This essay originally appeared in Sustainability: A Journal of Record (June, 2014)

The sustainability movement is thriving on college and university campuses. There are scores of people from all corners of campus life who deeply care about human flourishing, ecosystem health, and community empowerment. These folks come from blue and red states alike, with diverse political perspectives. They represent every conceivable academic subject—from art to aviation. They work in a variety of job settings—from the cafeteria to the president’s office. More than anything, they want to know that their efforts are contributing to a greater good. Sustainability initiatives bring meaning to people that work, live, study, and play in campus environments.

How do I know this? Over the last several years, since I stepped down from the Unity College presidency, I have been working independently, visiting campuses, giving talks, meeting with groups ranging from students to facilities staff to the senior leadership. I have visited nearly forty campuses in three years. As the Director of the Second Nature Presidential Fellows Program, I work closely with the college and university presidents on the ACUPCC (American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment) Steering Committee. I am on the phone with many presidents discussing their sustainability visions and actions, getting a sense of their accomplishments and aspirations. I also consult with the Sustainable Endowments Institute, facilitating their conferences and brokering meetings for people who wish to learn more about green revolving funds.

I get around. I’ve had contact with people from at least two hundred campuses. Granted, that’s still less than 10% of all the campuses in the United States, and it’s something of a self-selected group. But by any measure it’s a pretty good sample. If you add three years of scanning Sustainability: The Journal of Record, attending several AASHE conferences, and doing the research for a new book (The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus) I feel confident that I have good sense of what people are doing and thinking about. And I am inspired by what I see. What could be better than meeting so many people who wish to contribute to community well being?

I’d like to summarize the highlights of my experience and travels by describing the most salient trends. Here they are in a nutshell. The sustainability movement is intergenerational, bipartisan, co-curricular, hands-on, community oriented, service-based, interdisciplinary, urban, experimental, aspirational, and hopeful. Of course these fine qualities do not always overcome some daunting challenges. Many sustainability practitioners, despite their accomplishments, don’t think their campuses are moving quickly enough, or that too few sustainability oriented courses are embedded in the curriculum, or that the campus hasn’t sufficiently internalized sustainability in its mission and/or planning, or that they are understaffed and lacking resources. So let’s take a brief look at the movement’s characteristics and accomplishments, and then the challenges, culminating with some suggestions for maximizing leverage and effectiveness.

When I give a talk, I typically describe my own background and roots. I love to tell a story about the time (way back in 1969) when I first saw the Whole Earth Catalog appear on the shelves of the 8th Street Bookstore in New York City. Then I look at the audience. The baby boomers are grinning from ear to ear. They know what I’m talking about. I explain to the younger folks in the audience that I was a college student when I discovered the book and that my whole career, in retrospect reflects my aspiration to implement the curriculum in the Whole Earth Catalog. The sustainability movement has deep roots (going back way before 1969). The best learning happens when people of different ages groups share their stories and knowledge. In my experience, interest in sustainability is always intergenerational.

Some of my talks are at campuses in conservative regions of the country. Last September I addressed over a thousand people at Central Community College in Grand Island, Nebraska. I carefully explained how sustainability encourages both economic and ecological debt reduction, frugality, minimizing waste, maximizing efficiency, community service, and improving the quality of campus life. Afterwards, many folks came up to me explaining how they consider themselves political conservatives, but they were very excited by what I had to say. I am convinced that sustainability inspires the possibility of building bipartisan coalitions to support sound campus community decisions.

Sustainability initiatives are typically co-curricular. Campus sustainability knowledge is a community effort, involving many different teachers. Of course the faculty have much to contribute and there are great sustainability oriented courses, programs, and degrees. But sometimes the most enduring learning comes from the hands-on experience of daily life practices, whether it’s working with the campus horticultural staff, or working with the facilities people on energy related issues. We could make a very long list of how campus sustainability initiatives emerge from every conceivable aspect of campus living, and how the habits one learns on a campus can stay with you for a lifetime.

Co-curricular efforts generate community-based service learning. If there’s a campus local food program, it will typically involve farmer’s markets, partnerships with local food pantries, and discussions about the virtues of clean eating. I attended a magnificent community breakfast, sponsored by the University of Kentucky sustainable agriculture program, with food served by the faculty, and guest presentations by local farmers. At Unity College, we established community wind assessment programs, led by students and faculty who helped communities determine whether wind energy was feasible in their locations. Every campus I visit considers how its sustainability initiatives can engage students, staff, and faculty in the local community. These efforts improve town-gown relationships, build regional economic partnerships, and become the basis for long-term sustainable investments.

If you attend a faculty workshop on sustainability, you will find faculty from every conceivable academic background. Sustainability institutes develop uniquely interesting academic collaborations. I recently visited Clarkson University’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment. They build programs that involve engineering, business, economics, energy, and environmental biology, with additional contributions from the liberal arts. If you peruse the catalogs of any of the new sustainability institutes or centers, you will find similarly unique configurations. These institutes are having no difficulty finding exceptional students and faculty.

