Defining sustainability and a sustainable university
“Sustainability” and the concept of sustainable development came to the forefront in 1987, with the publication of the United Nations’ book “Our Common Future”, or the “Brundtland Report”, as it is commonly referred to. Sustainable development was defined as, “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (Brundtland, 1987). Indeed, the most contested, emblematic but controversial definition of sustainable development is the one set out in the “Brundtland Report” of the World Commission on Environment and Development. Since then, hundreds of definitions have been proposed, which shows the complexity, regionality and dynamic nature of the concept itself. It has been widely acknowledged that education at all levels and types is critical at promoting and fostering sustainable development goals (SDGs), sustainable competences and behaviour patterns, as well as a sense of ethical co-responsibility. It is woth pointing out, that, the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable development” have been used interchangeably, although sustainability is also seen as the ultimate goal or destination and sustainable development development as the means for achieving sustainability. Sustainable development is generally perceived as an overlapping of four pillars (Figure 1.1), namely environment, society, culture and economy (UNESCO, 2008).
Figure 1.1: The four pillars of sustainable development
Sustainable development, then, may be defined as the means “to making informed, contextual and conscious decisions driven by the principles of solidarity, justice, accountability, equity and transparency for the good of present and future generations, locally and globally and to act upon those decisions for advancing social, economic and environmental wellbeing” (Makrakis, 2011ab). Accordingly, sustainability or sustainable development:
- Is contested, contextual and regionally defined;
- Is driven by the principles of solidarity, justice and intergenerational equity;
- Is focusessed on qualitative human development rather than quantitative economic growth.
Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) bear their own responsibility for the sustainability crisis the world is facing. It seems clear that there can be no sustainable world where universities promote unsustainable modes of production and consumption. Higher education, in particular, takes for granted that many education systems promote unsustainable education practices that need to be revisited (Cadotti, 2010). Moreover, HEIs can be the drivers for change towards the transition to a sustainable world. A growing number of academics are concerned with the current sustainability crises and claim for a transformative shift in what universities teach and how teaching is practiced.
The transition towards a sustainable university must inevitably reflect the social, cultural, economic and ecological conditions experienced in the place where the university is situated. Despite that, there are well-defined foundational principles which can characterise a sustainable university, in general. Transforming universities into more sustainable institutions necessitates rethinking of what we are doing on essentially four key university functional and interlinked constituencies: a) curriculum, teaching and learning; b) research and development; c) institutional/administrative operations and d) partnerships and outreach driven by the three realms of sustainable development, as depicted in Figure 1.2) social and economic justice; 2) ecological integrity and 3) the well-being of all living systems on the planet through an integrative and cross-cutting manner (Kostoulas-Makrakis & Makrakis, 2012).
Figure 1.2: The constituencies of a Sustainable University
The fundamental problem faced in meeting the three goals stated in the above figure for all students is that the existing curriculum in higher education has not been developed to examine how we shape a sustainable world. Much of the curriculum has been developed to provide students with an increasingly narrow understanding of disciplines and is focused on specific knowledge and skills employed in the given area. The Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (http://www.ulsf.org/programs_saq.html) defines the basic characteristics of universities fully committed to sustainability as follows:
- The college or university would appropriately incorporate the concepts of sustainability into all academic disciplines and in liberal arts and professional education requirements.
- Sustainability would be integrated into faculty and student research on topics such as renewable energy, sustainable building design, ecological economics, indigenous wisdom and technologies, population and development, total environmental quality management, etc.
- The institution would be continually engaged in reducing its “ecological footprint” (e.g., CO2 reduction practices and the use of emission control devices; sustainable building construction and renovation; energy conservation practices; local food purchasing program; purchasing and investment in environmentally and socially responsible products; regularly conducted environmental audits; and many others).
- Since research and teaching are the fundamental purposes of academic institutions, knowledge of sustainability would be a critical concern in the hiring, tenure and promotion systems (e.g., reward faculty members’ contributions to sustainability in scholarship, teaching, or campus and community activities; provide significant staff and faculty development opportunities to enhance understanding, teaching and research in sustainability).
- The institution would engage in outreach and forming partnerships both locally and globally to enhance sustainability (e.g., support sustainable communities in the surrounding region and develop relationships with local businesses that foster sustainable practices; seek international cooperation in solving global environmental justice and sustainability problems through conferences, student/faculty exchanges, etc.).
- Student opportunities would reflect the institution’s commitment to sustainability (e.g., new student orientation, scholarships, internships and job placement counseling related to community service, sustainability and/or justice issues; an Environmental or Sustainability Council or Task Force with strong student representation; student groups actively engaged in promoting sustainability on campus and in the local community).
- The written statements of the mission and purpose of the institution and its various units would express a commitment to environmental responsibility and sustainability (e.g., lectures, conferences, Earth Day celebrations, etc).
Before going to further reading on this issue, it is suggested to reflect on:
- Your personal views on the concept of ‘sustainable development’.
- Write 3 things that you would like to change in your local society.
- Relate the identified things with the Brundtland definition of sustainability as well as other definitions.
- Formulate your own definition of sustainability that is more related to your local environment or region.
- You can also further elaborate the constituencies of a sustainable university exploring the RUCAS Sustainable University Network (http://rucas.edc.uoc.gr/) that provides guidelines for developing and monitoring sustainability in higher education institutions.
- You can also access a toolkit for greening universities: http://www.unep.org/Training/docs/Greening_University_Toolkit.pdf and call for actions: http://www.aashe.org/files/A_Call_to_Action_final(2).pdf
Reflect: Consider some of the definitions that have been produced in relation to suatanable development and choose one that you are think it is more suitable to your local environment. Then reflect on what sustainability means to you and discuss this with your colleagues. Now that you have completed this module, what do you think “education for building a sustainable future” might mean? Write a definition and compare with the UNESCO’s emerging vision of education for a sustainable future? Make a list of key issues that you believe ought to be included in any good definition of sustainable development. Use these key issues to write your own definition that is more suitable to your country or region.