Jump to Navigation
Jump to Content

Progress Toward Sustainability in Higher Education

January 2003

Citation: ELR 10003

Author: Wynn Calder and Richard M. Clugston

When society recognizes a need that can be satisfied through advanced education or research and when sufficient funds are available to pay the cost, American universities respond in exemplary fashion. . . . On the other hand, when social needs are not clearly recognized and backed by adequate financial support, higher education has often failed to respond as effectively as it might, even to some of the most important challenges facing America . . . . After a major social problem has been recognized, universities will usually continue to respond weakly unless outside support is available and the subjects involved command prestige in academic circles.1

—former Harvard University president Derek Bok

Sustainable development remains barely recognized as a significant social, economic, or environmental challenge for the United States. The President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD)2 was disbanded in May 1999, based in part on the perception of Vice President Albert Gore's campaign that sustainability was not an issue for the American electorate. Little funding from either governments or foundations supports higher education initiatives to promote sustainable development, and only a few disciplines are beginning to afford a measure of legitimacy to teaching, research, and outreach in this area. Hopeful signs are emerging, but education for sustainable development in America is still at the margins.

The seeds of the movement to green higher education in the United States go back to the emergence of environmental concerns in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first Earth Day in 1970 was a student-based effort. Internationally, the Stockholm Declaration of 19723 related environmental concerns to all societal sectors, including education. Only after the 1992 Rio Earth Summit4 did the term education for sustainable development (also "education for sustainability") enter the vocabulary of educational reformers. While the movement continues to draw on an environmental foundation, concerns have broadened to include the social and economic dimensions of sustainability.

[Editors' Note: In June 1992, at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, the nations of the world formally endorsed the concept of sustainable development and agreed to a plan of action for achieving it. One of those nations was the United States. In August 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development, these nations gathered in Johannesburg to review progress in the 10-year period since UNCED and to identify steps that need to be taken next. Prof. John C. Dernbach has edited a book. Stumbling Toward Sustainability, that assesses progress made by the United States on sustainable development in the past 10 years and recommends next steps. The book, published by the Environmental Law Institute in July 2002, is comprised of chapters on various subjects by experts from around the country. This Article appears as a chapter in that book. Further information on Stumbling Toward Sustainability is available at www.eli.org or by calling 1-800-433-5120 or 202-939-3844.]

Wynn Calder is associate director, Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF) and the Center for Respect of Life and Environment (CRLE). He is editor of the ULSF report, The Declaration, news editor for the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, and co-coordinator of the Higher Education Network for Sustainability and the Environment (HENSE). Richard Clugston is executive director, CRLE and ULSF and the Earth Charter USA Campaign. He is publisher and editor of the CRLE journal, Earth Ethics, and deputy editor of the International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education.

You must be a News & Analysis subscriber to download the full article.

You are not logged in. To access this content: