Making a Sustainability Perspective Second Nature in Education

Higher Education teaches a solution to the central question of our time: How can we continue to develop and prosper on such a small planet?

Making a Sustainability Perspective Second Nature in Education

This blog is part of our Inspired Ethonomics series. It’s co-authored by Second Nature President Anthony Cortese and Senior Fellow Georges Dyer.


In Part 1 of this series, we noted that our dominant economic system is not only failing to deliver, it is destroying the life-support system of the only planet we’ve got. With population on track to grow to 9 billion by 2050 and huge increases in consumption and demand from the developing world, a dramatic rethinking is overdue. Higher education must lead this rethinking. It must transform its teaching, research, operations, and service to communities if we are to have a chance at a thriving, peaceful, global society. There are key academic innovations that can and must happen to prepare graduates–3 million per year–for 21st century business.

Georgia Tech’s Center for Biologically Inspired Design brings together biologists, engineers, and physical scientists to facilitate research and education for innovative products, such as more efficient Internet hosting informed by honeybee colonies. The Gund Institute of Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont is taking a transdisciplinary approach to examine the relationships among ecological, political, and economic systems, such as evaluating the Genuine Progress Indicator as a better metric than Gross Domestic Product.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Engineering Department, with a focus on global citizenship, pairs technical expertise with educational opportunities to support an array of projects, from improving the water supply in part of rural Cameroon to constructing a biodiesel processor at a high school in Philadelphia.

The Center for Sustainable Enterprise at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School is helping students learn how to bring profits to a triple bottom line and identify new market opportunities through sustainable development. At UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, the Center for Responsible Business is bridging theory and practice, focusing on strategy, metrics, and social enterprise in the business arena.

Here are engineers, biologists, business leaders, designers, economists, and more working together around the central questions of our time: How can we as a global society continue to develop and prosper on such a small planet? Is physical growth necessary for improved wellbeing, or can we foster the growth of value without the growth of stuff? (All central themes of Tim Jackson’s new book Prosperity without Growth)

Last year a group of leading thinkers who have been grappling with these questions for decades–professors in economics, architecture, the sciences, engineering, philosophy, and the arts–along with college presidents and others–came together to produce a report called Education for Climate Neutrality and Sustainability. This report focuses on the various ways institutions can incorporate a sustainability perspective into the educational experience for all students. Education for sustainability is a key component of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a collective effort more than 665 colleges and universities in all 50 states working to create climate neutral campuses and ensure their graduates are prepared to address climate change upon graduation.


They found that to do this, the educational experience would reflect an intimate connection among curriculum, research, operations, and the broader community. Human/environment interdependence, values, and ethics would be a seamless and central part of all learning. It would promote interdisciplinary systems thinking within and across all disciplines. Active, experiential, inquiry-based learning and real-world problem solving would integrate and complement formal classroom learning. Colleges and universities would “practice what they preach” by modeling sustainability in their own operations and partnering beyond campus to move all of society towards sustainability.

There are hundreds of sustainability centers, programs, and degrees available around the country and many more on the way. They are moving well beyond siloed environmental studies programs and truly integrating sustainability into and across all disciplines–and outside the walls of their campuses. The University of Arkansas has partnered with Arizona State University to launch the Sustainability Consortium. With funding from major manufacturers and retailers, the Consortium will enable reporting of the sustainability performance of consumer goods in a consistent, scientifically grounded way. At Lane Community College in Oregon, the Sustainability and Learning Committee is integrating eco-literacy into all disciplines to provide better employment options for students in a new clean green economy.

These schools are using the sustainability lens to invigorate learning and research in unprecedented ways, reducing operational costs, uniting their campuses in common purpose, attracting students, faculty, and funding, and better preparing students for the rapidly changing workplace. But still, the overwhelming majority of our country’s 3 million college graduates each year are not getting the kind of education needed for success in the 21st century, leaving them unprepared and presenting a great risk to American business and to climate security. We need to expand education for sustainability to reach not just a growing minority of students, but an overwhelming majority.

Anthony D. CorteseAnthony D. Cortese is the Founder and President of Second Nature, a national nonprofit organization working to accelerate movement toward a sustainable future by serving and supporting senior college and university leaders in making healthy, just, and sustainable living the foundation of all learning and practice in higher education. Second Nature is the lead supporting organization and Dr. Cortese is the Organizer of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, which more than 665 schools have joined as they pursue climate neutrality in their campus operations and educate their students to address climate change upon graduation. Second Nature also runs the Higher Education Associations in Sustainability Consortium as well as the Advancing Green Building in Higher Education initiative, which helps under-resourced and minority-serving colleges and universities to build and renovate sustainably on campus. Dr. Cortese has spent the past four decades working for sustainability and environmental protection, including his time as Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection as a Dean at Tufts University.

Georges Dyer is a Senior Fellow at Second Nature, where he focuses on the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) and other leadership initiatives. He holds a Master’s in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability from Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden, and a BA from Dartmouth College.

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