this

philosophy, however. One model for sustainability involves an

embedded system of three parts, each which relies on the

foundation and interconnections between the others—the realm of

economics is encapsulated in the realm of society, which is

encapsulated inside of the realm of the environmental (Hak 2007,


155). Each is interconnected in both what it supports and what

it is supported by—a sociocultural system.

Environment is the most atmospheric part of Hak‘s

conceptualization—it lies as the outside of the ‗sustainability

orb‘. The environment is the basis of our resources—the most

important of which is arguably space. To invoke the wisdom of

Mark Twain once again: "Buy land, they're not making it

anymore". Without space, we cannot manufacture place—we need

room to create a room, so to speak. This is an aspect of

sustainability that resonates quite clearly with Georgia State—

we‘re the quintessential ‗Urban Research University‘, after all.

We‘re right in the middle of downtown Atlanta, and downtown

Atlanta isn‘t going anywhere—so we have to make do with what

room we have. We can‘t just build new buildings—to do so would

require us to either get rid of our own, or buy someone else‘s.

We do these things, of course—but it is critically different

from the way a classic ‗grassy meadow‘ sort of University might

evaluate and use space. We must be more calculating in our

methods, because the commodity of space is a whole lot more

valuable when there is so little of it—which is entirely the

case in the middle of a metropolis.

Indeed, these same spaces also produces natural resources.

The environment is completely responsible for the existence of


these things; originally, anyway—mankind‘s husbandry (or

interference, others might say) certainly can modify and

manipulate these concepts. This still requires the environmental

space in the first place, though. Regardless, the environment is

a chief concern of sustainable philosophy—there is an

indubitable focus on the preservation of the natural world

(space) and the processes (and thus resources) that involve it.

Society is the next ring in this model of sustainability.

Society requires the environment, at least initially, to exist;


1) Human society in a product of culture.

2) Human culture is a product of biology.
3) Human biology is a product of nature.
4) Thus, human society is a product of nature.

We‘re a product of the natural world, as is our society. Through

society, we produce and construct the world around us, changing

the environment to suit our needs. Society is thus inexplicably

connected to sustainability—these changes, these developments—

they have to be ones that are sustainable. A sustainable social

structure aims for ideas of social justice, security and

equality. It aims for peace and egalitarianism. These are social

mechanisms that contribute to THE manufacture of sustainability—

as well as some of the goals of sustainable society. The goals


and the methods of sustainability are thoroughly intertwined,


The Economy is the final component in sustainable apparatus

according to Thomas Hak. What is ‗The Economy‘? This isn‘t so

easy to answer—society often gives a great exaltation to the

idea of ‗The Economy‘. Let us define, for these purposes, an

Economy as the following: a system of social processes involving

the management and distribution of resources; the consumption

and production of goods; and the ultimate perpetuation of said

processes. Let us further highlight that Economy is the core of

the system defined by Hak—it lies embedded within both Society

and the Environment. Without either, it could not exist—the

environment produces the basic resources needed to create an

economic system, and society must construct, maintain, and

perpetuate said system.

Ideas of economy are a core part of how these students

orient themselves in relation to the institution of Georgia

State and the processes of sustainability that is manufactures.

The first place that many students jump when asked about the

University‘s sustainability is economic in origin—they express


disillusionment with the University‘s efforts and a cynicism

aimed at its economic practices; many imagine that the only

reason Georgia State engages in any sustainable practice at all

is for the sake of either:

1) Saving Money.
2) Presenting a positive public image.

The second, of course, perpetuates the first. One student

expressed it quite solidly:

―Well, it looks good, you know. It looks good. So, you

know, so student and parents can see it, important people
can see it. This is why they only take prospective students
to the nicest areas, and use new buses to move them around…
they perpetuate this image for PR reasons… it brings them
more students, which means more money… it is good for
business, and the image of being ‗green-friendly‘ just adds
to that.‖
This cynicism was echoed across almost everyone I interviewed.

