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Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Death of Campus Sustainability

Depending on our next steps in the next few years, we either flower into fullness or wither on the vine, doomed to irrelevance or a patronizing tolerance.

by Dave Newport, LEED AP

OK, starting with a title like “The Death of Campus Sustainability” could easily be seen as cheap, manipulative, sensational, or simply wrong.

And yes, the implicit reference to Shellenberger and Nordhaus' controversial 2004 article “The Death of Environmentalism” is intentional—and intended to invoke your angst.

We should be unsettled.

Even as S&N’s article was roundly criticized when it was published, it appears now they were correct at least about the effectiveness of the environmental movement.

We’re losing.

In terms of politics and public opinion, despite general awareness of that environmental decline, public concern over environment degradation has slipped from 71% of the US population saying environmental protection trumps economic growth in 1989, to only 36% today. Over the same period, Gallup reports support for economic growth as the top priority—even if the environment suffers-- has risen from 19% to over 54% today.

Not trying to be depressing here; just the facts, ma’am.

We’re losing the war on the environment.


Given that the campus sustainability movement is closely associated with the environmental movement, it is reasonable to ask if we (campus sustainabilistas) are headed to the same fate.

At first blush, the data seem to suggest campus sustainability is doing just fine, thank you.

AASHE reports that “of the 433 [sustainability coordinator] positions represented in this [2010] survey [of campus sustainability professionals], only 49 had been created prior to 2004, indicating an exponential growth of campus sustainability in recent years.”

In the same period, the landmark ACUPCC carbon neutrality effort convinced some 700 or so college presidents to commit to zeroing-out GHG emissions and increasing climate literacy efforts. Campus sustainability proponents (count me in) point to the reduction in GHG emissions spurred, in part, by the ACUPCC as illustrative of our success. For our part, my campus has at least stopped the growth in emissions even though we are still building new facilities. It’s a start.

Environmental science/studies programs on many campuses are seeing record enrollments too. On my campus, our Environmental Studies program has grown to the second largest major. Wow. Likewise, demand for “sustainability-related” curriculum has soared nationwide. AASHE’s web pages on curriculum are now the most popular on that huge site. Also a good sign.

These are hardly signs of campus sustainability flat lining. Right?

Or, are we confusing activity with results?


To better understand the status of the life support systems for campus sustainability, it is useful to look again at Shellenberger’ and Nordhaus’ eco-obituary. For if campus sustainability is to dodge the same bullet, we should be mindful of S&N’s messages eight years ago:

·  S&N: we need to articulate the “I have a dream” eco-vision of the future, not the “I have a nightmare” version.
They wrote: “Perhaps the greatest tragedy …is that… the environmental community has still not come up with an inspiring vision, much less a legislative proposal that a majority of Americans could get excited about.”

·  S&N: we need to connect the environment to people, not continue to portray the “environment” as a thing separate from people.
They wrote: ““Environmentalism is today more about protecting a supposed "thing" -- "the environment" -- than advancing the worldview articulated by Sierra Club founder John Muir, who nearly a century ago observed, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.””

In short, S&N asserted that enviros need to create a positive vision for the environment by connecting it to people, not just bunnies and trees.

However, both admonitions have remained largely unheeded in the years since. Maybe it’s just me, but I am still looking for an environmental “I have a dream” vision. On the contrary, the environmental conversation has gotten grimmer. We even have Presidential candidates running on platforms of eliminating the EPA and DOE; they seem to be betting that those outcomes represent positive visions for a majority of US voters.

Likewise, our fixation with the plight of the polar bears, while sincere and tragic, has done little to connect at-risk people with environmental protectionWhile the polar bears are clearly in harm’s way from the effects of climate change, hundreds of thousands of people in Africa and elsewhere are dying from the same cause. 

We don’t talk about these people so much; they are largely people of color. Van Jones, in the past harshly critical of this so-called eco-apartheid, has brought this polarity starkly to the fore with his now famous four quadrants of rich vs. poor, problems vs. solutions. He asked the Bioneers conference attendees in 2007 to please take people of color along as the green movement becomes mainstream. He begged the white majority enviro movement to “leave no person of color behind.”

Not sure we’re getting that done.


Clearly sustainability suffers from a pronounced eco-centrism despite its so-called “three legged stool” of social justice, economic equity, and environmental restoration. That’s the same quagmire S&N diagnosed for the environmental movement.

The data appear to confirm that sustainability is seen as singularly “environmental” by most campus leaders. Consider the recent AASHE survey of campus sustainability professionals.

First, some 58% of the 400+ sustainability professionals responding to the survey reported they were stationed in campus facilities or in an office of sustainability. I have lumped the “offices” in with the facilities group because most ‘offices’ I know of are in facilities.

