As the sustainability movement has gained momentum it has moved from the the fringe of society to a place more accepted by the general population. The hope for many is that, in time, the behaviors that we now consider “green” or “sustainable” simply will be standard practice.

As students learn about efficiency and environmental stewardship, sustainability will become part of their worldviews and factor into the choices they make as professionals in the workforce and members of society. To further encourage this trend, in 1993 a group of leaders including Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, formed Second Nature, a Bostonbased nonprofit whose goal is to make healthy, just and sustainable actions the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education. Recently, eco-structure had the opportunity to speak to one of the co-founders of Second Nature, Anthony Cortese, ScD. Today he serves as president of Second Nature and is a co-founder of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, an initiative by more than 550 colleges and universities nationwide to reverse global warming by modeling climate neutrality on their campuses and ensuring that all graduates have the education and knowledge to help society do the same. Cortese discussed Second Nature’s efforts, its goals and the role of higher education in the sustainability movement.

How did you become involved with green issues?

AC: I have two degrees in environmental engineering and a doctorate in public health. I went to work for the [Washington, D.C.-based] U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and later became the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. What led me to higher education was the realization that the underlying cause of the challenges we were facing from water and air pollution, solid waste and the protection of public health was the way we as a society were thinking and acting. The challenge is one of mindset. I decided to focus my efforts on higher education to see if we could find ways to teach future generations of professionals how to carry out their personal and professional lives in a way that would be in harmony with the environment so all current and future generations could be healthy and live in strong, thriving communities with economic opportunity for everyone, as well as allow future generations to have the same opportunities as current generations.

What brought about the formation of Second Nature?

As a result of my efforts as dean of environmental programs at Tufts University [Medford, Mass.], I was looking at ways we could expand this work to all of higher education, which is why we set up Second Nature. In fact, Sen. Kerry picked the name “Second Nature” because we want this kind of thinking and action to be automatic. For example, in architecture we now talk about sustainable design as being something special.We envision a time when sustainable design will be the default.

Why the focus on higher education?

Higher education has a social contract with society; it receives public and private funding, nonprofit status and academic freedom in exchange for producing the knowledge and graduates that will lead to a thriving civil society. Higher education trains professionals in society, as well as the leaders of virtually every kind of institution. It has a strong responsibility to help us create a world that works for everyone. We need a new and better relationship between humans and the natural world, so Second Nature is focused on building the capacity of higher education to facilitate this. We think this should be a goal for classroom curricula and should be tied to the way the college or university operates and relates to the communities of which it is a part.

As an example, most Americans have no idea of the impact of the everyday decisions we make. A 5 1/2-pound [2.5-kg] laptop computer might take anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 pounds [907 to 1360 kg] of material to produce. All of that goes to waste before we see the computer itself. Many of the impacts we create on a day-to-day basis are invisible to us.

We’ve done a terrific job in dealing with some of the operational aspects of modeling sustainability. Colleges and universities in the past five to 10 years have seen exponential growth in programs for energy conservation, recycling, locally and sustainably produced food, improved public transportation to and from campus, making campuses more bicycle and pedestrian friendly, and designing green buildings. However, it hasn’t been as holistic as possible. What’s so terrific about the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment is that there are a number of college and university presidents making sustainability one of the ways they define success at their institutions.

How does Second Nature get involved with higher-education institutions?

One way has been to create a large learning community of all the people in higher education who want to move in this direction. We helped establish the [Lexington, Ky.-based] Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, or AASHE, which is a professional association of people from more than 600 colleges and universities nationwide, working together to advance sustainability on campus. [To learn more about AASHE, see eco-structure’s September 2007 issue, page 70.]

The second thing we have done is work with the higher-education associations that already exist. In higher education, there are many professional associations that focus on developing the professional capabilities of people within their specific area of expertise, such as business officers, facility managers, purchasing agents, presidents, provosts—virtually every function on campus. We help them work sustainability knowledge into the normal professional development of each of those professions. It’s not about creating environmental specialists or sustainability specialists; it’s about helping people who are doing just about everything in society find a different and better way.

And the third thing we’ve done is to work with AASHE and [Washington- based] ecoAmerica to develop and support the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment. We see ourselves as a catalyst and a leader in helping to create the societal structures that will help higher education advance sustainability as rapidly as possible.

How well is higher education responding to the sustainability challenge?

From my perspective, the growth has been terrific. When I first started, I could easily tell you the top 10 or 20 colleges and universities in the country dealing with these issues. Today it is not possible to do that because there are so many. However, from the perspective of creating a shift in society so we will be able to live in harmony with each other and the natural world in the next 50 to 100 years, I would say higher education is maybe at 10 to 20 percent of where we need to go.

We want people to understand that this isn’t about the environment versus humans. It’s about finding ways to meet human needs while understanding that all the resources for life and the ability to exist rely upon having a healthy relationship with the natural world. For a long time, the same arguments kept coming up. It was always jobs versus the environment or the economy versus the environment.

It didn’t matter whether it was a water-pollution issue, a wetlands issue, water supply, air pollution or toxic substances in the environment; the price of economic success always was the degradation of the environment. I couldn’t understand that. I was trying to figure out a way to decouple economic progress from environmental degradation. That’s essentially what we’ve been trying to do with Second Nature. It’s about remaking the human presence in the natural world and figuring out better ways of making and doing the things we need to do in society without creating health and environmental problems. It’s a simple concept, but we want people to understand that social and economic sytems are not divorced from the natural world.

All the resources that make life possible come from the biosphere. As the late Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.) said, “The economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the biosphere.” The biosphere also provides a great deal of ecological services, such as clean water, photosynthesis and other things that are absolutely essential for life. This is about a reorientation to what we knew when we first evolved on the planet and applying that to a modern civilization. With the idea of sustainability as the lens, we ask how we can create a world in which everybody is healthy; we have strong, thriving communities; and there is economic opportunity for everyone now and in the future. That’s a different question than asking how to solve a particular problem. We all respond better to a positive vision for the future—the idea of creating something new rather than dealing with a set of problems. We should never be in denial about the negatives and what our challenges are, but it’s not effective to bury your head in the sand and say “I don’t believe this” or “I can’t do anything about this.” Instead, we should say, “Let’s get together and figure this out. If this isn’t working, let’s find a better way to do it.” And that’s a fundamental shift I hope the whole sustainability movement will promote.

American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment / The Boston-based American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment sets out to address global warming by gathering commitments from higher-education institutions to neutralize green-house gas emissions and accelerate sustainability-related research and educational efforts. To learn more, visit www.presidentsclimatecommitment.org.

Second Nature / Through programs of outreach and advocacy, Boston-based Second Nature has helped bring to life the idea of education for sustainability since its founding in 1993. To learn more, visit www.secondnature.org.