Our current level of thinking remains a significant obstacle to the promise of a just and sustainable future. As Einstein observed, “the significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Our current mindset is characterized by the beliefs that
- humans are both separate from and the dominant species of nature;
- that resources are free and inexhaustible;
- that technological fixes are available to solve most problems;
- that nature has an infinite capacity to assimilate human waste;
- and that material acquisition and accumulation is the most important determinant of success.
As the primary centers of teaching, research and learning, institutions of higher education are significant leverage points which both reflect and inform social mindsets. The current educational system has helped bring us to the crossroads we currently face by endeavoring to educate our young in a manner which has reinforced an environmentally ignorant and/or insensitive mindset. Chet Bowers notes in Culture of Denial, “This is a classic double bind situation where the promotion of our highest values and prestigious forms of knowledge serve to increase the prospects of ecological collapse.” To capitalize on the influential position of higher education in pursuit of a sustainable future, however, will require significant changes within higher education. Bowers points out that, “as we learn more about changes occurring in degraded natural systems, as well as how human activities are changing weather systems that will in turn alter the distribution of species (and thus our patterns of dependence), framing the solution of the crisis in a way that does not involve a radical change in the conceptual and moral foundations of the educational process will only add to our problems” (11).
Many schools around the world are making important strides toward necessary changes in education. Some excellent examples of these changes in the United States include: the Georgia Institute of Technology which has made sustainable technology one of its three core missions for all aspects of their university from teaching to research and operations. In 1989, Tufts University became the first US university to make environmental literacy a goal for all graduates by creating the Tufts Environmental Literacy Institute. The Institute develops the capability of faculty from all disciplines to integrate environmental and sustainability concerns into their teaching. A consortium of seventeen colleges, based at Clark Atlanta University and that serve African American, Hispanic and Native American populations, has made significant changes in curriculum, operations and community outreach to promote environmental justice and sustainability. In the last three years, Northern Arizona University has revised eighty-eight courses from nearly every discipline to make environmental and sustainability concerns a central thrust in the curriculum (12). According to a recent report by the World Resources Institute, U.S. MBA programs at the forefront of education in business and the environment in 1998 include: George Washington University, New York University (Stern), Northwestern (Kellogg), the University of Michigan and others (see Grey Pinstripes, Green Ties) (13).
There is some excellent leadership by professional organizations such as the World Federation of Engineering Organizations (WFEO), the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to make sustainable development a high priority in engineering and business education. There have also been several international declarations signed by university leaders to make environmentally sustainable and just action a priority in higher education. For example, the Talloires Declaration, led in 1990 by the late Tufts President, Jean Mayer, has been signed by over 300 university presidents from over fifty countries (14).
Despite these efforts and those of a number of colleges and universities with active environmental studies programs that train graduate professionals, education and research about the interdependence of and a sustainable relationship between humans and the rest of the environment is not a priority in higher education. To date, no engineering school in the United States, with the exception of Georgia Institute of Technology, has made design for the environment, industrial ecology, pollution prevention or the relationship of technological development to sustainability a cornerstone of engineering education.
American medical students receive the equivalent of a single day of training in occupational and environmental medicine in four years of medical school. Only 100 out of 700 schools of business and management in North America have courses on business and the environment; the majority of the courses are electives. Only 9 percent of teachers’ colleges require a practicum in environmental education at the elementary level, and only 7 percent at the secondary level. This is all the more unfortunate in the United States since two-thirds of all the K-12 teacher positions will be replaced within the next eight to ten years (15).
As a result, the general public has little awareness that a healthy natural environment is essential to our very existence. We see ourselves as separate from the natural world and are unaware that it provides all the resources which make life possible while absorbing our wastes and enriching our lives with its incredible diversity of plants, animals and other species. Much of the population has little idea about where goods come from and where they go and the destructive impact of pollution on human health. We seem to believe that natural and physical resources are free and inexhaustible and that the environment can assimilate all our pollution and waste. The general public has little idea that it is not just industrial enterprise, but the aggregate of all human activities — all the individual and the collective daily decisions — that are irreversibly changing the Earth. Because of the underwhelming response of higher education to sustainability, the next generation of students will not be prepared with the analytical skills and practical knowledge to respond effectively and compassionately to the profound challenges of population growth, biotic degradation, soil erosion, public health, water shortages and the political instability resulting from these events.