This is not to disrespect or under-appreciate the good people doing creative and significant work from their facilities platform. On the contrary, their work is crucial to campus sustainability. However, social justice, economic equity--or for that matter curriculum--is not the central theme of most facilities departments.

Resource conservation is a common focus of facilities departments, to their credit. And resource conservation is legitimately a crucial part of sustainability. Key word there is “part.”

However, if resource conservation isn’t connected to people’s lives then we lose the opportunity to develop the full and inspiring vision S&N correctly cite as missing from our picture of the future.

Noted author Paul Hawkin puts more eloquently. In his latest book, “Blessed Unrest,” he observes that, “if you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

If sustainability is such a powerful and effective unifying theme that marries enviro, economic, and social priorities, where are all the people of color in the sustainability field?

AASHE’s survey floats up other concerns as well.

Of the 432 respondents to the survey, 92% are white. So am I. Obviously, so are most professionals in this business. It begs the question of why. If sustainability is such a powerful and effective unifying theme that marries enviro, economic, and social priorities, where are all the people of color in the sustainability field?

In the book “Just Sustainabilities” noted Tufts professor Julian Agyeman points out the failure of many mainstream environmental and sustainability groups that purport social justice missions, but whose actions are overwhelmingly eco-centric. Sure they mouth support for environmental justice, but that’s the only social place they show up—and it is down the list of priorities.

Agyeman made a very compelling case for this approach as a keynoter at AASHE’s Denver conference 1.5 years ago—and how we are missing the social imperative (video). In his talk, he gently pointed out AASHE’s shortage of social justice focus. Agyeman  notes: The “AASHE Digest 2009: 380 pages, over 1250 stories and initiatives from nearly 600 institutions, 24 chapters and the word ‘justice’ appears 13 times...”

The campus sustainability community was in the room. Agyeman’s hypothesis (slides) is that if we are to fully integrate sustainability’s three legs, we need to begin by focusing on people, people at risk, people who bear the brunt of our environmental negatives. He asks us to “think about your institutional definition of sustainability.  Broaden it to include social equity/justice and mean it.”

Anyway, this is old news that keeps coming back to bite us. We have noted these limitations before.

Another troubling data point in AASHE’s survey is the low number of C-level sustainability professionals on the nation’s campuses.  Of 473 responses, only 28 reported directly to the President. Another 30 reported to a Provost. The rest reported all over campus. Few were Vice chancellors/presidents. Most sustainability positions were manager/coordinator level.

Again, no disrespect for all the work being done by these folks—but it is a clear sign that higher education does not see their contributions as having criticality equal with computers or diversity. In recent years, many campuses have established Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and/or Vice President/Chancellors for Diversity. But Chief Sustainability Officers are still very rare. Thus, sustainability generally does not have a dedicated full-time voice in campus cabinet-level discussions.

During the same period, corporate-world Chief Sustainability Officers are growing like global CO2 levels. The New York Times reports of that trend and that, “the most important thing [about CSOs]… was that the position — which generally includes responsibility for human rights and workforce diversity as well as environmental issues — reports directly to the chief executive.”

Wow, CSO level leaders with integrated social dimensions. Nice!


So why do corporations understand this critical function and campuses don’t?
First, corporations have been seeking to integrate social dimensions into sustainability for a couple decades. The Global Reporting Initiative and Dow Jones Sustainability Index, both created in the 1990’s, were clearly mindful of social integration and pursued it relentlessly. The focus of Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives has been for decades trying to ameliorate corporations’ negative social impacts and create positive outcomes instead.

Ten years ago, the Dow was straight up about why:  “”The Dow Jones Sustainability Index … takes the “S-word” straight on in its name, but quickly transcends any environmental xation in sentence two of its prospectus: “This business approach creates long-term shareholder value by embracing opportunities and managing risks deriving from economic, environmental and social developments.””

More recently, some corporations appear to have realized that putting the social dimension first creates positive business outcomes almost as a by-product.

Clara Gaymard, chief executive officer and president of GE France was quoted in a recent white paper on corporate sustainability by Accenture as believing, “This is not about having a good reputation, it’s because it’s good for the business. We have a strong belief that a high social performance leads to a high financial performance.”

They are even beginning to teach budding corporate executives of the need for integrative CSOs in the nation’s business schools. Publishing in the Harvard Business Review, Yale professor and noted author Dan Esty (“Green to Gold,” et al), writes in The Sustainability Imperative, “The CSO will be essential to moving companies through the sustainability stages. Like the CIO, a chief sustainability officer helps the CEO and executive team visualize goals and professionalize the process of aligning vision with business strategy. That means redefining performance expectations, specifying accountability, tracking results, and rewarding success.”

For our part, higher education has generally eschewed the CSO role in favor of expanded roles for the campus chief business officer, the CEO.

