Higher education now has a challenge bigger than any other it has ever faced because humanity is at crossroads without historical precedent. Due to the extraordinary and exponential growth of population and technology – especially since the mid 20th century – humans have become pervasive and dominant forces in the health and well being of the earth and its inhabitants. While the earth’s population has grown from 1 billion to 6.7 billion in the last two centuries, energy consumption has risen 68-fold, and economic output has risen 80-fold. No part of the earth is unaffected by humans and the scale of our impact is growing exponentially.
Unfortunately, the current education system is reinforcing the unhealthy, inequitable, and unsustainable path that society is pursuing. Most of tomorrow’s engineers, business leaders, teachers, architects, policy-makers, and product designers are being trained in higher education where they are learning outdated, unsustainable ways of operating society.
According to reputable national and international scientific assessments, all living systems – oceans, fisheries, forests, grasslands, soils, coral reefs, wetlands – are in long-term decline and are declining at an accelerating rate. The air, water, and land have become the repository for thousands of toxic chemicals and other pollutants. The environmental challenges are now global, inter-generational, and prone to rapid, unexpected shifts. The sum of humanity and the expansive dynamic of industrial consumerism constitute a planetary force comparable in disruptive power to the Ice Ages and the asteroid collisions that have previously reshaped the Earth’s biosphere.
Moreover, more than three billion people are without basic sanitation and earn less than $2.50 each day, over a billion have no access to clean drinking water, water shortages are rampant around the world, and there have been food riots on three continents because the price of food staples has more than doubled in the last two years. And, of course, there are the worldwide economic recession, international conflicts, and wars over resources such as oil and water – as well as ideology – that are destabilizing world society.
We have a civilizational and moral crisis, not merely an environmental one. Global climate disruption represents a fundamental barrier to creating a healthy, just, and economically and environmentally sustainable society. The scientific consensus is that society must stabilize global emissions of greenhouse gases in the next five years and reduce them by at least 80% by mid-century at the latest, in order to avert the worst impacts of global climate disruption. Moreover, emissions of carbon dioxide (the principal heat-trapping gas) from fossil fuel combustion today will continue to disrupt the climate for the next several centuries, creating an ecological and economic debt for future generations. These are stark indicators that humanity is out of sync with its life support system.
All of these impacts are happening with 25 percent of the world’s population consuming 70-80 percent of the world’s resources. By 2050, the world will have 9 billion people and this may be accompanied by a four-fold increase in gross world product by 2050.
The cultural operating philosophy of modern society currently is that if we just work a little harder and smarter and let the market forces run society, all these challenges will work themselves out. However, we need a transformative shift in the way we think and act. As Einstein said, “We can’t solve today’s problems at the same level of thinking at which they were created.” We presently view the array of health, economic, energy, political, security, social justice and environmental issues as separate, competing and hierarchical when they are really systemic and interdependent. We do not have environmental problems, per se. We have negative environmental consequences of the way we have designed our social, economic, and political systems. We have a de facto systems design failure.
Hope and Possibility in Higher Education
What if higher education were to take a leadership role, as it did in the space race and the war on cancer, in preparing students and providing the information and knowledge to achieve a just and sustainable society? What would higher education look like? The content of learning would include a focus on sustainability in all disciplines and majors so that all students, not just environmental specialists, are prepared to address climate change upon graduation. Many faculty would pursue research that will advance sustainability. The process of education would emphasize active, experiential, inquiry-based learning and real-world problem solving on the campus and in the larger community. Higher education would practice sustainability in operations, planning, facility design, purchasing, and investments. Schools would form partnerships with local and regional communities to help make them sustainable as an integral part of higher education’s mission and the student experience.
Exciting environmental studies programs are abundant and growing. Progress on modeling sustainability has grown at an even faster rate. Many in higher education have embraced programs for energy and water conservation, renewable energy, waste minimization and recycling, green buildings, alternative transportation, local and organic food production, and ‘sustainable’ purchasing – both helping the environment and saving money. The rate of increase of such approaches is unmatched by any other sector of society. The student environmental movement is the most well organized, largest, and most sophisticated student movement since the anti-war movement of the 1960’s.
Even with all of these efforts, however, the overwhelming majority of graduates know little about the importance of sustainability or how to lead their personal and professional lives aligned with sustainability principles. This must rapidly change.
In the last three years there have been some large and encouraging shifts in higher education that lead our colleagues and us to believe that we may be approaching a tipping point in the orientation of higher education at some point in the near future. One of the most significant of these shifts is the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment.
The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment
In early 2007, 12 college and university presidents working with the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), ecoAmerica, and Second Nature, launched The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). The ACUPCC is a high-visibility initiative to address global climate disruption through actions to reduce and eventually neutralize greenhouse gas emissions, and to develop the capability of students to help all of society to do the same.
The participating schools have committed their institutions to create a comprehensive institutional action plan to move towards climate neutrality by: conducting an institutional greenhouse gas inventory; developing a climate action plan to reach climate neutrality; taking immediate steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions; making sustainability an integral part of the curriculum and educational experience of all students; and making the action plan, inventory, and progress reports publicly available.
