HomeIonE EducatorResilience in times of change: David Syring, IonE Educator

Resilience in times of change: David Syring, IonE Educator

Meet David Syring, a member of the 2018 cohort of IonE Educators. An associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, Sociology, and Criminology at the University of Minnesota Duluth, Syring’s interests include human-environment relationships, humanistic approaches to resilient food systems, globalization and craftwork, and sustainability as both a theoretical framework and a practical approach to addressing contemporary issues of social inequality.

For his Educator project, Syring will be creating a course about “the roles of the arts in maintaining cultures built around sustainability as a fundamental feature of worldviews leading to resilience in times of change.” He plans on designing it as an in-person and online course, as well as a College in the Schools offering, in order to reach more students. Below, Syring shares his thoughts about his goals as an IonE Educator.

The course you’re designing cuts across the arts, sustainability, and culture, as well as this concept of resilience in times of change. Why is this work – and making these connections – important?

David Syring, UMD Associate Professor and IonE Educator

Awareness of the sustainability challenges we face as local, regional and global cultures is not in short supply. News of climate-fueled super storms, wildfire disasters, environmental pollution, threats to freshwater sources from mining — these are the headlines we face, and among the important topics environmental sciences study.

A key question arises: Why are industrial nations struggling and not apparently succeeding to create new ways of living to meet these grand challenges?

Anthropology offers many examples of cultures that have succeeded and others that have failed to adapt to environmental challenges. Lessons from these cultures — many of which still exist and are resurgent in the contemporary moment — offer important lessons for today’s challenges. One profound insight of such cultures has been that artistic expression — storytelling and other verbal arts, music, visual arts, dance and more — is essential for creating supple and strong sustainable responses to changing conditions.

What drives you to integrate sustainability into your work?

Put simply, our ways of seeing the world, our worldviews, matterAs an anthropologist, my area of focus is to understand culture. I’ve had the privilege to work with indigenous peoples in the United States and in Ecuador. I’ve seen that different cultural answers to how we can and should live as humans result in very different outcomes for humans, water, plants, animals, the air, and the earth.

Sustainability underpins so many cultures that have had long term resilience. I’d like to see our current troubled global system changed so that all humans have the opportunity to live a good life on a finite planet.

A mural in the main square of Saraguro, Ecuador, where Syring does collaborative fieldwork with indigenous Saraguro community members. The text on the wall reads: “Only united will we make real the dream of everyone.”

What do you wish more people understood about sustainability education?

Sustainability education often gets framed mainly as an environmental issue, with economic dimensions also considered. While these are necessary areas of focus, sustainability education has not always delivered on the promise of a holistic approach that considers cultural needs and social realities as well as environmental and economic issues.

Without social justice, economic justice, and environmental justice for everyone, we will not resolve the sustainability dilemmas that we face.

What does being a part of the IonE community mean to you?

Being connected to a broad range of scholars engaged in interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research, teaching and community engaged work. This is part of an important re-thinking of the role of academics in our society that is already underway. My small contributions to sustainability are made more effective by the community context IonE creates.


Grace Becker is the communications assistant at the Institute on the Environment and an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, where she studies strategic communication, sustainability, and Spanish.

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