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.

Thursday, August 27, 2009


Just outside of Austin, Texas, the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, has a small complex of office buildings and residences exclusively using recycled materials, oriented towards energy efficiency, water conservation, and low cost. With his ingenious collaborators, Pliny Fisk, the lead architect, has developed a style resembling advanced tinker toy. The buildings are constructed so there is a seamless connection between design, sustainability, and transparency. Visitors and dwellers alike immediately understand the purpose, function, and origins of all of the materials. This is an outstanding template for construction approaches on college campuses.

Materials refers to the manipulation, rearrangement, and heating and cooling of matter to produce the stuff of our goods, appliances, dwellings, and tools—from laptop computers to Nike sneakers. Sustainable materials practice emphasizes minimizing the energy use and byproducts involved in the manufacture of these goods, valuing resilience, durability, and recyclability. Whether you choose to use recycled materials in campus construction projects, or initiate “paperless” meetings, the mindful use of materials is intrinsic to countless procurement decisions.

From an infrastructure perspective, life cycle analysis and ecological cost accounting have a major role to play in coordinating sustainable materials practices. Every campus purchase has both an ecological and economic impact—from using green cleaning materials to installing recycled carpets. Materials originate someplace on the planet, derived from the biosphere and delivered to your doorstep. What do we use and where does it come from? Which materials are most likely to minimize ecological impact?

A campus is an ecological location with a geographical, cultural, and landscape context for its materials use. What works best in Arizona may not be well suited for Maine. However, we can share our experiences and experiments by developing common expectations about sustainable materials practice. Why shouldn’t this awareness become a priority for a whole campus pedagogy—a way to build interdisciplinary focus and meaning among engineers, architects, artists, ecologists, and educators? What better way is there to learn about how we use (and abuse) our place and planet?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


In the late 1970’s, the University of Massachusetts (Amherst) hosted an annual Toward Tomorrow Fair, a showcase for what was then called “appropriate technology.” I vividly remember the poster advertising the fair. It depicted a small city in a campus-like setting, with windmills, solar panels, passive solar architecture, bicycles, monorails, and all manner of farms, gardens, and orchards. Imagine a college campus with a similar landscape—buildings displaying a full range of renewable energy resources, creating a uniquely educational energy architecture. Each building serves as a model for conservation efficiency, ecological design, and interactive learning, powered by an innovative renewable energy source.

Energy refers to the transformation of matter to produce heat and electricity. The point of sustainable energy practices is to maximize the efficiency of those processes so as to minimize unwanted byproducts. We require a new energy algorithm that enables us to heat and cool our buildings, move people and their goods from one place to another, and power our machines, without simultaneously altering the biosphere.

For colleges and universities a primary challenge is how to approach zero-carbon energy use. This can be accomplished through a combination of ingenious technical innovations, renewable energy sources, and rigorous conservation/retrofitting. It’s essential that these efforts are fully transparent so that all energy users understand the flow from source to destination to byproduct, or what is typically described as life cycle analysis.

Energy cost accounting, the foundation of a truthful ecological economics, should be built into all budgetary approaches, incorporating not only the short and long term campus dollars and cents (sense) but also the ecological and climatic ramifications of such decisions. On a more tangible level we can link the magnitude of energy choices to the scale of daily behaviors. How does turning on a switch or turning up the thermostat impact both the traditional budgetary spreadsheet, but also the planetary carbon budget? I can think of no better educational project than outfitting all campus buildings with the capacity to monitor such choices by calibrating all of the necessary equivalencies and ratios. Campuses can become monitoring cooperatives, defined by the ubiquity and transparency of their energy networking systems.

Energy structures serve as instructional landmarks on the campus landscape. Windmills, solar panels, and geothermal installations all require interpretive displays that help campus users better understand the complexity of energy choices, while allowing our students to develop new habits of thinking about their energy use.

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus: Introduction

When I visit college campuses or educational conferences, I often give a talk on "The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus."
I recently finished an essay on that topic. Over the next few weeks I will post the essay as blog entries. The first section explains how my original inspiration for this came from The Whole Earth Catalog.

From the Whole Earth Catalog to a Sustainable Campus

Forty years ago, in the late 1960’s, I was a college student in New York City. Every Friday afternoon I would hop on the subway, get off at Bleecker Street, and wander through the record stores and bookshops. It was an exciting time to be a student given the profound social, cultural, and political changes. Every week there would be new books, magazines or records in the shops and I wanted to read and listen to all of them.