The Georgia State Commons provided an excellent opportunity

to better understand these sustainability concepts in tandem

with Georgia State. They are an enormous complex, located on 141

Piedmont Ave NE—4.2-acres in size, with two 15 story towers and

two 9 story ones, they house around 2000 students. They offer

single, two bedroom and four bedroom plans to students (Georgia

State University: Housing n.d.).

These students, therefore, have a unique perspective on

Georgia State‘s sustainability because they actually live on


campus—something that isn‘t absolute at a University with such a

strong commuter history. They actually have to tackle, daily,

questions of sustainability—recycling, security, air quality,

transportation—all of these things are normal components of

their lives. This lead to a plethora of rich dialogue

concerning ideas of Georgia State‘s sustainability (once most of

them had definitions of exactly sustainability was).

There are numerous features in the Commons that are worth

noting. They use low flow showerheads, low-energy light bulbs,

and that sort of thing. On the other hand, they also give

residents free use of unlimited utilities—which means waste is

normal. When one doesn‘t have to pay for an hour long shower or

to have the air conditioner on 50, one isn‘t so concerned with

ideas of waste, either. Many students report this sort of waste—

it is the norm. However, the Commons has offered incentives to

curb this kind of behavior—in February and March, for example,

they rewarded the building that used the least amount of power

with parties.

Otherwise noteworthy is the location of a recycling depot

on the third floor of the parking deck—it is here that people

may drop off their recycling. Many complained of how out of the

way and inconvenient this is—to quote one: ―They make you go

outta your way to recycle so nobody does it‖. Another

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highlighted the fact that some people don‘t even know this

obscure drop-off point exists: ―Recycling is a huge no—I‘ve

never thrown out so many bottles in my life. There isn‘t much‖.

In addition to this recycling depot is the ‗Earth Floor‘

lifestyle community, located in building C on the 4th floor. One

interviewee put it concisely:

―Well, I‘m on the Green Floor and was last year too. Last
year we didn‘t do shit… and from my experience living on
the green floor both years and seeing other lifestyle
floors… living on lifestyle floors is…bullshit.”
Disillusionment abounds. Students felt like the University
was focused on making money and didn‘t care much for actual
people. Another highlight of this:

―They seem to be trying to sustain the business of Georgia

State rather than the quality of the school‖.
Perhaps more amusingly:

―As far as sustaining the university, they‘re doing a great

job. One time I lost my room key and they wanted 50 dollars
for it, when it was a dollar seventy-five at Home Depot. It
is all about business‖.
In the process of this research, I used a variety of

methods. Once the subject of the research became the Common‘s

and those who dwelt within, I began approaching people to work

out interviews with. I ended up with three main informants:

1) First interview was awkward and clunky, ended too early.

However, this also helped shape my later questions as I
got a better idea of what I should be asking from my
2) Second was very dedicated to the University and presented
ideals that none of the others interviewed did—he was
very loyal and didn‘t want to incriminate or slander the
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University in any way. He admitted, however, that

sustainability at GSU is mainly a business process.
3) Third was very talkative and helpful. Member of the Green
Lifestyle Floor and more knowledgeable about the idea and
processes of sustainability.
In the first two, I also experimented in allowing the target to

choose a pseudonym—this seemed to help with some of the natural

flow of conversation and they also seemed to enjoy the fun

little exercise of making up a false identity. In addition, I

also did a handful of short interviews—just pulling people to

the side and asking them questions about their conceptualization

and orientation in regard to sustainability at Georgia State. I

got several responses that were valuable—a few that have been

previously unstated follow:

―It seems to come from ‗higher up‘ and lose momentum.‖

―I know it is bullshit and nobody cares. They‘ll probably
start charging for going over an energy limit or
―I think they do it to save money.‖
This continues to reflect the cynicism and disillusionment that

students find with the University and its projections of

sustainability—based in greed, not progress, they say.