A recent cover of these re-purposed campus CEO’s in NACUBO’s Business Officer Magazine revealed many such campus leaders that are trying to do good things; albeit almost exclusively on the environmental and economic legs of the sustainability stool:

“Sustainability competence is becoming an essential job requirement for chief business officers,” the NACUBO article states. “ Because many of the decisions that campuses face today require sophisticated analysis of their cost, benefit, associated environmental risks, and carbon-related impacts, business officers are increasingly expected to help guide those conversations as well.”

NACUBO’s focus is fine; again, nothing wrong with cost and conservation efforts. But who in the campus board room is speaking up for the other elements of sustainability? Of the leaders profiled in the piece—all good folks-- none were singular CSOs such as seen in the corporate world although I am certain each of them wants to make sustainability work. But sustainability needs its own voice.

Sustainability needs its own voice.


At a recent meeting/retreat of the AASHE Board of Directors, we spent several hours discussing sustainability’s eco-centrism and what AASHE could do about it. Seventeen sustainability experts from higher education and related private sector enterprises seem to realize that eco-centricity is a potentially debilitating virus in sustainability’s hoped-for healthy future. (Disclaimer: these are my observations, not necessarily AASHE’s.)

My conclusion: we all need to do a better job at connecting the dots, promoting systems-thinking, and expanding on Muir’s words, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

Muir, I suspect, was talking largely about the natural world. Yet sustainability promises to extend those connections into our social and economic systems. We need to make those connections vivid.

In response, AASHE recently announced a diverse editorial board for their weekly publication (AASHE Bulletin). Those folks have signed on to contribute occasional “connect the dots” commentaries that will help readers see the inter-relationships between the seemingly disparate stories covered in the Bulletin.

We need this vivid visual integration because we have let campus sustainability be defined almost entirely as about resource conservation and environmental protection.

Where did the people go?


Just in the last month the Chronicle of Higher Education published Scott Carlson’s great piece about the resurgence of skills training on many small liberal arts school campuses. Carlson, who has covered the campus sustainability beat ably for years, surveys the burgeoning demand –and supply--of hands-on people-oriented education experiences ranging from beekeeping to shop to gardening to carpentry to cooking. It’s a must-read.

At the soul of this renaissance of interest in life skills is a sense that today’s students want to build self-reliance and self-determination capacity because the road ahead looks steep—and they know it. Resilience and practical skills are becoming critical attributes to live well and prosper going forward. Integration of people-facing education with community-centered initiatives underpin this trend—and are expositive of sustainability’s finest tradition: the nexus of people-primacy, eco-resiliency, and local economic focus.

In short, students are telling us how to proceed: make it about people. Make it about self-determination. Make it about community resilience. Make it about the equitable and prudent distribution of economic resources across the entire community. All people prosper in that model.

We should listen to our students.

If campus sustainability is to transcend the perception of eco-primacy and fulfill its potential as a unifying theme, we need to openly integrate—lead with—people-centric initiatives that visibly sit on all three legs of the stool. What are some examples of that?

Our Computers to Youth program paints some of that picture. Certainly local food programs bridge the divide. Some sell their recycling and donate the revenues to a local children’s cancer clinic. Some frats commit to energy conservation programs that save money that they donate to advocacy groups fighting alcoholism, etc. Scores of students working a Campus Kitchen initiative collect same day, post consumer food from dining halls, and deliver it to soup kitchens. Compost programs partner with local growers to grow food for the hungry. Some campuses offset travel to athletics contests by installing CFL’s in local low income homes. Some fund local carbon offsets by weatherizing and/or installing solar thermal systems in local low income housing. Some do it by putting wood pellet stoves on low income homes. Some students—through efforts like Engineers Without Borders—work in developing nations creating potable or irrigation water systems, low fuel/pollution stoves, etc. Students pressing for fair labor practices for logo apparel or shoes—or computers—exemplify the finest traditions of social justice and campus activism. Social entrepreneurship initiatives like Growhaus and groups like Oshoka U and others stitch together people, planet, and eco-equities—and are blooming apace. Co-curricular and service programs feed students’ souls and insert the academe into the community to mutual benefit. Permaculture is breaking out all over. The list goes on.

All the above efforts deliver positive people benefits for folks that have earned a helping hand—and have palpable sustainability links. There are scores of efforts like these in place today. But sustainability is still branded as environmental. Not sure how that happened, but here we are: branded green.

That eco-centricity is seen even by the social progressives and cultural groups with which we seek to ally. I have been told verbatim by leaders in various social or cultural arenas that this sustainability thing is nice, “but that’s the white people’s issue. We have to work on our day to day survival and preservation.”

