Sustainability in Higher Education: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going

In celebration of Earth Day, and in the spirit of giving more than just one day to the consideration of our planet and our impact on it, this is the first in a series of articles which I’ll post this week and into next related to sustainability in higher education.

In September 1962 Rachel Carson published her groundbreaking work, Silent Spring, documenting the negative impact of pesticides on the environment, specifically on birds. The book received nationwide acclaim and landed on the New York Times best-seller list where it stayed for 31 weeks. In 1962, the New York Times wrote of Carson and Silent Spring, “’She tries to scare the living daylights out of us and, in large measure, succeeds.’” The editors of Discover Magazine recently included Silent Spring among its list of the 25 greatest science books of all time. Prior to Carson’s book, environmentalism and sustainability were lofty ideals that had very little concrete application and brought even less sense of collective urgency. As a result of Carson’s book, however, tangible actions were taken (the banning of the harmful pesticide DDT). Carson proved to us all that even the voice of one individual can make a difference and with her voice, given to us through her work, Silent Spring, the modern environmental movement was born.

Through various fits and starts, the American environmental movement has continued to gain momentum. The passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in 1970 was a promising step in the right direction and represented the world’s first national policy on the environment. The NEPA met with resistance in the United States, however, but sparked a larger movement and environmentalism as a discipline and practice began to spread across the globe. National efforts to address environmental problems including climate change became more commonplace and the United Nations established its Environment Programme in 1972 as a result of the UN Conference on the Human Environment. In recent years, despite international criticism regarding the United States’ stance on several international environmental treaties (most notably the Kyoto Protocol) Americans are beginning to see sustainability featured more prominently in their daily lives. Addressing what is arguably the world’s most pressing collective issue will take more than a conscious recycling effort. We must realize that negative changes to the environment impact every aspect of our lives and must be addressed in a holistic and comprehensive fashion. One sector of American life is taking sustainability very seriously – American higher education is leading the march toward promoting sustainability.

As colleges and universities began to consider the impact of their own operations on the environment, they also began to disseminate information about sustainability to their students, either formally or informally. In 2006, as a result of planning sessions among a group of college and university presidents and a representatives from a variety of environmental organizations (including Second Nature and ecoAmerica) held at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference at Arizona State University, 12 devoted college and university presidents outlined what would later become known as the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). By March 2007, 152 college and university presidents (I was one of them) signed the precedent-setting commitment aimed at providing a framework for addressing sustainability in higher education. Today, nearly 700 institutions of higher education have signed the commitment. Each of them has committed to reducing their environmental impact and working toward eventually achieving complete carbon neutrality by a date of their individual choosing based on their specific circumstances (based on our location in West Virginia and the limited fuel mix available to us at this point, APUS has chosen 2050). While the goal is ambitious, I am convinced that if there is any collective group capable of addressing such a pressing issue, it is higher education.

Colleges and universities have served as the nursery for nurturing social movements in America for decades. As with the civil rights movement and the women’s rights movement, the growing movement to address our collective issue of global environmental change is being fostered on college and university campuses across the country. It makes sense that these settings would nurture such movements – college campuses are packed with great minds eager to learn and understand, eager to make a difference in the world. Though the ACUPCC provides a logical and effective framework for implementing sustainability into operations and curricula, many schools who have not signed that specific commitment are taking the issue of environmental change very seriously, as well.

As students graduate from colleges and universities that recognize the critical nature of and are working to address the issues of global changes in the environment, they will enter the workplace more prepared than any previous generation to tackle these issues on an even grander scale. As with other social movements whose sparks were ignited on college campuses and eventually spilled into our larger society, so too will be the path of the sustainability movement. Colleges and universities are realizing that it is no longer enough to discuss lofty ideals in a theoretical setting. We all must take collective action to address the world’s most pressing problems. I applaud those schools that are working to address the issues related to environmental change and feel confident that this is just the first wave of a movement that will continue to grow.

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