Higher Education & Sustainability

Universities can have no greater mission than this – Earth Day and every day


April 22, 2008

As we approach Earth Day 2008, sustainability has become the buzzword of the day.

A Google search on “sustainability” brings up more than 21 million hits – still shy of “American Idol” but more than double the hit count of “war in Iraq.”

In higher education, too, sustainability has become an influential intellectual and competitive theme. Evidence of this development has been growing for nearly two decades, and in the last five years has accelerated. However, in what has become a headlong rush of campuses claiming to “be green,” the meaning of sustainability and its implications for higher education have become blurred, and the degree of commitment and essential intellectual and financial investment required to move toward sustainability is not always clear.

Much of the discussion around sustainability on campuses is focused on carbon and energy, important issues to be sure.

Yet by its very nature, sustainability is not about single issues, not even climate change. Sustainability calls us to see things whole by focusing on the interactions that do not conform to our fragmented organizational and societal structures and the ways of seeing and doing that they engender. Universities are discovering that when it comes to sustainability most of the familiar rules no longer apply: this is the case not only for organizational boundaries, but for moral, ethical and intellectual boundaries as well. Sustainability is not about business as usual; it should not be confused with incremental technical approaches to managing the status quo more efficiently nor with the greening of consumerism. It is a question of culture, of our sense of meaning and purpose as Americans and as human beings. As citizens of the Earth system and citizens of the world, we have inherited a culture that is ours to interpret and bequeath to future generations. Sustainability requires us to critically examine our cultural choices in light of the myriad interactions of art, science, politics and economics, not simply to study them in isolation.

While blurring disciplinary boundaries and reaching beyond intellectual and organizational silos can be an exhilarating and inspiring step that sparks the creative imagination of students that are hungry to make the world a better place, it can also violate deeply held norms of specialization while upsetting financial and promotion systems that have become predictable and familiar; indeed these systems have become so familiar that they are often confused with the unique role of the academy itself. Higher education in the United States is built upon a belief in the fundamental importance of a liberal education; a belief inherited from ancient Athens that democracy requires educated citizens who must think and reason for themselves rather than parroting the conclusions of others. This is a vital part of what we need to sustain.

Higher education is uniquely positioned to address the challenges of sustainability, to continually question “What is the good life?” and “How do we organize ourselves to sustain a good life now and for generations to come, for everyone?” Universities are, at their core, learning communities that have the privilege and the obligation to educate not future consumers and not even just future professionals, but future citizen-leaders – and the distinction lies at the heart of sustainability. As such, universities can and should become sustainable learning communities.

Here at UNH, we describe our sustainable learning community as one in which everyone is an educator, everything is curriculum and everyone is a learner. Sustainability embraces climate and energy, ecology, food systems and culture across what we call the CORE: curriculum, operations, research and engagement. What and how we teach and research; how we govern our communities with respect to decisions regarding energy, land use, transportation, food, art and politics; and how we respond to the challenges of the larger communities in which we are embedded are all questions of sustainability.

A holistic sustainable learning community lets us connect people and problems in ways that lead to sustainable solutions – solutions grounded in culture and place. A critical perspective on the interactions of culture and nature can empower our future leaders to advance sustainability in their civic, professional, and personal lives; to live as citizens of the cosmos.

Universities can have no greater mission than this – Earth Day and every day.