One day I spotted an unusual, oversized paperback book with a stunning picture of the earth on the cover. Laced across the top in a familiar 60’s San Francisco style font was the title: The Whole Earth Catalog. I flipped through the pages and glanced at the sections—whole systems, natural history, land use, community, learning, tools—and each page was organized like the “things to do” books I used to play with as a kid. The catalog recommended books to read, maps to peruse, ideas to consider, and tools of all kinds. Implicit throughout the text was a message of sustainability posed as a challenge for an impending era of ecological limits. For many years and through many editions I did the best I could to track down the various resources in the Whole Earth Catalog. It became my most treasured reading list and guide.

In retrospect The Whole Earth Catalog served as a visionary inspiration for living a sustainable life. It provided an enduring, resilient, community-based, do-it-yourself, hands-on guide for living and learning. Forty years later, I realize that my entire career path is a response to that challenge. Now as a college president this is the educational philosophy that continues to guide me. Sustainability is not just a LEED certified building or providing more local foods in the cafeteria. It is a powerful philosophy of life, derived from ecological principles, common sense, and a respect for the complex magnificence of our remarkable planet.

Sustainability as a “way of life” has a long tradition in American higher education. Whether its Thoreau’s musings and experiments, Helen and Scott Nearing’s homesteading, Lewis Mumford’s vision of ecological cities and technology, or the countless attempts to link character, community, and ecological living (see David Shi’s pertinent history The Simple Life), the Whole Earth catalog served to coalesce and revitalize a perennial philosophy.

Forty year later, the ecological stakes are much, much higher. It’s crucial to understand that sustainability is a response to a planetary emergency. We are in the early stages of the sixth megaextinction (a catastrophic loss of species), plunging declines in biodiversity, and a rapidly destabilizing climatic/oceanic circulation.

This response poses an immediate challenge for all educators. How do we teach sustainability as a way of life? Make no mistake—this is the single biggest challenge for higher education—ultimately connected to turbulent economic times, the accessibility and affordability of schooling, and how we think about the future of the planet. Our goal should be nothing less than to train a new generation of sustainability leadership, graduates who understand the intricate connections between economics and ecology, place and planet, how we live and the consequences of our actions.

As a means for meeting this challenge, and as a guide for both curricular and institutional transformation, I propose nine elements of a sustainable campus, designed to evoke a whole new twenty-first century catalog of transformational sustainable practices. These entail three broad categories—Infrastructure (Energy, Materials, and Food), Community (Governance, Investment, and Wellness), and Learning (Curriculum, Interpretation, and Aesthetics). Imagine these categories as dynamic, unfolding, emergent, and intrinsically interconnected. Any sustainable practice may involve multiple categories. For example, a sparkly and ecologically efficient Platinum-LEED building may reduce the carbon footprint of a campus, but if it doesn’t also serve an inspirational curricular or interpretive function, it may not achieve its full educational potential. These nine elements aren’t a checklist, nor are they criteria for measuring success. They are meant to evoke the necessity of envisioning and applying sustainable practices to all aspects of campus life.

A sustainable campus requires a balance between protocols, behaviors, habits and routines, along with creativity, deliberation, and reflection. We need peer-reviewed protocols such as those developed by the ACUPCC (American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment) so we have a common agreement as to appropriate standards. Such protocols serve as the basis for supporting sustainable daily life practices, from energy conservation to growing local foods. The subsequent behaviors must also be the subject of deliberation. Why exactly are we doing this and what do we hope to accomplish?

At Unity College in Maine, we aspire that our campus becomes an exemplary learning and living laboratory for a sustainable culture. We hope that people who visit our campus (students, parents, community members, donors) will get dozens of ideas that will in turn inspire their own practices. We feel that if we can do this in rural Maine where the winters are very long, at a college that is undeniably “resource strapped” we can set an example for any campus anywhere. Like many other excellent colleges that share similar aspirations, we are learning how to do this, and many hours of effort and intention separate our aspirations from our accomplishments. We are collaborators and learners. Just because Unity College has an environmental mission, it doesn’t mean that we lack controversies, contradictions, and countervailing influences. Sometimes we slip into self-righteousness in our efforts to be virtuous. That’s why a healthy dose of humor is always required. As the poet Jim Dodge writes, purity is the end of potential!