It is very encouraging to observe the rapid growth of urban-based sustainability programs. This is where environmental concerns interface with social justice, economic equity, community organizing, multicultural learning, diversity studies, new media innovations, architectural design, social network studies, climate adaptation and resilience, and dozens of other dynamic approaches to how we think about the future of cities. Portland State University, Arizona State University, and George Washington, are just a few of the many institutions that are developing new programs to meet the sustainability agenda of cities.

In her excellent commentary in the April 2014 issue of Sustainability: The Journal of Record, Deborah S. Peterson, describes the necessity of sustaining the human spirit. In my experience, the great excitement of sustainability programs is that they embody the best of the human spirit. They are inherently experimental, exploring new solutions to difficult challenges, combining technology, innovation, common sense, and appropriate scale. They are aspirational, promoting a positive, problem-solving orientation, emphasizing practical and collaborative solutions for seemingly intractable challenges. They are hopeful, assuming that we can cultivate the very best ideas and intentions, and lead the way by example. I am convinced that the greatest strength of the sustainability movement is the creative spirit of its practitioners.

These characteristics are contributing to remarkable new programmatic and infrastructure initiatives on hundreds of campuses. When I visit a campus, I try to remind people just how much they’ve accomplished in a very short period of time. Yet there is a pervading urgency that contributes to an underlying restlessness, the sense that so much more needs to get done, and that we are in a race against time. What is the merit of our accomplishments when juxtaposed with the latest IPCC report, or any of the biosphere scale issues that are the motivation for our efforts?

I have had numerous discussions with sustainability directors who worry about their impact. Typically there is an overriding concern. Many people feel that they have job portfolios that are way beyond the scope of what any one person, or small team, or sustainability committee can possibly accomplish. When they consider the work that needs to get done, the attitudes that must change, the challenges of moving higher education bureaucracies, the snail’s pace of curricular change, and the budgetary constraints of many institutions, they can get discouraged. Then there is all the record keeping. Consider all of the excellent, but time consuming reporting systems that sustainability personnel must manage—the STARS system, ACUPCC climate action plans, LEED certifications, not to mention various regional or state reporting criteria.

I’ve spoken to sustainability directors who feel that they don’t get sufficient support from the senior leadership, or that the president is barely aware of the institution’s sustainability efforts. Another common complaint is the perception that sustainability is the sole responsibility of a committee, or a director, and that the whole institution doesn’t recognize its importance. I’ve spoken with college and university presidents who are frustrated that they can’t afford the staff or personnel time to implement comprehensive sustainability initiatives. Of course these resource issues are a great challenge and although sustainability initiatives often save money, many institutions lack the capital investment to realize such savings.

It’s important to consider that the “sustainability professional” is still a relatively new position on many campuses, and many of these professionals are trying to figure out how and where they belong, how to continually justify their position, and how to mobilize the campus more effectively. Consider, too, that most of these professionals are generalists who may have a specific substantive area of expertise, but are typically not experienced in assessing organizational dynamics, higher education leadership, social capital development and time management. One’s good will, intuition, and activism can only go so far.

I appreciate that these are generalizations. There are as many sustainability stories as there are campuses. Most campuses are exploring new territory, and the sustainability professional has to weave an encompassing narrative that fits the cultural setting of the institution. More often than not, despite the perceived challenges, when I ask sustainability professionals to make a list of what they’ve accomplished, they realize that they really have made significant progress.

Our challenge (we are all working together) is to mobilize our best thinking so we can catalyze sustainability efforts. I have two suggestions, one to maximize the effective of the sustainability professional, and the other to build better campus working teams.

I’m convinced that today’s sustainability professional is tomorrow’s campus leader. If you explore the profile of these people, most are early to mid-career professionals, many are women, and they are extremely capable people who are anxious for professional development. But they are typically too busy to pursue this. I’d like to see a national program of short, week long gatherings, specifically designed to work with sustainability professionals, covering organizational leadership, social capital, peer support, and executive mentoring. These types of gatherings build resilient professional networks. The Harvard School of Education has such workshops for senior leaders, including presidents. Why not have them for sustainability professionals? We’re beginning to see the first steps towards such efforts. They should be vigorously supported.

We also need more gatherings that involve an entire campus team, including the senior leadership and the sustainability professionals. By way of example, this year at the ACUPCC summit, we are inviting presidents to bring sustainability teams with them. The idea for doing this came from the presidents who suggested that bringing a team would enable them to coordinate their efforts in a way that isn’t often possible during the daily grind of campus life. Our expectation is that these teams will leave the summit with a better sense of purpose, an opportunity to meet with teams from other institutions, and more confidence in their prospects for success.

We are still in the early days of the sustainability movement. I expect that over the next decade we will see the increasing professionalization of the field, an emerging portfolio of best practices, and a deepening of institutional commitment, buoyed by the ethic of care and creative thinking that inspired sustainability in the first place.


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.