What does it mean to be “boldly sustainable” in higher education? That’s the question that my former Second Nature colleague Andrea Putman and I set out to tackle in our 2009 book on how the sustainability movement could transform colleges and universities. A revitalized sense of mission, more sustainable communities, and leadership that addresses the complex, interconnected problems of our time, both in the academy and in the world at large: these are the hallmarks of what could be a new era in higher education.
“Occasionally something different happens,” writes Peter Senge, “a collective awakening to new possibilities that changes everything over time—how people see the world, what they value, how society defines progress and organizes itself, and how institutions operate.”[i] If colleges and universities can demonstrate how to cultivate a sense of collective responsibility for the good of the whole, they will not only bring about a long overdue transformation of higher education but also create the possibility of a more sustainable civilization.
Educational institutions that ignore sustainability or treat it as one more thing to stir into the mix, rather than an approach that transforms everything, will find it increasingly difficult to compete. Sustainability should be seen as the central organizing principle, a core strategy in an intellectual, social, and cultural sense.[ii] And it should be recognized that these three strands – the intellectual, social, and cultural – can not be unraveled and separated without undermining the capacity of education to be an effective force moving forward.
Sustainability as a core intellectual, social, and cultural strategy means acknowledging that we have an opportunity and imperative to reinvent our relationship to the world, even as that world is remaking itself as a result of globalization, technological innovation, the rise of the knowledge economy, and profound demographic shifts. We can no longer think only in the short term, and we can no longer waste natural resources or take the environment for granted. We must learn to care about the needs of the global society as much as those of our local community, realizing that our families’ well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of the planet. Sustainability, as David Orr puts it, is a “design challenge like no other” based on the proposition that “humans are embedded in a network of obligation and are kin to all life.”[iii]
A commitment to sustainability will result in a more holistic and purpose-driven education. “There are two types of education,” John Adams shrewdly noted. “One should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live.” But are these two types mutually exclusive, or can we bring them together in a new synthesis? Viewed through the lens of sustainability, it quickly becomes clear that we must. Today’s students will not be able to build a more sustainable society if they are not prepared do both. They must be able to ask the important questions, grasp the big picture, and commit to an ethos of stewardship (“how to live”) at the same time that they acquire the necessary knowledge, skills, and professional training to make a real difference in the world (“how to make a living”).
It is clear, in other words, that we must arm students both to dream and take action. As Orr puts it, we must “present a sense of hopefulness to students, and the competence to act on that hope.”[iv] Such an education should involve experiential, project-based learning that connects the classroom and the larger world, and it should foster whole-systems thinking that focuses on the interactions between human and natural systems.
Perhaps the most important impact that educational institutions can have on efforts to meet the challenge of climate disruption is to shift the current dominant narrative from one that emphasizes the problems and barriers to one that underscores the vast potential of human ingenuity and creativity.[v] “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas,” John Maynard Keynes observed, “but in escaping from the old ones.”[vi]
By letting go of ideas that have outlived their usefulness, we clear the space for fresh perspectives to emerge. Higher education, more than any other institution in our society, can generate the intellectual, social, and cultural capital to escape the gravitational pull of the old, dysfunctional ideas and behaviors that have brought us to our current impasse, launching us into a new world of hope and opportunity. In the current age of climate change, the need for such transformative leadership has never been greater.[vii]
This essay is adapted from Peter Bardaglio and Andrea Putman, Boldly Sustainable: Hope and Opportunity for Higher Education in the Age of Climate Change (2009). For more information about the book, click here.
[i] Peter Senge et. al., The Necessary Revolution: How Individuals and Organizations Are Working Together to Create a Sustainable World (New York: Doubleday, 2008), p. 5.
[ii] Michael Crow, “American Research Universities During the Long Twilight of the Stone Age,” elaboration on remarks delivered at the Rocky Mountain Sustainability Summit, University of Colorado, Boulder, February 21, 2007, p. 3. http://president.asu.edu/files/2007_0212StoneAge.pdf.
[iii] David W. Orr, The Nature of Design: Ecology, Culture, and Human Intention (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. 10-11.
[iv] Quoted in Marci Janas, “Ancestry and Influence: A Portrait of David Orr,” September 17, 1998. http://www.oberlin.edu/news-info/98sep/orr_profile.html.
[v] William E. Easterling III, Brian H. Hurd, and Joel B. Smith, Coping with Global Climate Change: The Role of Adaptation in the United States, Pew Center on Global Climate Change, June 2004. http://www.pewclimate.org/docUploads/Adaptation.pdf.
[vi] John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money (New York: Harcourt, 1964), p. viii.
[vii] See Alexander Astin and Helen S. Astin, Leadership Reconsidered: Engaging Higher Education in Social Change (Battle Creek, MI: Kellogg Foundation, 2000), pp. 8-16 for an excellent discussion of the principles of transformative leadership.