As a college president, these nine elements are the source of my motivation and ambition. They reflect how I attempt to apply what I learned from the Whole Earth Catalog. This is way more than a career challenge. It’s deeply rooted in a search for meaning and purpose, a values-based orientation, and a commitment to fulfilling my responsibility as a planetary citizen.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Ice Bridge Holding Antarctic Shelf in Place Shatters

Like countless others I've developed the habit of reading the newspaper (the New York Times) online. I enjoy the instantaneity of the news, the ability to send relevant stories to peers and colleagues, and as a sports fan I like having morning access to the west coast scores. Yet when I hold the print edition of The Times in my hands I have a more thorough and enjoyable reading experience. I find that I tend to study the visceral newspaper and scan the virtual newspaper.

Every few weeks I'll indulge myself and pick up the Sunday Times, especially when I know that I'll have the time and patience to actually read it. Yesterday it was cool and cloudy, I had a rare free day, so I bought the paper. I slowly flipped through the front section and read with interest two quarter column stories on page 9, one about Obama's plan to loosen travel restrictions to Cuba, and a second on how violence is silencing the voices of Sri Lankan journalists. I was about to turn the page when I noticed an almost imperceptible "two inch" story sandwiched between two quarter page ads, "Nordstrom Fits America" and CIRCA Jewelry's "We're Here to Help."

I'll reproduce the story in full:

Ice Bridge Holding Antarctic Shelf in Place Shatters

An ice bridge holding a vast Antarctic ice shelf in place has shattered and may herald a wider collapse caused by global warming, a scientist said Saturday.
"It's amazing how the ice has ruptured," said David Vaughan, a glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey. "Two days ago it was intact," he said, referring to a satellite image of the Wilkins ice shelf.
The satellite picture, by the European Space Agency, showed that a strip of ice about 25 miles long that is believed to pin the ice shelf in place had snapped.
The loss if the ice bridge could mean a wider breakup of the ice shelf, which is about the size of Connecticut.

Tucked into the smallest conceivable space in arguably one of the world's great newspapers is a story to dwarf them all, a news item of extraordinary planetary significance. It's buried on the bottom of the page in the southern corner, like the Antipodes themselves, thousands of miles away, at the "bottom" of the earth, observed by a few scientists monitoring satellite photos.

Why, I wonder, isn't this a front page banner headline? Why is there instead (in the same edition) a front page story about the efforts of Scarsdale, New York middle schools to help adolescents learn how to empathize more and gossip less (yes, yes, I know that's important!)? Why has our coverage of extraordinary biospheric events been relegated to the smallest corner of the newspaper? It feels like this story (perhaps inadvertently) has been swept under the rug.

I will save you from what would only be a trite analysis of why this is so, and spare you, too, my fatalistic musings. Nor do I wish to minimize the awakening public awareness around climate change, or the emerging student-activism energy regarding sustainability and climate action.

However, this story is a daily reminder (buried in a daily newspaper) that our climate actions are still not close to being urgent enough, and we must do all that we can to encourage living and learning habits and practices that keep climate action at the forefront of our concerns.

As a college president, I try to keep an active voice with the ACUPCC (American College and University President's Climate Commitment). and any other organization that I belong to or work with. Indeed, I serve as a college president for one primary reason—to exercise as much influence as I can to promote sustainable solutions to deal with climate destabilization and the loss of biodiversity.

The ACUPCC is of particular note. Why? Because it represents over one third of all the nation's college presidents who are making a campus-wide commitment to reduce their carbon footprint. Multiply this by all of the students who attend those colleges and you can have a major impact. At the forthcoming ACUPCC summit (this August in Chicago) working groups will coordinate efforts on a range of campus initiatives. Among the most crucial will be curricular efforts. In partnership with AASHE (The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) and CGIU (Clinton Global Initiative University), we'll be figuring out ways to have maximum impact on the nation's curriculum.

How do we insure that climate awareness and sustainable solutions are infused in multiple educational settings—intrinsic to freshman learning experiences, deeply incorporated into any and all majors, and the basis for innovative new majors that will prepare a new generation of sustainability leadership and a green work force?

Stories such as the ice bridge shattering may not be front page news in the Sunday Times, but it's our responsibility to move them to the frontpage of a comprehensive higher education curriculum effort.

For more on the organizations cited in this post (ACUPCC, AASHE, CGIU), see the links column on the right.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Environmental Studies for the Whole World

I had the great honor to attend the second annual meeting of CGIU (Clinton Global Initiative University). This is a gathering of over a thousand college students from more than sixty countries, approximately one hundred college and university presidents, and panelists from academia, business, activism, and the entertainment industry.