More than 680 colleges and universities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia have made this unprecedented commitment. The schools represent millions of students – about 33% of the college student population and include every type of institution from community colleges to the biggest research universities.
The ACUPCC is an example of courageous leadership by college and university leaders. It is the first effort by any major sector of society to set a long-term goal of climate neutrality. ACUPCC signatories believe that leading society to a low carbon and less auto-dependent, consumer economy fits squarely into the educational, research, and public service missions of higher education. Today’s and tomorrow’s workers will need new knowledge and skills that only higher education can provide on a broad scale.
The ACUPCC has fundamentally shifted higher education’s attention on sustainability from a series of excellent, distinct programs to a strategic imperative of presidents, academic officers, business officers, faculty, and trustees – becoming a key driver for developing widespread action and for measuring success. Moreover, given the failure of the international community to agree on climate action and the slowness of the US Congress to act, the ACUPCC should be viewed as a model for international cooperation.
The Experience of Allegheny College
Allegheny College (Meadville, PA) was among the early signatories of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. By joining, we and other colleges and universities made a powerful statement that climate disruption is one of the defining issues of our time, and that immediate, substantial changes in how society operates have to be adopted and further developed.
While some participating schools are new to sustainability efforts and are quickly learning from their peers, Allegheny College had already completed an extensive technical energy audit when we joined. Completion of a greenhouse gas inventory (GHG) was a logical extension of that activity. Since then, a plan for attaining carbon neutrality has been developed and submitted, and a full-time sustainability coordinator position has been created.
Allegheny satisfies 20% of its electrical energy with wind, composts all food and other organic waste into mulches and soil adjuncts, recycles, employs geothermal heating and cooling, and has eliminated most chemical fertilizers and pesticides with its green landscaping program. Other efficiency measures are being taken regularly. The economics of these measures have proven favorable through savings in energy and water–sometimes the payback is a matter of weeks or months, while others are investments with favorable longer-term returns. Wasting energy, water, and other materials is very costly and often goes unnoticed until a thorough analysis is conducted–then the usual reaction is “What were we thinking by throwing away budget dollars through unproductive waste?”
Deadlines have not been a problem for Allegheny College; in fact, targets keep the commitment in focus and the eyes on the prize. Each campus designs and conducts its own plan and carbon-neutrality target date, yet public accountability help keeps this a priority for everyone at each signatory college or university. Institutions can request adjustments in their schedules as unexpected circumstances may dictate and as more information is obtained and technologies are developed (both on campus and by suppliers).
The process and results of Allegheny’s participation have been nothing but positive. Teaching and learning have been enhanced, short- and long-term financial savings are evident, and Allegheny is an active and proud member of the initiative. The current Allegheny President, Jim Mullen, and the Allegheny board, faculty, staff, and students have continued to grow the scope of the Commitment, including setting an aggressive target date of 2020 to attain carbon neutrality.
Every college and university should be conducting energy and materials audits as a matter of sound business practice and stewardship of institutional resources—period. Any college that doesn’t take the time to know how its energy and material dollars can be used more efficiently is not being fiscally responsible, apart from any environmental sustainability considerations.
By joining forces as the first major sector to act collectively, we have created advantages that no individual institution—no matter how committed—could accomplish individually. The Commitment is both an internal and public declaration that carbon neutrality and sustainability are absolutely essential to humanity’s survival and to the complex ecosystem and climate dynamic. Even those colleges that are doing splendid things independently along these lines (and there are many) should be part of the Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Their voices and expertise are needed to collectively lead the way for a society and an economy that desperately need their leadership along with that of the current signatories. Through economies of scale, joint partnerships, and demand for nationwide products, services, and policies, the collective voices and actions will be amplified when working together.
Some have reasoned that achieving climate neutrality and sustainability and fulfilling the measures within the ACUPCC are not practical or possible. The earth does not recognize how difficult it is for humans to change. It doesn’t have the cognitive ability to decide to wait for us to figure out how we can change to preserve our way of life and ourselves. What we must do is make the impossible inevitable.
We cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. All schools need to openly commit to
serious reductions in net carbon emissions and not get hung up on how we achieve the final, currently elusive percentages. ACUPCC schools’ current and planned emissions reductions represent a reduction of more than 33 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. What if three times the number of schools made similar commitments and plans? Our students and their children will be grateful we acted courageously and with foresight, especially in view of the size of the challenge and the unknowns that remain. This is not a time to be timid. We must exhibit real leadership and act as if the future depends upon us – because it does.
When President John F. Kennedy set a goal for man to reach the moon within a decade, our country had no way of knowing how or if it could be done. But because it was a goal we shared and to which we put our minds, hearts, and our backs, we achieved the goal in nine years and unleashed the scientific and technical revolution that led to so much innovation – from the internet to materials science to breakthroughs in medicine – that are the basis of life today. We need that kind of bold leadership today, especially in higher education, where we are willing to step out, to push the limits of knowledge, and to go beyond what is possible at the moment to create a thriving and sustainable society for the future.