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ULSF | Association of University Leaders For A Sustainable Future

U.S. Progress Toward Sustainability in Higher Education

This chapter appeared originally in the book Stumbling Toward Sustainability, John C. Dernbach ed., published by the Environmental Law Institute © 2002. All rights reserved Environmental Law Institute.

by Wynn Calder and Richard M. Clugston

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The United States has barely acknowledged Agenda 21, let alone attempted to implement it. But despite our failure to address the worsening environmental, social and economic trends here and around the world, we are making progress in understanding how to create a sustainable future. The theoretical framework and practical models are being clarified; the knowledge, skills, and sensibilities are emerging. The direction we need to go is becoming clearer: We must change the economic bottom line to value full human development in healthy ecosystems; we must eliminate subsidies for unsustainable practices; and we must shift production and consumption patterns to eliminate violence and poverty, to support all life, future generations, and social justice. We must also recognize our limits and honor the deeper meaning and mystery of life.161

Many academic institutions have focused on greening their campus operations. Some have transformed their curricula to reflect the complexities and values of sustainable development. A few have positioned themselves as leading "sustainable universities." Yet, when a critical champion leaves, when major external funding dries up, or when university representatives seek to move from rhetoric to reality, these initiatives often reveal their lack of real support in the institution. Thus, sustainability initiatives meet with various degrees of success. In some institutions, seemingly broad-based and strong initiatives have faded away. In others, significant academic programs and operations policies have been institutionalized. Despite the many impressive initiatives in progress around the U.S., the deeper challenge of transforming the disciplines to teach integrated thinking for sustainability-and placing value on this transformation-eludes us.

American higher education can be very innovative and adaptive. Leaders in a variety of institutions have grasped the critical need for sustainable development, and they have created a variety of exemplary responses. However these innovations will never move into the mainstream until critical stakeholders demand it. Al Gore, in Earth in the Balance, said that the environment must become a central organizing principle for the 21st Century.162 He went on to propose a massive federal initiative-like the Marshall Plan-to fund the transition to a sustainable future. The same Al Gore, as a presidential candidate eight years later, closed down the PCSD, in part because he did not think sustainability would get him elected. Gore was right the first time and perhaps the second time too. Educators need to raise public concern, lobby for funding, and work within the disciplines to make real progress toward higher education for sustainable development in the U.S. But success, as Bok points out, will depend ultimately on the demands that the disciplines, professions, and funders place on higher education.
(161) See Richard M. Clugston, "Towards the World Summit on Sustainable Development," Earth Ethics, CRLE (Spring 2002). The Earth Charter, an international declaration of fundamental principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society in the 21st century, has emerged today as one of the most elegant and comprehensive definitions of sustainability. Completed in March 2000, the Earth Charter is part of the unfinished business of the Rio Earth Summit. It is increasingly being seen as a tool for sustainability education and an international Earth Charter education program has been launched.
(162) Al Gore, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit (reprint 1993).

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