Perhaps the road to a better vision for campus sustainability begins by us rebranding our efforts, re-purposing our entire agenda around “putting people first.” Perhaps the three legs of the stool are seen as too complicated or idealistic/unrealistic or just BS. Perhaps there’s really only one leg: people.

But the programs I mentioned just above and many more like that put people first. Perhaps the road to a better vision for campus sustainability begins by us rebranding our efforts, re-purposing our entire agenda around “putting people first.” Perhaps the three legs of the stool are seen as too complicated or idealistic/unrealistic or just BS. Perhaps there’s only one leg: people.

As Agyeman spoke in his AASHE keynote, “there’s a lot of evidence that the intentions of the environmental justice movement and the sustainability movement are similar. But there’s a lot of bridge building to be done,” Agyeman points out.
So maybe we are coming at it wrong.

Consider former Sierra Club president Adam Werbach’s transition from leading the world’s largest environmental organization—to a consultant for Xerox, Nike and Wal-Mart et al.

Writing in his recent book “Strategy for Sustainability: A Business Manifesto,” Werbach noted that, “Focusing solely on saving the environment did not suffice—did not save lives, livelihoods, or neighborhoods. 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.”

Werbach described his ah-ha moment when he realized that business was far more able to pattern the integrative sustainability he sought because they, “have the incentives, operational know how, scalability, and ingenuity to respond to the global challenges we face today on all four fronts—social economic, environmental, and cultural. Why? Because by the beginning of the 21st century, over half of the world’s largest economies were corporations.”

Well, higher education has market dominance too: we produce 100% of the college graduates that will go forth and change the world. Yet if our sustainability-related courses perpetuate an eco-centric sustainability worldview, that’s what they will have. If students look around campus and perceive that sustainability is all about recycling or green power, that will color their vision.

And if campus sustainability is to live up to our hopes, we have to continuously connect the dots for our leaders, our students, and the community. Leadership has to see there is so much integrative value to sustainability it needs its own voice at the highest level of campus strategic conversations—and embedded into the core mission of the organization. Social progressives have to see campus sustainability as complementing and championing their agendas. Students must connect campus sustainability activities with the self-reliance and skills training they increasingly crave—and will need to underpin the creativity and innovation they must bring to this new, adaptive world we have wrought.

Dan Esty ends his essay with a warning that higher education would do well to heed:

“In this new world, the sustainability strategy imperative will be systematized and integrated into the day-to-day practices of firms of all sizes in all industries. Like the IT and quality megatrends, sustainability will touch every function, every business line, every employee. On the way to this future, firms with a clear vision and the execution capabilities to navigate the megatrend will come out aheadThose that don’t will be left by the wayside.”

Where Esty writes “firms” substitute “campuses.” Higher education is not immune to any of those concepts—but many campus leaders may think we are. Campus sustainability proponents need to present a compelling case that leaders will listen to.

So far, we haven’t met that challenge.


So, are we witnessing the death of campus sustainability?

Well, nothing is forever. Everything has a bell curve trajectory. If we look again at AASHE’s staffing survey, we see creation of new sustainability positions peaked in 2008 at 154, and went down sharply a year later at 106, a 31 percent drop. Is that an anomaly? Is the market saturated? Is that the economy cutting budgets?

I hope it is one or more of those factors—not that the movement has run its course because we failed to effectively articulate the breadth of campus sustainability’s promise as a unifying theme. Here’s hoping.

Clearly, we are at a critical point. Depending on our next steps in the next few years, we either flower into fullness or wither on the vine, doomed to irrelevance or a patronizing tolerance.

I take some solace looking at the corporate world’s lead—yes, business is ahead of higher education in the sustainability arena. Doesn’t mean business is perfect—or that we are. But a scan of corporate sustainability jobs boards supplies ample evidence that there’s a focus on sustainability in the corporate world that is more integrative and comprehensive than higher education. Likewise, it was a full ten years after the corporate world launched the Global Reporting Initiative set of comprehensive sustainability metrics before STARS showed up. Just saying.

We’re behind the corporate world, but hopefully on a similar path forward. If we overcome higher education’s prodigious focus on silos and articulate a systems-thinking, people-first vision for campus sustainability, we’ve got a shot. Putting people first is clearly central if we are to survive and hopefully flourish.

Nature teaches that if we are not growing, we’re dying—and writing the obituary for the death of campus sustainability.


NEXT BLOG: “Making Sustainability Social: Approaches and war stories from sustainability’s front lines.” Contributions, comments and cheap shots welcome as contributions to that next piece—or as rebuttal/spanking for this one.

(PS: I shopped a draft of this blog to a number of trusted and respected colleagues for review and comment and got lots back. I won’t name these folks because I don’t have their permission, but I truly valued their input and tried to respond to it. Thanks all; you know who you are.)

Peace to all.