Sustainability News: December 2010

Ashley Thorne

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“If the early 21st century could be said to have a secular religion, it would be the mantra of sustainability,” writes Warren Meyer on Indeed, NAS has often observed that “sustainability” offers its own versions of sin, morality, absolution, and salvation. In this religion, American colleges and universities are fanatics.

As sustainability sweeps higher education, we want our readers to know what it’s all about. That’s why every month we bring some of the top 10-20 news stories involving sustainability and higher ed, so you can stay up-to-date on this rising academic obsession.

This month’s issue includes the following:

  • Sustainability as a substitute for the liberal arts
  • Sustainability as a filter for all disciplines
  • A building for a state sustainability center that will cost taxpayers $65 million
  • Student “eco-reps” at Princeton seeking to change their peers’ habits
  • Faculty members questioned about whether their courses are “sustainability-focused”
  • A call to colleges to achieve more non-environmental aims of sustainability
  • The EPA’s new sustainability mission  

1.     Should Sustainability be the "Common Course" for Today's Education System?, JustMeans
Is sustainability a substitute for the liberal arts? When did education (or, more specifically, the liberal arts) become about the totalizing presentation of one unified ideology? A look at the 2006 Chronicle of Higher Education article “Sustainability: The Ultimate Liberal Art

2.     UN Recommendations for Sustainable Development Education, JustMeans
If all college courses must incorporate sustainability education, it may mean reinterpreting all disciplines through a "green" lens. 

3.     Green Giant, Willamette Week
How much is sustainability worth? Try $65 million in public money. A new “living building” to house a state sustainability center will “require $65 million in public funds, mostly from the Oregon University System and City of Portland.”

4.      Sustainability—I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means, Forbes
“If the early 21st century could be said to have a secular religion, it would be the mantra of sustainability.”

5.     A Glimpse of Culture Change at Princeton, NAS
Princeton's sustainability open house confirmed that this movement is "about changing habits."

6.     The Sustainability Inquisition, NAS
Colleges and universities are now assessing faculty members' work in and commitment to sustainability.

7.     True Sustainability Means Going Beyond Campus Boundaries, Chronicle of Higher Education
Colleges and universities need to move beyond green technologies and embrace sustainability’s political, economic, and social aims on a more global scale, says the director of the environmental-studies program at Lewis & Clark College.

8.     EPA Shifting Its Emphasis to “Sustainability”, Cybercast News Service
The EPA will broaden its mission beyond fighting pollution to connecting the dots between “energy use, water use, environmental protection, human health, quality of life, and the global economy.” Essentially this is a move away from science and toward political activism.

9.      Educating the Next Generation of Sustainability Professionals, Huffington Post
“Before long all competent management will be sustainability management, and all competent managers must be sustainability managers...The old separation between environmental protection and effective management is ending. ”

10.   Building a Culture of Sustainability at an Online University, Rebooting the Future
Peter Bardaglio, author of Boldly Sustainable, advises a student in Ithaca College’s Professional Certificate in Sustainability Leadership to use online resources to cultivate a social movement:

The ultimate goal of these activities is to build a network of committed activists that you can then leverage for more direct collective action on the campuses such as a student vote to mandate fees for sustainability work in the university. [...] You might even be able to raise enough money this way to hire a sustainability coordinator!

11.   ACUPCC Signs R20 Charter, Advancing Education for Sustainability (the Second Nature blog)
The American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment joined an alliance of “sub-national governments and non-governmental partners” who aim to drive environmental policy-making.

12.   Uncovering Sustainability in the Curriculum, Climate Neutral Campus Report
Professor Sherman at the University of Puget Sound wants faculty to “uncover” rather than “cover” sustainability in their courses:

Rather than merely adding sustainability coverage to the curriculum, sustainability could be a catalyst that actually strengthens and enriches the teaching and learning goals scholars already hold in their disciplines—all the while making powerful applications to environmental and social causes at the heart of sustainability on campus and in our communities.


For sustainability to achieve broad integration with the higher education curriculum, it must come to be associated with “big ideas.”

Sherman gives “disciplinary teams two hours to: (1) identify big ideas within their discipline, (2) identify a link between one of these ideas and elements of sustainability, and (3) design a class component that integrates the discipline with sustainability.” He notes that 20% of the courses taught at his university were either sustainability-related or sustainability-focused.

Background: When NAS began examining the rise of the “sustainability” movement on college campuses several years ago, we wanted to understand two things: what sustainability is and what it means for higher education. We learned that sustainability is a benign-sounding term that seems to mean environmental stewardship but piggybacks on multiple non-environmental ideas such as population control, affirmative action, gay rights, and anti-capitalism.   

For colleges and universities, commitment to “sustainability” has become a matter of competition (especially now that Princeton Review has come out with a “Top Green Colleges” rating) similar to yesteryear’s race for campus diversity. Colleges have embraced sustainability’s multi-faceted meaning. In 2007 the University of Delaware  conducted a curricular residence life program to correct the attitudes of first-year students in regard to race, sexuality, and American society. It turned out that the program billed itself as an education in “sustainability” and “citizenship.” One curricular document said that “sustainability provides a viable conduit for citizenship education and the development of a particular values system.” Imparting such a “particular values system” so that students reject traditional American values and assume a politically correct worldview is the goal of sustainability education. Planting trees and turning off lights on campus is only one part of it. 

As of today, 674 institutions have signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), which requires signatory colleges to “make climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience for all students.”  

To learn more about the key players—people, programs, groups, books, media—in the campus sustainability movement, check out NAS’s frequently updated Encyclopedia of Sustainability.

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