In the late 1960’s, I was a college student in New York City. Every Friday afternoon I would wander through the stores on Bleecker Street, where there would be new books, magazines, or records. One day I spotted an oversized paperback with a stunning picture of the Earth on the cover. Laced across the top in a familiar ’60s San Francisco-style font was the title: The Whole Earth Catalog.
This book served as a visionary inspiration for living a sustainable life. It provided an enduring, community-based, do-it-yourself guide for living and learning. Forty years later, I realize that my entire career path is a response to that challenge. Now as the president of Unity College in Maine, this educational philosophy continues to guide me. Sustainability is not just a LEED-certified building or the act of providing more local foods in the cafeteria. It is a philosophy of life, derived from ecological principles, common sense, and a respect for the complex magnificence of our planet.
Sustainability as a way of life has a long tradition in U.S. higher education, whether it’s Henry David Thoreau’s musings and experiments, Helen and Scott Nearing’s homesteading, Lewis Mumford’s vision of ecological cities and technology, or the countless attempts to link character, community, and ecological living. It’s crucial to understand that sustainability is a response to a planetary emergency. We are in the early stages of the sixth mega-extinction (a catastrophic loss of species), plunging declines in biodiversity, and a rapidly destabilizing climatic-oceanic circulation, and how we choose to respond poses an immediate challenge for all educators. How do we teach sustainability as a way of life?
This is the single biggest challenge for higher education. Our goal should be nothing less than to train a new generation of sustainability leaders, graduates who understand the intricate connections between economics and ecology, place and planet, between how we live and the consequences of our actions.
As a means for meeting this challenge, I propose nine elements of a sustainable campus, designed to evoke a 21st century catalog of transformational sustainable practices. They entail three broad categories—infrastructure (energy, materials, and food), community (governance, investment, and wellness), and learning (curriculum, interpretation, and aesthetics). Imagine these categories as dynamic, emergent, and intrinsically interconnected. Any sustainable endeavor may involve multiple categories. For example, an ecologically efficient LEED Platinum–certified building may reduce the carbon footprint of a campus, but if it doesn’t also serve an inspirational curricular or interpretive function, it may not achieve its full educational potential. These nine elements aren’t a checklist, nor are they criteria for measuring success. They are meant to evoke the necessity of envisioning and applying sustainable practices to all aspects of campus life.
At Unity College in Unity, Maine, we desire that our campus becomes an exemplary learning and living laboratory for a sustainable culture. We hope that people who visit our campus—students, parents, community members, or donors—will get dozens of ideas that will in turn inspire their own practices. If we can do this in rural Maine where the winters are very long, at a college that is undeniably resource-strapped, we can set an example for any campus anywhere. As the college’s president, these nine elements are my source of motivation.
Click here to see all 9 elements