Campus Sustainability: It's About People

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

April 01, 2012

In 2004, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, two prominent environmentalists, published an article that was part eulogy and part warning for the green movement. In the essay, "The Death of Environmentalism," they asserted that if environmentalists are to survive, they must create the "I have a dream" eco-vision of the future, not the "I have a nightmare" version, and must connect it to people, not just bunnies and trees. A lack of focus on people and their needs, the authors said, would marginalize environmentalism, perhaps fatally.

Now the budding campus-sustainability movement, which was born of the same impulses and sentiments as the environmental movement, may be at risk of falling victim to the same problems that Shellenberger and Nordhaus described: eco-centricity.

Campus sustainability has long been premised on the "three legs of the stool": environmental protection, fiscal equity, and social justice. It aspires to merge the natural world with man's world—to envision a future devoid of natural-resource depletion, an equitable distribution of wealth, and social systems that promote justice and peace. Just as environmental harm ultimately affects people worldwide (climate change, for example), sustainable solutions require all populations to benefit.

Some people could argue that this vision of sustainability is taking root in higher education. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, known as Aashe, has tracked remarkable growth in campus-sustainability programs—the group's membership has gone from a handful of campuses in 2006 to about 1,000 today. The American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, a landmark carbon-neutrality effort, has committed almost 700 college presidents to zeroing out greenhouse-gas emissions and increasing climate-literacy efforts. The Princeton Review and others now routinely assess greenness in their annual campus ratings.

Those facts may suggest that campus sustainability is alive and well—but is it also devoutly eco-centric?

Aashe's recent survey of sustainability-staff members found that 92 percent of them are white. That raises a question: If sustainability is such a powerful and integrative theme, marrying environmental, economic, and social concerns, where are all the people of color in the sustainability field? Aashe has tried to highlight social-justice imperatives in its calls for presentations and in the theme of its conferences (for example, "Aashe 2010: Campus Initiatives to Catalyze a Just and Sustainable World"). Yet few such papers show up.

Julian Agyeman, a professor of urban and environmental policy and planning at Tufts University, has been critical of environmental groups that espouse social-justice ends but whose actions are overwhelmingly eco-centric. In his keynote speech at Aashe's 2010 conference, he noted the eco-centric focus of the organization's 2009 digest of campus-sustainability activity: "Three hundred eighty pages, over 1,250 stories and initiatives from nearly 600 institutions, 24 chapters, and the word 'justice' appears 13 times."

Agyeman argues that to fully integrate sustainability's three legs, we need to begin by focusing on people—people at risk, people who bear the brunt of societal problems. "Think about your institutional definition of sustainability," he said in his talk. "Broaden it to include social equity and justice and mean it."

Indeed, some data indicate that higher education uses sustainability as an incentive for conservation efforts that save money but stop short of fully integrating the movement's strategic vision or social-justice ideals.

For instance, Aashe's survey reports a low number of executive-level campus-sustainability leaders. Of 473 leaders who responded, only 28 reported directly to the president. Thirty reported to a provost. Most sustainability positions were defined as managers or coordinators, a lower level in the hierarchy.

That indicates that higher education does not see sustainability efforts as having a standing equivalent to, say, managing computers. Many campuses have established chief information officers, but chief sustainability officers are rare. Higher education has generally eschewed such a job title in favor of expanded roles for the campus business officer.

A recent cover story on these repurposed campus CEO's in Business Officer Magazine showed many trying to do good things, albeit standing almost entirely on the environmental and economic legs of the sustainability stool. There is nothing wrong with cost savings and conservation, but who in the boardroom is speaking exclusively for integrating the other element of sustainability: social justice?

Yet in the corporate world, chief sustainability officers are growing like global carbon-dioxide levels. The New York Times reported that the most important thing about corporate CSO's is "that the position—which generally includes responsibility for human rights and work-force diversity as well as environmental issues—reports directly to the chief executive."

Campus sustainability needs its own voice—and brand. Despite many individual campus-sustainability activities that benefit people, the planet, and the bottom line, we are tagged as simply "green." I'm not sure why. Perhaps the three legs of the stool are seen as too complicated or idealistic or unrealistic—or just wrong.

Perhaps there's only one leg: people.

Consider Adam Werbach's metamorphosis from president of the Sierra Club, one of the largest environmental organizations in the country, to a consultant for Xerox, Nike, Wal-Mart, and other big companies. "Focusing solely on saving the environment did not suffice—did not save lives, livelihoods, or neighborhoods," he wrote in his book, Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto. "We needed to fight for a larger kind of sustainability: one that took into account our social, economic, and cultural sustainability as well as our ecological surroundings. I could not be just an environmentalist."

Yet even social progressives and cultural groups—natural allies in the fight for a just society—see campus sustainability as an environment-only movement. I have been told by leaders in various social and cultural arenas that this sustainability thing is nice, but that it's "a white-people issue." They are more concerned about their own day-to-day survival on the social-justice front.

Is campus sustainability similarly fighting for its survival?

Aashe's survey showed that creation of new sustainability positions peaked in 2008, then dropped 31 percent in 2009. Clearly, we are at a critical point. Depending on our steps in the next few years, we either flower into fullness or hit the green wall, doomed to irrelevance or a patronizing tolerance. Eco-centricity is a fatal toxin, but it has an antidote: people. For campus sustainability to escape a death sentence, we must put people first.

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Dave Newport is director of the Environmental Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder and secretary of the board of directors of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.