Splintered by bureaucracy—indeed, a strong theme of ‗nothing

ever gets done around here‘ was certainly part of many

narratives. There is a feeling that the University makes excuses

involving these things:

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―I think they could… but they use the environment of down

town as an excuse not to do stuff… I think GSU… people got
to realize we the heart of down town, so know what I mean?‖
Students even highlight what a critically influential system of

development and progress a University is—but feel that Georgia

State doesn‘t put forth the needed effort to continue change in

Atlanta and downtown. Student groups seem, for the most part,

equally disenfranchised. There does exist a group focused on

sustainability—The Sustainable Energy Tribe—but nobody had even

heard of them with the exception of a single informant—and even

then the informant had no experience with them doing anything.

There is one student group, though, that might be making

progress—according to one informant:

―Anyway, Georgia State… they are trying to make Biking

cooler... but I‘d say that is more the Bike Club than GSU…
they have a great website, and there is another website
that allows you to map bike paths… there is a triangle
thing and you drag it, and it can be rated by
difficulty…and distance, shape, um, traffic density, stuff…
it is really cool. And you can balance out and do shortest
route, map out the route, tell you the distance, the time
at your average speed, all this stuff—and it is really
cool. And they put up that new bike rack outside the
student center, which is an effort through Georgia State
The beginning of more successful sustainable development at

Georgia State? Only time will tell. But it certainly does hold

promise, as Bikes are quite energy efficient and low on the

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In conclusion, let me express again: the student

imagination at the Georgia State Commons appears to be cynical

in nature; they are disillusioned with the perceived ‗corporate‘

nature of the University. It is commonly felt that the

institution is focusing on money—and that any sustainable

processes on campus are simply for financial or public relations

purposes. With this said, there does seem to be awareness to the

need for more sustainability at Georgia State—students know,

even if they don‘t know exactly what sustainability is in the

textbook sense. They see the dichotomy between the image of

sustainability and the image of the University as a whole that

is presented to the more public eye (and to the perspective

enrollees) versus what the University actually does every day.

They certainly want more sustainable options, though--my third

interviewee lamented the lack of glass recycling for example,

while many said they‘d recycle if it wasn‘t so insanely out of

the way. Little things like this could be the beginning of a

more sustainable Georgia State—all a matter of small steps.

Will any of it happen, though? Only time will tell. It is

undeniably a difficult process, but it offers many fantastic

opportunities. Indeed, has not the University always been the

fount of knowledge, of science and philosophy—of enlightenment?

The role of these ideals are to serve humanity—the University is

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theoretically supposed to be an engine of advancement (Ferrer-

Balas 2010). Regardless of the University as a whole, every

little step matters on any level—-we must remember that the

grassroots level is often where change begins—especially

concerning sustainability (Waasa, Verbruggenb and Wrightc 2010).

Ultimately, every time someone who is a part of the University

moves towards sustainability, does it not move forward the whole

in a small way? It is simply a matter of time and effort—a

little bit at a time. Sustainability is, perhaps, a journey

moreso than a destination—it is a continuous process, dynamic in

nature—a movement towards becoming more sustainable; whatever

‗more sustainable‘ means in context. All one step at a time.

―The secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret

of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming
tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the
first one.‖
– Mark Twain
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Works Cited

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Georgia State University: Housing. Georgia State Commons. (accessed 2010).

Hak, Thomas. "Frameworks for Policy Integration Indicators." In Sustainability Indicators: A Scientific
Assessment, by Thomas Hak, Bedřich Moldan and Arthur L. Dahl. Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2007.

Oregon State University Department of Biotechnology. Biotechnology Terms. 2009. (accessed May 07, 2010).

Ott, Konrad, and Philipp Pratap Thapa. "The Case for Strong Sustainability." In Greifswald's
Environmental Ethics, 59-64. Steinbecker, 2003.

Twain, Mark.

Waasa, T, A. Verbruggenb, and T. Wrightc. "University Research for Sustainable Development: Definition
and Characteristics Explored." Journal of Cleaner Production, 2010: 629-636.