Plenary Speaker Mitchell Thomashow: 'What is Your Campus Narrative?'
"What will your voice be and how will you cultivate the voices of those around you?" asked Mitchell Thomashow during the closing moments of his plenary session today. The former Unity College president and current Second Nature Presidential Fellow urged attendees get the word out about their campus' sustainability accomplishments as one of the most effective ways toward a sustainable future: "Every sustainability project should have an interactive, dynamic explanation."
Using his experiences at Unity College as a narrative, Thomashow shared his vision of a sustainable campus. "Everything you do on campus relates to everything else going on on campus," he said. "What you are doing impacts everyone all the time and that’s why you’re so darn busy." Thomashow began by emphasizing the need for a sustainable approach to economic decisions. Frugality, living within our means and protecting our futures will help curb energy and health care costs. "It's important that [campuses] are making the links to accessibility and affordability."
Broken into three main categories, Thomashow's nine elements of a sustainable campus include:
- Infrastructure (energy, food, materials)
- Community (governance, investment, wellness)
- Learning (interpretation, aesthetics, curriculum)
Unity College earned national attention in 2008 with the Unity House, a net zero building that was the first college president’s house to earn LEED Platinum certification. "Structures like LEED buildings are metaphorically rich, institutional landmarks," said Thomashow. "If you see windmills on a campus, solar panels, you think something interesting is happening on that campus." He stressed the ability of energy landscape demonstrations to attract students and change the regional landscape.
The transformation of Unity's expansive lawns to food-producing edible landscaping during Thomashow's presidency allowed the campus community to think about where their food comes from and how much energy is used in its production and distribution. It also got students involved in the campus and took care of the community through harvests sent to the local food pantry. This is an inexpensive campus sustainability initiative, said Thomashow: "I know this because we did it and we don’t have any money."
Thomashow was able to get Unity's board of trustees on board with sustainability initiatives with something he calls "real-time frugal sustainability." The money saved with efforts like the president's net zero house encouraged campus decisions toward a culture of sustainability. Today, said Thomashow, sustainability is now embedded within the campus culture.
Every college is a mini-investment of sorts and campus leaders can't be afraid to make a mistake, said Thomashow. "As long as you are aware of the possibility of being wrong, and able to self-correct. That’s why you have a convergences like [AASHE 2011], so people can share what they've learned." Self-correcting questions include:
- Is your college working with schools, communities and businesses to transform the region into a thriving sustainable community?
- Is the campus an incubator for new sustainability research and design initiatives?
- Is the endowment invested in ecologically and socially responsible businesses?
- Is the college considering sustainability workforce training?
Thomashow closed this portion by reminding attendees to take care of themselves. "How many sustainability coordinators are burnt out all the time?" he asked. "It doesn’t make sense. We forget the whole purpose of this. It’s about human life and well-being. So you gotta live a good life and we have to find ways to do this together."
The best sustainability curriculum is one that provides hands-on experience of living in, implementing and designing a sustainable campus, said Thomashow. He urged campuses to get students mobilized to help with workforce issues and provide the kind of hands-on learning that creates future sustainability coordinators including service learning opportunities and campus-wide sustainability master plan collaboration.
"By catalyzing the emotional responses to the planetary challenge," said Thomashow, art is also an essential element of sustainability teaching. Through imaginative and evocative campus exhibits, art projects and installation, campuses have the opportunity to serve as exploratory canvases of environmental art, recycled material sculptures, soundscape designs and native plant arrangements.
Calling campus sustainability "a phenomenal case study," Thomashow thanked attendees for being the agents of [sustainability] change: "We didn’t have these jobs five years ago, so you are figuring it out for the first time."
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