The Death of Campus Sustainability? I Don’t Think So!
In a recent blog, Dave Newport, Director of the Environmental Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder, AASHE board member, and colleague began tolling the bell over the “Death of Campus Sustainability.” In his blog article, Dave asserts that what appears to be a flattening of the growth of sustainability activities (by a few measures) is a harbinger of death. He also asserts that campus sustainability has done little to go beyond environmental sustainability. On the latter (complex) point, I agree; on the former, I beg to differ.
The indicators for supporting a claim of campus sustainability dying are simply not clear and represent too short of a time scale. Yes, there was rapid growth in numbers of the following in the “naughts”: membership in AASHE, signatories to the ACUPCC, and campus sustainability positions, and yes – they all seem to have flattened in the past year or two. But Dave’s claim that a lack of growth in number is the beginning of death is inconsistent with a wide variety of patterns we see both in nature and in human systems. It may be true in systems driven by greed that if you’re not growing you’re failing but the idea that you have to grow or die (we, by the way, do both simultaneously) is not a sustainable model. It makes more sense to me to think in terms of evolutionary change that looks at a longer time scale and allows change to be a driver of future states. I would recast Dave’s assertion then as “The Evolution of Campus Sustainability.” The movement will evolve and change as it should. And each of us who works in/with higher education institutions and believes we need to create a just and sustainable society has a responsibility to grow the impact of our efforts to ensure that we do become more important in shaping the future.
The other issue Dave raises is (to me) a more important issue. Dave does a good job characterizing a US-centric view of sustainability – a view that begins with concerns about the environment and moves to concerns about how the environment affects/shapes our economy and society. My experience in working with the tertiary education community is that in the US and some other developed, industrialized countries, many leaders of the sustainability movement came from the environmental movement as it evolved to include environmental justice and ecological economics. In other parts of the world, sustainability comes from an alternative view of socio-economic development.
A touchstone for me to remember how we got started thinking about sustainability is the statement in the Brundtland report (Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development) that defined sustainable development. We often see the first part of the definition quoted in a way that justifies the enviro-centric view of sustainability (although there is no reference to the environment within it): Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. But we seldom reference the two clarifiers that follow: It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs."
Two important points here – the imperative that we solve the issue of poverty and that we recognize the limits are environmental but in that the limits are a function of our technology and social organization. That is, we can alter the limit for meeting our needs through changes in technology (perhaps the green economy) and through changes in social organization (perhaps the goal of the occupy movement). The other critical point is that if we do not address the issue of poverty we will not be able to create a sustainable society.
My take-away from several discussions is the holistic nature of sustainability. Lowering GHG emissions to mitigate climate change will not necessarily eliminate poverty nor will the elimination of poverty end climate change. However, if what we seek is a sustainable society, we will need to embrace both and much more. As Monty Hempel of Redlands has said (and I paraphrase with apologies), "There isn’t environmental sustainability, or social or economic sustainability – there is only sustainability and all the parts must be working together.”
Going back to Dave’s claim about the death of campus sustainability, I would assert that campus sustainability will evolve just as higher education itself has evolved. Whether or not we continue to call our motivation campus sustainability, we will continue to have (holistic) utopian hopes that we use as implicit guides to our work in and with higher education. From a historical perspective, we are witness to a better world. That work will continue.
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