What is sustainability?
We define sustainability as what sustains us as diverse people and communities—from clean air and water to healthcare, education and art—and making decisions in our individual and collective lives with this big picture in mind.
Sustainability is both local and global. It requires of us that we consider both the past and the future in terms of current and best practices.
At UNH, we use the sustainable learning community model developed by Dr. Tom Kelly. Sustainability involves maintaining the long-term health of biodiversity, climate, food, and culture, and where these four systems interact.
Sustainability itself has become a fragmented field of thought; definitions abound. Some equate sustainability with sustainable development, while others equate sustainability with narrowly construed notions of the environment. But while protecting the environment is crucial to sustainability, on its own it does not constitute sustainability.
The sustainable learning community model builds off thinking and scholarshop done by the international policy, academic and scientific communities post World War II, including the:
- Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
- Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
- United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) & Education for Sustainable Development
- United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO)
- World Commission on Culture and Development's 1998 report "Our Creative Diversity"
- Agenda 21: The United Nations Programme of Action from Rio
Why sustainability in higher education?
Large educational and research communities, colleges and universities exert significant ecological, economic, and cultural force in their immediate region and extended surroundings. What’s more, through what it teaches, what it researches, and how it engages with its neighbors, higher education can help transform the unprecedented challenges we face today into opportunities. Education in our time can, should, and must promote sustainability.
- Colleges and universities are communities, and the community teaches. Everything is curriculum, and everyone is an educator. Education results from the community experience of learners. Discussions happen in classrooms, laboratories, residence halls and apartments, cafeterias, on buses, and on playing fields. Work study jobs, internships, and volunteer work. Extracurricular activities. Films, performances, and guest speakers. Even just walking across a campus itself and noticing the diversity of people and the elements of the campus landscape can inform and influence students, faculty, and staff in subtle yet profound ways. Imagine the impact, then, when a college or university integrates sustainability throughout its core mission and identity.
- Colleges and universities can serve as sustainable community models. Institutions of higher education are mini towns and cities, often complete with their own power plants, dining areas, transportation and water systems, and healthcare services. From this perspective, core university functions that traditionally are viewed as providing logistical support for the academic mission become an active and intentional part of the curriculum.
- Colleges and universities can serve society with scholarship. Scholarship that responses to the challenges we face today advances sustainability. Sustainability scholarships integrates the sciences, social sciences and humanities to ask big questions and help us solve big problems.
- Colleges and universities can foster engaged citizenship. Colleges and universities can be places of “inclusive dialogue, public deliberation, and broad citizen participation” - “all essential to the continuing development of a healthy democratic society” and to sustainability more broadly (UNH Democracy Imperative). By fostering opportunities for reflection, deliberation, dialogue, study, growth, and change, colleges and universities can help transform us from consumers driven solely by convenience and price back into engaged citizens with the capacity to foster sustainability.
- Kelly, T. (2009). "Chapter 1: Sustainability as an Organizing Principle for Higher Education." The Sustainable Learning Community: One University’s Journey to the Future. University Press of New England: Hanover, NH.
- Aber, Kelly and Mallory (eds). (2009). The Sustainable Learning Community: One University’s Journey to the Future. University Press of New England: Hanover, NH.
- Report of the Brundtland Commission, "Our Common Future (PDF)," and formally the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), was published by Oxford University Press in 1987. You can also find a copy here.
- Kelly, T. (November 2003). "Building a Sustainable Learning Community at the University of New Hampshire." Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future, 6(2); and Kelly, T. (April 2003). "What is Sustainability?" NH Forum. (PDF)
- United Nations Decade on Education for Sustainable Development
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