It was my first trip to Austin, Texas. After a harried evening of delayed flights, airline mechanical failures, and assorted mishaps, the Unity College contingent (myself and three students) arrived in Texas, pleased to be there safely, and delighted to experience some warm weather in the middle of a very cold and snowy winter.

This was a magnificent event, filled with great ideas, commitments, and energy. Essentially, the message of the conference is to promote a global spirit of community service, linked to climate change, health care, social justice, economic equity, and poverty alleviation. Each student who attends the conference is accepted by virtue of a commitment to initiate a service project. Hence this is a conference about action. The commitments range from developing prosthetics for victims of mines leftover from the Vietnam war to promoting awareness of human trafficking, and include countless (and wonderful) programs to promote international health, campus greening, community education, and so on. It's an impressive catalog of ambitious and inspiring projects.

As interesting as many of the panelists were, what I enjoyed most about the weekend was watching the extraordinary energy of the students. Although it's always instructive to spend time with other college presidents, I spent way more of my time floating among the students, asking them questions about their work, getting to know about their concerns and interests. This culminated on the final day as I joined hundreds of students on a community service project in East Austin. I spoke to people from the University of North Dakota to New York University, and they all had a well-articulated sense of dedication and commitment. I was utterly delighted with the passion and intelligence I observed. This was a terrific learning experience for me and these students (including our Unity College reps) were my teachers.

I was also very inspired by President Clinton. He was ubiquitous at the conference and he served to empower the voices of the panelists and, of course, the students. He always spoke directly to the students and his combination of eloquence, substance, and experience reflected an evocative integration of heart and mind. What a terrific way for a former President to be spending his time!

An overriding theme for President Clinton and a challenge he continually posed to the students was "how do you take your passion and turn it into a lifetime of service?" "How do you apply the skills you have to social change?" He discussed "the routinization of service," how "service makes you happy," and how gratitude reciprocates."

"Always save some space for being a citizen," he advised. And "to be pessimistic is to bet against yourself."

Clinton's mantra was leadership through action, the importance of how, the importance of deeds rather than words, and the limitless potential of everyone in the room.

Have we heard all of this before? Well, perhaps, but that doesn't lessen its significance. It was the authenticity with which Clinton approached these themes that illuminated his message. Further, with each aphorism of service he would provide a substantive anecdote reflecting a riveting public policy success. Clinton is impressively learned, and that leant an authority to his eloquence.

I look forward to keeping pace with all aspects of the Clinton Global Initiative and I was absolutely thrilled to bear witness to such a constructive and inspirational gathering.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Birding and Ecological Learning

On returning from a short jaunt on snowshoes in the Unity woodlot, I spotted some Snow Buntings. It took me some field guide work (and consultation with Professor Dave Potter) to confirm what I saw. Ever since I got out the field guides, they've stayed out. I've tried to find a little bit of time every day to study a small section of a different field guide. I realize that I do this annually, usually in the dead of winter. I get an uplifting feeling as I flip through these magnificently illustrated books. It's a reminder that Spring will be here.

As a young boy, I would practice a similar ritual with my baseball cards. In the late 1950's the new series of Topps cards usually wouldn't be in the stores until March. So I would retrieve the previous year's cards and sort them out on the floor of my room. By late January, the sun is higher in the sky and you know that Spring lies out there somewhere. Probably if I had spent as much time then studying birds as I did baseball cards I would be a much more skilled birder than I am. But instead I remember that Duke Snider hit 42 home runs in 1955 and I can call up other such useless trivia.

No matter. I didn't really take notice of birds (the way birders do) until I was in my late twenties. And I remain a casual birder. During spring migration, or when I travel to distant places, or when I have spring fever, I get out the bird guides, carry my binoculars with me, and do the best I can to observe and pay attention, hoping that with each new excursion, my atrophied skills will somehow be resurrected.

Truth be told, I'm not a very skilled birder. I find it difficult to move from a pure viewing field to the binoculars and back again.
I don't attend to or notice detail particularly well as I have always been more of an observer of patterns and systems. And I'm impatient in the field. I'm easily distracted and ready to move on to the next new thing. These are all reasons why the patient perseverance of birding is so crucial for my ecological awareness.

Here are some reasons why I enjoy birding when I have an opportunity to do it.

(1) Birding slows down my hyper-reflective always thinking/moving mind, and helps me achieve a more refined state of pure observational awareness. Birding forces me to focus on the observational moment.

(2) It teaches me about the remarkable variety, mystery, and wonder of life on earth. Each species has a unique life story, an adaptive radiation, an ecological strategy, a biogeographical space, a behavioral response, and a perceptual accommodation. I respond to this diversity with unbridled enthusiasm.

