Sustainability Education

“How do you define sustainability?”

If you’re a sustainability officer at a college you get asked this question all the time. “Does your institution have an agreed upon definition of sustainability or a campus-wide sustainability policy statement?” is the version we see from various ranking and rating agencies. “What, you mean like, recycling?” from some of our students. And, “Yeah, but what do you do here?” from some of their parents. It can be a useful exercise, for sure, to sharpen your message and your operational focus. But I’m guessing most of us, even if we have a sustainability definition, find it difficult to sum up what we do in a succinct statement.

If you’re anything like me, you fumble through the Brundtland Commission or the triple bottom line for key phrases that connect to the work you do to decrease emissions, build community, and save money.  Too often, however, we fail to connect this good work to the central aim of the institution – educating our students.  We talk about energy conservation, green building, waste reduction, local food, and transportation alternatives with little mention of learning outcomes. Of course, learning outcomes are the purview of our faculty and academic administrators, but education is the goal of the institution. In the current issue of Sustainability: The Journal of Record, I moderate a “Roundtable” discussion among campus sustainability officers who understand that our work demands great attention to education.

At Unity, our sustainability office team is focused on developing the infrastructure to deliver that education to all of our students, whatever their course of study. That infrastructure certainly includes buildings and grounds, but it also means partnerships, policies, positions. We put more than a dozen students to work on our crew, we influence campus governance on various planning committees, we sit on boards at area agencies, we write grants, we grow food, we lead classes, and yes, we sort through your trash. These efforts aren’t ends in themselves. We’re not tied to our own special sustainability agenda. Rather, we do this work to engage Unity students in the best sustainability science education they can get.

So we come to my confession . . . I’m not in this to save the planet (though I’m really glad some of you are).  I think of myself as an educator; if I’m an advocate or activist it’s for the student experience first.  Don’t get me wrong, I have a real personal interest in the sustainability agenda and the health of natural systems.  Professionally, however, my aim is to support a meaningful education for our students. I happen to believe that campus sustainability work provides the best opportunity for a meaningful education.

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