This article appeared this morning (April 3rd) on the Green Biz website. (Adapted from The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press, 2014)

Green Biz has an outstanding newsletter. I follow it to see what progressive-minded businesses are doing in regard to sustainability. 

There are two crucial obstacles that limit sustainability initiatives on college and university campuses. The first is financing and capital investment. The second is organizational process. I experienced these issues first hand when I was the president of Unity College from 2006-2011. Since then, in my capacity as the Director of the Presidential Fellows Program at Second Nature, I have visited several dozen campuses and spoken with many several hundred senior leaders on other campuses. I am convinced that these challenges are ubiquitous.

Almost every campus I visit is legitimately concerned about its finances.  In this report, I’ll focus on capital investment and suggest that if more campuses broadened how they conceive of wealth they might find that their resources are not as limited as they think.

Let’s start by reconsidering the meaning of sustainable investment. From a strictly financial perspective, it suggests that the campus endowment will be more oriented toward ecologically and socially responsible equities. Or that campus budgeting will give priority to energy efficiency and conservation. Campus leadership will investigate and implement financial incentives to stimulate comprehensive, ecologically sound approaches to energy, materials, and food infrastructure. The campus will work with the regional community to develop sustainability markets, serving as a dynamic economic multiplier for sustainable businesses. More broadly, campus sustainable investment implies ways of reconsidering all of the institution’s capital assets.

We often conceive of investment as a financial term implying the exchange of current income for future assets. However, in common parlance “investment” has a broader meaning. We use it to convey the amount of time we are willing to spend doing something in the hope of a future reward. As individuals, we think about the resources we are willing to commit to a project or process. These resources might include time, money, knowledge, talent, and effort—a range of abstracted or tangible qualities that coordinate our personal assets. Surely the cost-benefit analysis of an investment goes way beyond a simple financial assessment.

The concept of investment can be similarly expanded for institutions, especially colleges and universities. The endowment is the repository of the system’s financial capital, reduced to an investment portfolio. The assets (time, money, knowledge, talent, effort) of a system transcend this financial reduction, although a financial equivalence is always presumed. When institutions engage in planning and thereby balance present needs with their anticipation of the future, they have comprehensive discussions about the deeper meaning of investment. On which projects should we spend time? In what ways will our present efforts be rewarded tomorrow? How do our knowledge contributions manifest themselves in future outcomes? How should we be spending our money?

But there are other ways to assess an institution’s capital assets if we broaden the meaning of capital. For example, several prominent ecological economists use the term natural capital to signify “the goods and services from nature which are essential to human life.” Robert Costanza elaborates:

“Natural capital is the extension of the economic notion of capital (manufactured means of production) to environmental goods and services. A functional definition of capital in general is “a stock that yields a flow of valuable goods or services into the future.”

Similarly, we can distinguish social capital as an important campus asset. Lew Feldstein and Robert Putnam describe social capital as “the collective value of all ‘social networks’ (who people know) and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other.” Campuses also have significant     intellectual capital in the form of the collective knowledge of their students, staff, and faculty.  

How might a campus assess, organize, project and even measure sustainable investment by considering wealth and capital in these terms? When you consider this broadened approach to capital (natural, social, intellectual, and financial), you realize that college and university campuses have an extraordinary variety of assets. If you measure a campus’s capital assets in exclusively financial terms, you overlook other forms of wealth that are additional prospects for sustainable investment.

Financial capital is the standard measure of a campus’s financial health. A package of comprehensive ratios serves as the foundation of best-practices financial assessment—viability ratio, primary reserve ratio, and net income ratio as calculated through expendable net assets, plant debt, total revenues, total operating expenses, total non-operating expenses, and change in total net assets. These ratios reflect an assumption that wealth is best measured through its representation as money.

What happens when we assess a campus’s wealth by considering the other forms of capital? Although there have been several attempts to measure intellectual capital as a campus’s asset, these mainly focus on standard academic productivity criteria—publications, collaborations, research grants, credits, courses, and other ways of verifying knowledge production. A similar approach could be used to organize, catalog, and understand campus sustainability initiatives—sustainability as knowledge production. The most conventional way to do this would be to use the proposed knowledge production as a base layer of measurement, and then apply knowledge production to all academic projects that are oriented around sustainability research, teaching, and service. This is an asset in the sense that it adds value to the institution’s prestige and research, leveraging its potential to develop conceptual breakthroughs in the sustainability field.

Colleges and universities rely heavily on promoting social capital as a means to enrich campus life, stature, influence, and effectiveness. Campus life is typically rich with affiliations, clubs, networks, and associations. The desire to increase one’s social capital is a primary reason for attending a college. Sustainability advocates often promote social capital by emphasizing community partnerships. Most of the sustainability initiatives on a campus, including food growing, recycling, energy efficiency, collaborative research efforts, and service projects, typically involve people working together to improve campus life. Pick up just about any college’s catalog (or peruse just about any college’s website) and you are likely to see photos of happy and engaged people working together on sustainability projects or in sustainability programs. The social capital accrued through campus sustainability adds to a campus’s wealth.

