Steven Marx



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The curious single continuous surface named after Moebius has only one side and one edge… . When following the path of its surface, one can reach any other  point without ever crossing an edge.[1]

This is the fourth issue of Moebius, the journal of the The College of Liberal Arts at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo. Its declared mission explains the journal’s name:  “While the vast majority of students major in applied fields, the College of Liberal Arts has the responsibility to broadly educate our undergraduates. The challenge … is to clarify to the wider community the reasons why a liberal arts background is an important, indeed, vital aspect of every individual’s education.”[2]  Moebius is dedicated to making the University a universe, where “one can reach any other point without ever crossing an edge.”

During the past two and a half years of the journal’s existence, people in many departments of the University have been reflecting, communicating and acting upon a single idea that overlaps their divergent points of view: Sustainability.  This movement came to a head on Earth Day 2004, when President Warren Baker announced that Cal Poly had become a signatory to the Talloires Declaration, “a statement by university leaders around the world in support of ‘environmental citizenship’.’’  “By… associating the University formally with the Declaration’s Sustainability principles,” said President Baker, “we wish to communicate Cal Poly’s commitment to play a strong and positive role in applying Sustainability principles locally, in our education, research and in the further development of our campus.”

As is evident in the essays collected here, definitions of Sustainability vary widely. Alan Razee grounds the term in the biological idea of carrying capacity: “Sustainability means the amount of something used by people cannot exceed the amount created by the ecosystem.” For Tom Jones, the term signifies actions judged by outcomes at the “Triple Bottom Line: “sound economy, healthy environment, and social equity.” For Keith Abney, Sustainability signifies an obligation to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.  The question of what specific practises merit the adjective “sustainable” is even more vexed. For example, Clare Johnson claims that Styrofoam cups and plates in campus food facilities are less sustainable than paper ones, while Mary LaPorte says that Styrofoam as a building material is more sustainable than wood.  Nevertheless, as Razee maintains, “A vaguely used word like Sustainability still has meaning, but we must discuss and debate that meaning and what that meaning ought to be…Debate, in turn, is opportunity for the liberal arts because no realm is as well equipped to handle vagueness, no realm finds people more eager to wade into ambiguity, than the liberal arts.” Liberal arts interrogates meanings and facilitates conversation among them.

Many Cal Poly students, faculty, staff and administrators have embraced the idea of Sustainability because it’s so appropriate to our emphasis on  applied knowledge—whether in architecture, engineering, agriculture, business or education.  But mention the word to most people on campus and you draw a blank. As Tylor Middlestadt, Associated Students Vice President observes, “unfortunately, it’s just not a ‘cool’ thing to be informed about.  I heard a statistic the other day that the average adolescent between the ages of eight and twelve has over 1,200 corporate logos memorized.  But do you think they know the name of the mountain range in the distance or the name of the tree in their front yard?”  It’s therefore also the job of those in the liberal arts—poets, journalists, political scientists, graphic designers, philosophers—to spread the word.


The essays and interviews which follow, most of them produced specifically for this issue of Moebius, display the range of perspectives, the depth of expertise and the intensity of passion of people dedicated to making Sustainability central to Cal Poly’s institutional identity. To place these writings in a global historical context, we begin with the text of the Talloires Declaration, followed by President Baker’s speech upon signing it at the Convocation entitled: “Education for Sustainability: Engaging the Polytechnic University.”


This is followed by “Prospects for the Sustainability Movement,” by R. Thomas Jones, Dean of the College of Architecture and Design and former executive director  of the California Futures Network.  Incorporating a rich theoretical discussion of the interplay among the three elements of Sustainability, Dean Jones describes from his own experience how support for this converging agenda can be enlisted from traditional adversaries at state, regional, insititutional and classroom levels. 

Along with several other authors in this collection, Jones quotes extensively from the writings of David Orr, director of the Adam Joseph Lewis Environmental Center at Oberlin College.  Dr. Orr delivered the keynote address at Cal Poly’s Earth Day Convocation and has authorized us to reprint his poetic meditation, “Reflections on Oil and Water,” a work no less timely today than when it was first written a decade ago. 


Engineering Sustainable Futures” by Deanna J. Richards, former director of  the National Academy of Engineering’s Program on Technology and Sustainable Development, and Special Assistant to Dean Peter Lee in the College of Engineering, takes a historical look at new technologies as sources of  environmental problems as well as their solutions.  She describes initiatives underway in the College of Engineering to promote Sustainability in education and research.


In “Sustainable Agriculture,” Animal Science Professor Rob Rutherford situates the creation of food and fiber for human consumption within natural cycles of energy, water, nutrients and biosystem interaction. He concludes that soil generation and conservation need to be valued as highly as the production of commodities.


Don Carli, Lecturer in Advertising, Design and Graphic Arts at New York City College of Technology and  Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Communication writes on the adoption of Sustainability principles by multinational corporations in the Graphic Communication industry as well as in the production of print materials at Cal Poly, in "The Future of Print and the Challenges of Sustainability."


The ethical foundations of Sustainability are examined by Keith Abney, Cal Poly Lecturer in Philosophy, in his essay, “Sustainability, Morality and Future Rights.” He  critiques the assumptions that a sense of obligation to future humans arises either out of any notion of rights or out of utilitarian considerations.  Instead he argues that Sustainability is grounded in “self-authenticating” preferences of “fully informed truth-seeking people.”


Alan Razee, former Lecturer in Speech Communication, explores alternate meanings of “Sustainability” in “On Changing the Poly in Polytechnic.”  He asserts that the elasticity of the term allows for “strategic definition,” which can strengthen efforts to bring about reform of institutions, in particular Cal Poly.


In “Cal Polystyrene,” undergraduate Claire Johnson makes the case that to promote sustainability, Cal Poly students should follow the lead of Long Beach State students and organize to pressure the University to ban the use of unrecyclable Styrofoam.

These articles are followed by interviews.  Mary Kay Harrington discusses his book, Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil with author Dr. David Goodstein.  Christie Thompson discusses the student sustainability movement with Tylor Middlestadt, Associated Students vice-president.  Lauren Shute discusses the Cal Poly Dairy Methane reclamation project with its inventor, Agricultural Engineering Professor Douglas Williams.  Jan Zahn talks with Art and Design Professor Mary LaPorte about making her own house a green building.

A popular slogan of the Sustainability movement has been “Close the Loop.” This introduction concludes with a continuation of its opening quote about the Moebius:

Symbolically, its two-dimensional projection forming the figure eight represents  infinity and cycles… the virtual path of the sun projected to the surface of the Earth. …Representing temporality, the cyclical  nature of processes and eternity, it is no wonder that the twisted ring is an archetype, a symbol of infinity, present both in alchemistic iconography as the serpent biting its tail…and in contemporary consumer society as an icon of recycling.[3]


That symbolic Moebius is printed on the material one in your hands with biodegradable ink on post-consumer waste paper.



[1] Vesna Petresin and Laurent-Paul Robert, “The Double Möbius Strip Studies,” Nexus Network Journal: Architecture and Mathematics Online, Vol. 4 No.4 (Autumn 2002)<>


[3] Vesna Petresin and Laurent-Paul Robert, “The Double Möbius Strip Studies,” Nexus Network Journal: Architecture and Mathematics Online, Vol. 4 No.4 (Autumn 2002)<>