(3) While observing birds in their habitats I am inevitably drawn to other aspects of the landscape which I now see through the movement of the birds.

(4) I enjoy looking up birds in field guides. I find these guides reassuring in that they can pack so much information and diversity into a book that you can carry in your pocket. Yet they tell only a sliver of the story. Indeed, the drawing, the text, the photo, and the map are all approximations. There is a compelling narrative that lies within, between, and beyond the page. I take pleasure in perusing multiple field guides, each reflecting a different descriptive strategy, all somehow comprehensive yet incomplete. Perhaps these field guides reassure me that despite anthropogenic planetary changes, these birds (for now) are still here!

(5) I enjoy the gaming and sporting aspect of birding. I take pleasure in seeing a "new" bird and adding it to my list, not in an obsessive way, but more in the sense of finding a jewel or uncovering treasure. How appealing it is when a bird I've never seen before reveals itself to me!

(6) I revel in the hide and seek element. Sure there is a stalking, prey/predator Pleistiocene origin to this. But I think of it more as a subtle game of search and discover. Still, the bird plays by its own rules.

(7) I adore the improvisational aspect—how you take a walk, or sit in a spot, and sometimes without warning, a mixed flock of birds appears, often at various layers of the landscape, and you have to figure out where they are, where they are moving, and how you can blend into the landscape well enough to observe them.

(8) Birding teaches me to come out of myself and into the natural world.

(9) Birding teaches patience.

(10) Birding teaches me to listen to the sounds of nature, paying attention to the basic elements of musical sound—call and response, mating and attraction, notification and warning, or as David Rothenberg points out in his lovely book Why Birds Sing, singing for the sheer heck of it.

(11) I enjoy the collecting aspect of making a list, with the impermanence attached to collecting something that you can't own or put on a shelf.

There's much more to reflect on here. If you're interested in the deeper meaning of birding, I strongly encourage you to read Jonathan Rosen's absolutely brilliant and evocative book, The Life of the Skies: Birding at the End of Nature. Rosen's learned and passionate account moves from spirituality to the history of human/nature relationships, through Louisiana, Israel, and Central Park. His work embodies so much of how we think about our relationship to nature. And he's a terrific storyteller.

But for now, and for the purposes of this blog (Environmental Studies for the Real World) and in service of ecological learning, I wish to say that through the crises of climate change and biodiversity and our urgent rush to promote sustainable alternatives, birding ought to be at the heart of environmental studies. I can think of no better way to learn to observe nature and I can think of no more virtuous and vital learning opportunity than observing birds.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Inaugural Inspiration and Emotion

I watched the inauguration at the Unity College Student Center. The room was absolutely packed. Students, staff, and faculty were riveted to the screen. When Chief Justice Roberts asked everyone to rise, we all rose too. We all sang the Star Spangled Banner. We wanted to share this extraordinary moment.

I was in Washington on Monday (the day before the inauguration) to attend an event featuring the Maine Senatorial and House Delegation. I went down just for the day. I rode the train from BWI to Union Station. It was utterly stuffed as the aisles were filled with standing passengers. Of course, it was a train to the Inauguration. I flashed back to 1968 when I took a bus to Washington for an anti-war demonstration. Forty years later I was witnessing a similar gathering. Yet it was much different this time. There was much less anger and much more love. There was less frivolity and more determination. There was much more diversity. It was as if forty years of activism had come of age. I felt an incredible sense of admiration for all the people on that train.

Watching the inauguration on television wasn't the same as being there, but watching it with the Unity Community was intensely intimate and we were all building community and solidarity, too. Obama's message is so clear—we all have a role to play in America's transformation. Everyone has something important to do.

Like millions of others, I was profoundly moved emotionally. I'd like to describe what it was that brought me to tears. I think that finding the core of an emotional moment is an opportunity for insight and wisdom. Aretha Franklin just about undid me. As she came to the stage, wrapped in her scarf and hat, I noticed a vague and palpable resemblance to my grandmother. Bessie Thomashow was a Russian/Jewish immigrant who believed passionately in worker's rights and bequeathed a progressive legacy to her grandchildren. I grew up in a home that believed deeply in civil rights, peace, and social justice. My parents met in 1948 working for Henry Wallace, the progressive third party candidate for president. My mother passed away a year and a half ago and my father died on election day this year. Neither had any awareness of Obama and they would have been so thrilled to witness these events. Aretha's face connected me to my roots, as different as they might be from hers.

