Sustainability: It Starts in the Schools

By Leslie Back

Those of us committed to sustainability might sometimes be hard pressed to stay optimistic. Bombarded with news of murky oil spills and other woes we might flirt with feelings of hopelessness. But, these are the times to search out the good things, to find what is going right, to find things that give hope. The tremendous advances made in sustainability in and through centers of higher learning give reason to expect only the best from future generations.

Universities and colleges promote sustainability in three ways. First, the institutions become more sustainable themselves, adopting green campus initiatives. Further, universities  develop new green education programs, preparing the next generation of workers to excel at finding solutions to our environmental problems. Lastly, as centers of research and development, schools serve as living laboratories for new processes and technologies.

I usually skim my alumni magazine before tossing it in the recycle bin, but I read the last one cover to cover. I was pulled in by articles on the school’s green programs, efforts not in place when I graduated in 2001. The school signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment two years ago, pledging a more sustainable campus. At the end of 2009 there were 665 signers nationwide, a growth of 5400% since the programs inception. By signing, schools commit to annual inventories of GHG emissions; develop a Climate Action Plan; and make sustainability a part of the students’ education. The reporting of ACUPCC is powered by Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), a member centered alliance of educational institutions focused on sustainable initiatives.

While greening their campuses and reducing their emissions, schools are simultaneously shaping and forming tomorrow’s green leaders. Degree programs have emerged to meet the needs of a changing workforce. Managers can now earn a Sustainable MBA, with emphasis on the triple bottom line, from leading and accredited universities, online or on campus. Community colleges and technical schools are lined up to train and inspire the next generation of green collar workers, the fifth largest market sector in the U.S. according to Green Tech. Professional certifications are offered by major institutions and private organizations, offering advanced studies for those new to sustainability or continuing education for industry veterans.

Finally, centers of higher learning continue to be powerhouses for research and living demonstrations of best practices. Universities are well positioned to create and test new methods, technologies and resources that might later become mainstream. I am encouraged by what many  are doing. For example, since 2003, Yale University has been offering the best in education and sustainable agriculture through its Yale Sustainable Food Project. On Earth Day of this year Green Mountain college in Vermont opened its $5.8 million dollar biomass plant, aiming to reduce its own emissions by 50% by next year. The plant will serve as an educational lab for students and the general public, educating all about the plausibility of renewable fuel sources.  These are two small examples among thousands.

So, there is reason for optimism. Academia is living up to its purpose of bettering society. Higher education is leading the way for this generation and the next. As with so many great things, sustainability starts in the schools.

Leslie is a Sustainable MBA student at Green Mountain College. Study interests include sustainability, social responsibility and the power of corporate and non-profit partnerships to bring about positive change. Other areas of interest include social media, fundraising and public policy. She holds a Certificate in Nonprofit Management and is certified in the Global Reporting initiative for Sustainability Reporting. Additionally, she holds an MA in Organizational Management and a BS in Leisure Management. On the rare occasions when she is not studying, she enjoys writing, reading, running, nature walks and yoga. She hopes to use her skills, talents and education to make a positive impact with an environmentally and socially conscious organization. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn.

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