All campuses have natural capital assets. Natural capital is typically interpreted as the visual appeal of a campus’s landscape (“please visit our beautiful campus”) or as a campus’s exceptional location (“our campus has easy access to the diverse cultural resources of our city”). Campuses are built environments in natural places. They may be “endowed” with energy assets (solar gain, wind, geothermal), ecological assets (habitat, farmland, wetlands, watercourses), wildlife, and all of the intrinsic values and services of the ecosystem. Ecological economists refer to these assets and functions as ecosystem services. These include services related to provisioning (food, water, minerals, energy), regulating (carbon sequestration, waste decomposition, air and water purification, crop pollination), supporting (nutrient dispersal and cycling, seed dispersal, primary production), and culture (inspiration, recreation, scientific discovery).    

What I wish to convey here and what I often suggest to campus leaders is that sustainable investment entails an understanding that wealth, assets, and capital come in many forms. There are diverse ways for a campus to invest in a sustainable future and it can do so more effectively by broadening its understanding of value. By doing so, it more comprehensively coordinates its approach to wealth, helps the entire campus understand how it contributes to that wealth, and builds a renewed sense of optimism in the value of sustainability, one that goes beyond mere finances alone.  


Mitch Thomashow

Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. Currently he is engaged in teaching, writing, and executive consulting, cultivating opportunities and exchanges that transform how people engage with sustainability and ecological learning. In August, 2011 Thomashow became Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program. This new program is designed to assist the executive leadership of colleges and universities in promoting a comprehensive sustainability agenda on their campuses. Fellows provide executive consulting on climate action planning, long-range financial planning, organizational leadership, curricular implementation, and community investment. From 2006-2011, Thomashow was the president of Unity College in Maine. With his management team, he integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of college and community life. This included construction of The Unity House, the first LEED Platinum President’s Residence in North America, and the TeraHaus, a passive house student residence, as well as comprehensive campus energy planning, an integrated approach to growing food on campus, and a new academic master plan. Previously from 1976-2006, Thomashow was the Chair of the Environmental Studies program at Antioch University New England. He founded an interdisciplinary environmental studies doctoral program and worked collaboratively to grow and nourish a suite of engaging Masters programs, geared to working adults. Thomashow is the founder of Whole Terrain, an environmental literary publication, originating at Antioch University New England, and “Hawk and Handsaw,” a journal of creative sustainability, published at Unity College. He serves on the boards of Orion Magazine and The Coalition on Environmental and Jewish Life (COEJL). Thomashow is a founding organizer of the Council of Environmental Deans and Directors (CEDD), a national organization that supports interdisciplinary environmental studies in higher education. He provides ongoing consultation to the Sustainable Endowments Institute and their new Billion Dollar Green Challenge program. His two books have significantly influenced environmental studies education. Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (The MIT Press, 1995) offers an approach to teaching environmental education based on reflective practice—a guide to teachers, educators and concerned citizens that incorporates issues of citizenship, ecological identity, and civic responsibility within the framework of environmental studies. Bringing the Biosphere Home, (The MIT Press, 2001) is a guide for learning how to perceive global environmental change. It shows readers that through a blend of local natural history observations, global change science, the use of imagination and memory, and philosophical contemplation, you can learn how to broaden your spatial and temporal view so that it encompasses the entire biosphere. His essay (2010), “The Gaian Generation: A New Approach to Environmental Learning” provides provocative new concepts for teaching about global environmental change. Another essay (2012) “Where You At 2.0” reasserts the relevance of bioregionalism for digital age learners. A recent essay (2013),“Sustainability as Turnaround” is a case study of his work as president at Unity College. with mandolin.png His new book, The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (The MIT Press) provides a framework for advancing sustainable living and teaching in a variety of campus environments. It will be available in January, 2014. Thomashow is currently working on two writing, networking, and teaching projects. Improvisational Excellence suggests that improvisation emulates the patterns and processes of the biosphere. It’s a series of essays linking play, music, and observing nature to the paths of everyday living. It is the philosophical basis for Thomashow’s workshops on global environmental change, music and nature, and ecological perception. Wilson’s Library is a series of prose poems depicting extraordinary moments during the history of life on earth. Thomashow lives in the hill country of southwest New Hampshire in the shadow of Mount Monadnock. He loves to explore the fields, forests, wetlands, hills, and lakes of Northern New England where you can often find him on his bicycle. His recreational interests include basketball, baseball, board games, jazz piano, electronic keyboards, musical composition and recording, guitars, hiking, and lake swimming.