Tuesday, October 20, 2009


In the Autumn of 2008, Unity College organized a program called The Art of Stewardship. We brought fifty artists, scientists, and sustainability activists to campus. We asked them to envision the college as a campus canvas for environmental art. They presented us with ideas including mandala sand paintings, murals on the sides of buildings, recycled materials art sculptures, soundscape designs, native plants sculptures, an arrow of time to represent geological events, and landscape artwork that captures the movement of water, grass, and pollen.

These projects ideas can be constructed at minimal expense, while providing local and regional artists with a venue to display their work. They also represent terrific opportunities to get students, staff, and faculty engaged in taking great pride in the campus, as well as making the landscape much more interesting.

There is also a deeper cognitive advantage. At the core of understanding sustainability, biodiversity, and climate change is a perceptual challenge. Art projects use imagination to convey scale. They are a bridge to scientific understanding. Further, art projects catalyze some of the emotional responses surrounding these issues, from despair and grief to wonder, celebration and gratitude. Ultimately, this kind of collaborative art allows the campus to experience reciprocity between the built environment and the natural world.

Sustainability should entail aesthetics every step along the way. The people who live in a place should have the opportunity to make it their own through ephemeral and permanent artistic installations. This has the great virtue of making a campus a more vital and dynamic place. Even better, every art project contributes to the sense that the campus is a place in space and time, a living and working environment that creates an aesthetic mark in the bioregion.

Now it’s Your Turn

These nine elements are part of my own emerging narrative, both as a sustainability explorer and a college president. Hopefully, they provide you with a template of ideas for your campus, adapted to your roles and responsibilities. I hope that you will find your own sustainability narrative, that you will come up with an entirely new catalog of ideas and possibilities, and you will realize that these initiatives are crucial to your educational position and your planetary citizenship. When you come up with a great idea, and you’ve accomplished something really neat, send me a note and tell me what you’ve done. Maybe it’s something I can write about in a future essay, or include in my own work, or I can pass on to someone else who will find it helpful.


Do you remember your most recent visit to a National Park? At the entrance gate you were given a map that highlights the key natural features of the landscape and suggests places for you to visit. If you went to the interpretive center, you saw several educational displays, explaining the ecological, historical, or geological setting that makes the place so special.

What if college campuses took a similar approach? When you arrive on campus you receive a map and guide to all of the campus sustainability efforts. This would include tours, exhibits, recommended buildings to visit, and other features of the sustainable landscape. Campus signage would emphasize these initiatives, providing various interpretive aides. Admissions tours would point out these features, too.

Are there organic gardens on campus? Show them on a map and explain why they are there. Is there a geothermal installation? Develop a kiosk at the site that diagrams how it works. Is there a LEED building on campus? Have the special LEED building plaque become the starting point for a guided tour through the building. Every one of these initiatives embodies a detailed and rich story of decisions, choices, innovations, and awareness.

The campus is an ecological place, located in a changing environment. There are compelling stories that precede and follow every sustainable action. Let’s make them transparent and interesting, rooted in the history of the campus and projected into the future. If the campus is in the desert, explain how the ecological setting determines water usage patterns. If it’s in a cold climate, explain how the campus stays warm through innovative energy design. Make these stories ubiquitous through signage, curriculum, website exhibits, and all campus publications.


What you know and how you think is always a reflection of how you live. In my view the best sustainability curriculum is one that provides the hands-on experience of living, implementing, and designing a sustainable campus, tangibly linked to the more formal curricular expectations of programs and majors.

There are countless discussions of what students should know. Although I have my strong opinions, too (every college graduate should understand ecological and evolutionary concepts, basic biospheric circulations, the geological time scale, and spatial and temporal variation related to environmental change), I also understand that there is no universal standard for curricular decisions. Curriculum is contextual and the substantive basis for programs and majors will depend on the interest, strength, and mission of the institution.

For example, see the AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) website to view the vast array of impressive and exciting new programs—from business and medicine to climate mitigation and engineering, from two year technical training to advanced PHD research. Arizona State has an entire school devoted to sustainability (GIOS, Global Institute of Sustainability).

Surely every college and university should have introductory courses that provide a substantive and experiential framework for lifelong learning about sustainability concepts. Every major should have sustainability-related courses that provide a foundation for the relevant discipline and career. We need more career-oriented sustainability majors and programs with opportunities for deeper study.

However, these initiatives are empty without the tangible application in the campus community. Colleges and universities have an impressive breadth of educational outreach. Every visitor, participant, and community member learns something from the campus environment. The sustainability curricular agenda must be seen as comprehensive, direct, and intrinsic to the educational mission of a campus.

Monday, October 19, 2009


Ultimately, the point of a sustainable campus is to provide a nourishing and supporting learning environment that promotes personal, community, and planetary well-being. Placed in an ecological context, we emphasize the importance of biodiversity, atmospheric and oceanic circulations, and ecosystem services in relationship to the human community. The idea of sustainability necessarily implies that human health is linked to ecosystem health.