Higher education has been so slow to respond because conventional logic and compartmentalization continue to be manifested throughout higher education institutions. A fundamental structural problem of the current educational system is the inclination to treat environmental education as yet another specialty, not unlike sociology or biology. The training of specialists is not an adequate response to the environmental problems we face. Specialists are produced with little feeling of connectedness, and little understanding of the workings of natural systems, or even the place of their own discipline in the larger human and non-human world. For example, neoclassical economics views the economic system as separate from the biosphere rather than one of its subsystems. As Herman Daly states, “Neoclassical economists look at the relationship between the economy and the biosphere like physicians who view a human body as having only a circulatory system and no digestive tract” (16). Engineers believe that most human-based technology is an improvement over “natural technology” and feed economists’ assumptions that science and technology can substitute for any resource we deplete or species or ecosystem we destroy. Interconnecting patterns and relationships which govern all natural and most human interactions are largely left to the student to discern on his or her own. Environmental specialists alone will not help us move toward a sustainable path. A compartmentalized approach further reinforces the assumption that environmental protection should be left to environmental professionals. All humans consume resources, occupy ecosystems and produce waste. We need all professionals to carry out their lives and activities in a manner that is environmentally sound and sustainable.
Moreover, teaching and learning predominantly takes place in the classroom, rather than being balanced by experiential and service learning opportunities. Curriculum and degree requirements are primarily determined by faculty isolated by department and school of study, and/or designed to satisfy accrediting agencies rather than generating students with skills truly relevant to society’s needs. Learning is fragmented, and faculty, responding to long-established incentives and professional practices, particularly those associated with tenure and promotion, are discouraged from extending their work into other disciplines or inviting interdisciplinary collaboration. Furthermore, campus operations and investments are based on conventional economic thinking rather than sustainable practices (which also have proven economically beneficial), and both remain disconnected from the formal learning process.
Interactions between human populations and the environment, and the development of strategies, technologies and policies to create an environmentally just and sustainable future, however, are among the most complex issues with which society must deal. These issues necessarily cross over disciplinary boundaries, making it very difficult to convene the skills necessary for effective teaching and research in educational institutions that are organized into highly specialized areas of knowledge and traditional disciplines. Reflecting our compartmentalized education, we continue to address specific environmental problems, rather than to devise a coherent and consistent approach guided by a unifying vision of a sustainable future.
The larger goal of shifting the thinking, values and actions of all individuals and institutions worldwide demands a long-term societal effort aimed at making environmental and sustainability concerns a central theme in all education. If we are to achieve a sustainable future, institutions of higher education must provide the awareness, knowledge, skills, and values that equip individuals to pursue life goals in a manner that enhances and sustains human and non-human well-being. The 3,800 institutions of higher education in the United States are unparalleled in their potential to prepare most of the professionals who develop, manage, teach in and influence society’s institutions.
Institutions of higher education bear a profound moral responsibility to increase society’s ability to create a just and sustainable future. Society has conveyed a special charter on institutions of higher learning. Within the United States, higher education institutions are allowed academic freedom and a tax-free status to receive public and private resources in exchange for their contribution to the health and well-being of society through the creation and dissemination of knowledge and values. These institutions have the mandate and potential to develop the intellectual and conceptual framework for achieving this goal. Higher education institutions are significant but largely overlooked leverage points in the transition to a sustainable world — they influence future leaders through their students and current leaders through their alumni — and must play a strong role in education, research, policy development, information exchange and community outreach and support. They have the unique freedom to develop new ideas, comment on society, engage in bold experimentation, as well as contribute to the creation of new knowledge.
The crisis of the environment, according to David Orr, Professor and Chair, Department of Environmental Studies at Oberlin College, is symptomatic of a prior crisis of mind, perception, and heart.” Orr argues therefore, that this crisis, “is not so much a problem in education but a problem of education” (17). The question which arises at this point is: What would a college or university which addressed the environmental crisis with intensity and ingenuity look like? In an online article entitled, The University as a Model of Sustainability, Second Nature has attempted to broadly define the characteristics of a university in which sustainability is the lens through which it sees itself and the principle according to which it decides how to act. We hope this vision will spark ideas and provide some insight into how a sustainability perspective can be translated into action on the college and university campus. We hope you will provide your feedback on our thoughts so that together we can further refine our ideas and advance the Education for Sustainability movement.