Campus Sustainability: It’s About People
In 2004, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, two prominent environmentalists, published an article that was part eulogy and part warning for the green movement. In the essay, “The Death of Environmentalism,” they asserted that if environmentalists are to survive, they must create the “I have a dream” eco-vision of the future, not the “I have a nightmare” version, and must connect it to people, not just bunnies and trees. A lack of focus on people and their needs, the authors said, would marginalize environmentalism, perhaps fatally.
Now the budding campus-sustainability movement, which was born of the same impulses and sentiments as the environmental movement, may be at risk of falling victim to the same problems that Shellenberger and Nordhaus described: eco-centricity.
Campus sustainability has long been premised on the “three legs of the stool”: environmental protection, fiscal equity, and social justice. It aspires to merge the natural world with man’s world—to envision a future devoid of natural-resource depletion, an equitable distribution of wealth, and social systems that promote justice and peace. Just as environmental harm ultimately affects people worldwide (climate change, for example), sustainable solutions require all populations to benefit.
Some people could argue that this vision of sustainability is taking root in higher education. The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, known as Aashe, has tracked remarkable growth in campus-sustainability programs—the group’s membership has gone from a handful of campuses in 2006 to about 1,000 today. The American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a landmark carbon-neutrality effort, has committed almost 700 college presidents to zeroing out greenhouse-gas emissions and increasing climate-literacy efforts. The Princeton Review and others now routinely assess greenness in their annual campus ratings.
Those facts may suggest that campus sustainability is alive and well—but is it also devoutly eco-centric?
Aashe’s recent survey of sustainability-staff members found that 92 percent of them are white. That raises a question: If sustainability is such a powerful and integrative theme, marrying environmental, economic, and social concerns, where are all the people of color in the sustainability field? Aashe has tried to highlight social-justice imperatives in its calls for presentations and in the theme of its conferences (for example, “Aashe 2010: Campus Initiatives to Catalyze a Just and Sustainable World”). Yet few such papers show up.