Yet wellness also provides an extraordinary lifelong learning opportunity. How do we model the importance of sustainable personal and professional lives? Don’t most students, staff and faculty, complain about being overworked, time stretched, and maxed out? Is it just the demands of the job, the context of American professional life, or the culture of higher education? Many campuses deal with a wide assortment of student (and staff/faculty) human health problems, often related to stress, including smoking, alcohol, funky diet, and poor physical conditioning.

Given the urgency of addressing the “planetary emergency,” there is no choice but to work intensively and thoroughly. But if work is perceived as meaningful, purposeful, service-oriented, and collaborative, it is considerably more fulfilling. This is a crucial curricular and administrative mandate—how to provide meaningful work, balanced with a healthy work place, and opportunities for relaxation and leisure. Working hard doesn’t always mean working well.

As a foundation for campus wellness, I encourage curricular and workplace efforts that generate reflective awareness about diet, nutrition, exercise, spending time outdoors, stress-reduction, and meditative activities. A healthy campus is a more interesting and vital learning community, provides students with wellness habits and routines, and may even save money on health insurance. I suggest that it’s hypocritical to advocate for a sustainable planet and community when we don’t maximize human wellness.

Sunday, October 11, 2009


Every college campus has a significant economic impact on the surrounding community. Colleges, communities, and businesses can work together to transform their regions into thriving sustainable economies. Colleges serve as dynamic economic multipliers. Their investment decisions have profound ramifications. What would happen if these decisions were made so as to train a new generation of sustainability leaders for a green economy?

Imagine our dynamic sustainable campus with its innovative energy systems, expansive gardens, and creative use of recycled materials. Consider these initiatives as the source for partnerships with green businesses. The campus becomes an incubator, the place where businesses and faculty work with students and community members to develop innovative entrepreneurial approaches. Faculty and business leaders work together to consider the technical skills, life experience attributes, and knowledge foundation that will best equip the new sustainability professions.

When large universities support green businesses they provide secure and stable markets that allow those businesses to reinvest in research. Smaller colleges can help support local farmers or other green vendors for whom the extra business may be crucial. By awarding contracts and opportunities to green businesses, campuses support the elements of a green regional economy.

Similar approaches can be applied to college investments. Are our portfolios sufficiently green? Which of our investments support sustainability initiatives? How might endowment investment guidelines incorporate rigorous ecological cost accounting? Is investment measured exclusively by the percentage return in a financial portfolio or do we consider criteria such as zero-carbon energy initiatives, ingenious recycling programs, or other green investment opportunities?

Saturday, October 10, 2009


How does an organizational culture support and implement sustainability as a way of life? What is the relationship between sustainability and participatory governance? How do you use sustainability as a means to motivate, unify, and inspire an entire campus?

Benjamin Barber in his groundbreaking book Strong Democracy describes thin (or representative) democracy as a small group of elected officials making all of the decisions all of the time. In contrast, with strong democracy everybody makes some of the decisions some of the time. This makes good sense in a setting where all constituents contribute ideas, voice, accountability, and leadership to sustainable practices and policies.

On a college campus there must be alignment between mission, governance, and curriculum. If the motivation is entirely generated from the grassroots, it will always be a struggle to influence senior leadership and the Board of Trustees. If leadership for sustainability comes mainly from the administration, the people may not necessarily follow. This is why sustainable practices must built into the mission, master plan, and strategic plan for a campus, conceived as crucial to its educational philosophy. Otherwise, sustainability will be marginalized, trendy, and viewed as just another special interest.

Leadership at all levels of an organization provides meaningful support in dozens of ways: building sustainability initiatives into job descriptions and performance evaluations, setting curricular objectives, following reasonable but firm guidelines regarding procurement, commencement, transportation, and other aspects of events or operations.

Two caveats: Sustainability is not the political philosophy of an esoteric, green politics. It is beyond traditional left/right categories, embodying elements of traditional conservative and progressive political approaches. Second, decisions related to governance will be complex and controversial, and not always consensus-driven.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Conceive of a college campus as a food-producing, edible landscaping, demonstration-garden laboratory. Lawns are bisected by garden strips and framed with permaculture shrubbery. Rooftop gardens supply food for high-rise dormitories. Administration buildings have small greenhouses attached to their entrances. Cafeterias not only serve more local and organic food, but they have compelling exhibits that illustrate farm to garden food pathways, or calculate the energy costs of different methods of food production. The campus becomes a local and regional center for cooperative food growing efforts, a home for intergenerational, culturally diverse, bioregionally based experiments in food preparation and production.

Everybody has to eat and the curricular potential of learning about food unveils dozens of learning opportunities from lessons about biodiversity to practical, real world food-growing skills. Where does your food come from? How is it prepared? How much energy is used in its production? What foods are best suited for the ecology of our campus? What’s the cultivation and domestication history of the food we eat?

College administrations can lead the way by incorporating food production schemes into campus master plans, or by looking for inexpensive and innovative ways to initiate food landscaping opportunities, or by using more local and organic foods at college and community events.