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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: http://www.aashe.org/publications/sustainability-review .

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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