The Sustainability Challenge for Higher Education

by Monty Hempel, President, Blue Planet United

Sustainability is arguably the defining challenge of the twenty-first century ­– a challenge with profound implications for the students, faculty, staff, and alumni of every institution of higher education. Rising interest in sustainability is already helping to re-shape the vision, mission, and programs of more than one-thousand colleges and universities, as evidenced by the rapid growth of campus initiatives  inventoried by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE).  See, for example, the AASHE Bulletin’s annual inventory of college and university initiatives: .

Sustainability is ultimately about developing and preserving opportunities in the social, economic, and ecological spheres of life.  Education for sustainability requires (1) systems thinking, (2) a concern about future generations, and (3) the integration of learning about the environment, the economy, and social equity – the 3 “E”s.  Fundamentally, sustainability is about our collective bequest:  what we leave future generations in the way of healthy ecosystems, strong economies, great art, vibrant communities, adaptive management systems, and challenges worthy of a highly educated society.

The most promising use of sustainability concepts may be in conjunction with concepts of community.  Sustainable communities do not face the widespread criticism reserved for sustainable development, viewed by some to be an oxymoron. Moreover, community ideas resonate deeply in the academic worlds of ecology, macro-economics, sociology/anthropology, ethics, and may other fields. In fact, the essence of sustainability could be defined as preserving the life of community (human and nonhuman) for purposes that include happiness, physical life-support, spiritual growth, and progress toward the realization of unfulfilled human potential,

Sustainability, as a unifying philosophy that is grounded in the life of community, might just satisfy the disparate needs of people today and those who will follow.  It warrants the serious risk taking that all big ideas demand of those who call themselves teachers and scholars.

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The Sustainability Test

By Monty Hempel, President, Blue Planet United

This test promotes sustainability as a concept and practice that transcends environmental stew­ardship. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “environmental” sustainability; only sustainability—an irreducible synergy of social justice, ecological health, and eco­nomic vitality, applied across present and future generations. Although the health of our ecological life support system is logic­ally prior to and dominant among sustainability imperatives, maintaining the health of ecosystems on a human-dominated planet requires achievements in social welfare and economic vitality that are imperatives in their own right, and not just for environ­mental protection. Hence, sustainability should be embraced as a primary concept. It cannot be reduced co­herently to environmental, social, and economic components.

In practice, however, sustainability is often used as a “sponge word” that absorbs multiple meanings and interpretations, many of which undermine its integrative power. Increasingly, it is used to market products and programs with dubious claims of efficacy or authenticity. How, then, can we determine what is truly sustainable? And for whom?

To help in this endeavor, Blue Planet United has developed The Sustainability Test for individuals and organizations who are try­ing to infuse sustainability principles into their everyday actions and decisions. While only a starting point, we invite you to try it and tell us what you think.


 Does an action, behavior, proposed policy, or program:

      General Objectives

–       Advance the welfare of people and ecosystems, co-evolving through time?

–       Provide economic vitality and security for those most in need?

–       Stop the export of problems to other peoples, places, or times?

–       Strike a balance between national pride, global citizenship, and local self reliance (“glocal” thinking)?

–       Reform financial incentive structures that enable greed, domination, and exploitation?

–       Promote just, participatory, prosperous, and peaceful institutions and livelihoods?

–       Reflect whole systems thinking and informed, democratic decision making?

–       Redefine progress in ways that emphasize art and learning, over technology?

–       Help build a green economy that operates with efficiency, within a culture of sufficiency?

–       Restore damaged people, communities, cultures, and natural areas to life with dignity?

–       Avoid making byproducts, waste, or pollution that exceeds Nature’s assimilative capacity?

–       Encourage glocal connections and local solutions that harness the power of diversity?

–       Recognize the resilience, and limitations of resilience, in natural systems?

–       Recognize the resilience, and limitations of resilience, in human social systems?

–       Communicate knowledge, skills, and values necessary for a sustainable way of life?

–       Leave a legacy or bequest to future generations that helps us feel good about ourselves?

–       Create opportunities and values that help us discover the purpose of our lives?

Specific Objectives

–       Increase the earth’s tree cover and enlarge and strengthen protected natural areas?

–       Champion efforts to achieve equity in gender, race, and social background?

–       Help to voluntarily stabilize human population and promote small, happy families?

–       Aid development of wholesome food production systems at appropriate scales for a stabilized population?

–       Accelerate the transition to clean and renewable energy sources and systems?

–       Support the aims of living wage and progressive tax and tax shifting reforms?

–       Secure for future generations the opportunity to experience wildlife in their native habitat?

–       Conserve and provide access to fresh water, topsoil, and other essential natural resources through land reform and protection of common property?

–       Reinvigorate participatory democracy through campaign finance reform and fair redistricting?

–       Encourage appropriate use of durable, recycled, and reusable materials?

–       Defend coral reefs and contribute to the recovery of a healthy ocean?

–       Prepare communities for adaptation to climate disruption and extreme weather events?

–       Maintain or enhance biodiversity and the value of unpriced ecosystem services?

–       Preserve wild space, open space, and the common heritage of outer space?

–       Address the concentration of wealth and power in financial institutions and industries that benefit greatly from unsustainable practices and products?

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