And then she began to sing. She sang with extraordinary passion and power, unbridled but in control, as if her entire history as a musician prepared her for this moment. She sang for my family and for yours. She sang for the past and the future. Her voice reflected struggle and hope, suffering and elation. She filled us with faith and courage.

I am so grateful that I am living at a time in American history when Barack Obama is president. I am so grateful that we all have an opportunity to share in this collective vision and contribute with our voices to this exceptional opportunity. As an educator, my role is to help empower a new generation of leaders who can find their voices in this time of great hope. After all of these years, there is a context for the work we do, and we are nourished by the feeling that there is a meaning and purpose for our work. In my view, the election of Barack Obama is a gift, and we are living in a singular, defining moment of American history. It's our task to respond to that gift by honoring the challenge of learning and service, to make the most of our opportunity, to build enduring and resilient communities, and to empower clear and effective voices.

Friday, January 2, 2009

The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Culture

It's both rewarding and inspiring to observe all of the renewed interest in sustainability, especially in higher education. However, it's crucial that in uncertain economic times, we reiterate our commitment to sustainable approaches to all aspects of our lives.

Let's remember that sustainability is a response to three extraordinary and interconnected challenges—biodiversity loss, species extinction, and climate change. This response entails more than LEED buildings, innovative technologies, and cool new courses. It involves all aspects of organizational life, including values, governance, learning, and infrastructure.

For higher education, I propose nine integrated elements of what it means to have a sustainable culture. I don't imply that Unity College has achieved mastery in any of these areas. But we do use these as guidelines for our Master Plan, our mission, and all aspects of our future as a learning organization.

In this post, I'll briefly lay out these nine elements. In future installments, I'll deal with each of them in more detail, and describe some of the ways that Unity College is thinking about them. See Mick Womersley's blog for more details too. http://ucsustainability.blogspot.com/

Broadly conceived, a sustainable culture for a college or university involves infrastructure, community, and learning.

The infrastructure challenge involves (1) energy, (2) food, and (3) materials.

Energy encompasses the carbon budget, energy sources, conservation efforts—all aspects of the energy system for a campus. This awareness is crucial for achieving a zero-carbon initiative and meeting the goals of the President's Climate Commitment.

Food involves all aspects of the food production and consumption system, including the use of local and/or organic foods, whether food is grown on campus, and the extent to which the campus supports a sustainable food system.

Materials considers the raw matter of various construction processes, including the supply chain, recycling, reuse, and toxicity.

The community challenge involves (4) governance, (5) investment, and (6) wellness

Governance reflects decision-making processes, including budget preparation and approval, staff and faculty participation, the board of trustees, and all stakeholders. Are they involved in all aspects of moving a campus towards sustainability? Is there a clarity of purpose regarding accountability, responsibility, and agency?

Investment includes all aspects of a college's impact on the finances of the regional community. Does the college serve as a multiplier for regional sustainability efforts? Does it support sustainable business practices? Is its endowment invested in ecologically responsible businesses?

Wellness involves the stress level, general health, and attitude of the organization. Does the college promote healthy living? Does the community emphasize its own physical and mental well-being?

The learning challenge embodies (7) curriculum, (8) aesthetics, and (9) interpretation

Curriculum is the ground floor of any college's sustainability efforts. Are sustainability principles (from economics to ecology) thoroughly infused in all aspects of the curriculum, from freshman experiences through professional schools? Are there specific programs to train sustainability practitioners, tailored to the special strengths and qualities of the institution?

Aesthetics suggests that sustainability initiatives should be implemented with the arts in mind. Are there vivid, imaginative, and interesting exhibits/arts projects/installations that develop a metaphoric resonance with various sustainability initiatives?

Interpretation means that the campus should serve the broadest possible educational function in calling attention to its sustainability efforts. Here is the perfect place for the educators to use a campus as an opportunity for challenging instructional opportunities—the campus as a living laboratory for sustainability. How do we learn from each other, evoke thoughtful and interesting comments from our constituents, and galvanize all visitors to our campus?

The purpose of these guidelines is to open a discussion regarding the whole system of a sustainable culture. It's not enough just to build a few LEED certified buildings (as admirable as that is!). It's not enough just to have a great sustainability course for freshman. We need to empower and inspire entirely new ways of thinking. These nine elements imply the depth of our challenge. The college campus is the best place to exemplify these possibilities and to inspire a whole new culture of sustainable practice, living, and thinking.