Code Green for Higher Education?

Thomas Friedman’s new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution — and How It Can Renew America, is an impassioned plea for what he calls “Code Green” — a strategy for clean energy, energy efficiency, and conservation that would address global climate change and sustainability while also renewing the spirit of innovation and idealism in the U.S.

So what would “Code Green” mean for higher education? As the National Wildlife Federation’s report on campus sustainability noted last month, the record for colleges and universities is mixed. The survey of 1,068 institutions found that real headway had been made in the areas of research, campus operations, and community outreach, but it revealed much less success in greening the classroom.

Part of the reason for this, I believe, is that most colleges and universities are treating sustainability either as a fad or as one more thing to stir into the mix, rather than as a transformative process. A good sign — perhaps the best one — that an institution is taking sustainability seriously is when it begins to integrate sustainability across the curriculum. That’s the heart of the matter, after all.

Frank Rhodes, former president of Cornell University suggests that the concept of sustainability offers “a new foundation for the liberal arts and sciences.” It provides a new focus, sense of urgency, and curricular coherence at a time of drift, fragmentation, and insularity in higher education, what he calls “a new kind of global map.”

At the same time, though, Rhodes notes that the “broad range of questions that sustainability raises have no single set of answers.” Experimentation, discovery, and exploration, rather than dogma and indoctrination, are the keys to mining its value as a way to frame the crucial issues of our time.

“Code Green” can provide a vital source of hope and opportunity for facilitating institutional renewal and revitalizing higher education’s sense of mission. Growing out of a keen awareness that the economy, society, and environment are closely intertwined, sustainability fosters a culture of innovation, creativity, and holistic thinking. It provides a way to bring fresh thinking to bear on old problems and identifies new solutions that can move higher education forward even as it better prepares students to be engaged citizens, active leaders, and successful professionals.

Embracing Friedman’s call for “Code Green” in higher education would mean adopting it as a core strategy. As Andrea Putman and I argue in our forthcoming book, Boldly Sustainable: Hope and Opportunity for Higher Education in the Age of Climate Change, it would mean not viewing sustainability as marginal to the real business of colleges and universities or as an “add on.” Instead, sustainability would be seen as the central organizing principle in an intellectual, social, and financial sense. And it would be recognized that these three strands cannot be unraveled and separated out, one from the other, without undermining the capacity of higher education to be an effective force in 21st-century democratic society.

Note: This post originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Building and Grounds Blog here.

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