The ACUPCC and Second Nature: Accelerating Education for Sustainability

December 7, 2010

By Anthony Cortese, President, Second Nature

(This article appears in the December, 2010 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

As you know, Second Nature is a non-profit organization whose mission is to transform the education, research, practice and community engagement of higher education in order to foster a healthy, just and sustainable society for all now and in the future. Senator John Kerry, Teresa Heinz and I founded Second Nature in 1993 to help lead this transformation.  Our view of “sustainability” includes and goes well beyond the environmental dimension to embrace the bigger questions of how we create a world in which all current and futurehumans are healthy, live in secure, thriving communities and have economic opportunity on a finite planet whose capacity to support life becomes more precarious daily.

We did this because of three beliefs.  First, despite heroic efforts on public health and environmental protection in the last 40 years, society was and continues to be on an unhealthy, inequitable and unsustainable path that threatens the viability of a complex modern civilization.  Secondly, we need transformative change in the mindset and actions of individuals and institutions that must be led by higher education.  And thirdly, the current structure and direction of higher education is largely (though unintentionally) reinforcing the unhealthy, inequitable and unsustainable path that society is pursuing.

From the beginning we have focused on how to help higher education see that education for and practice of “sustainability” is fundamental to higher education’s ability to fulfill its role in providing the knowledge and educated citizenry for a thriving civil and sustainable society.  We have been involved in catalyzing and supporting a number of state, regional and national efforts (e.g., EFS Western Network, AASHEHEASC) to advance this transformation as you can see in the attached piece on Second Nature (PDF).  The latest two efforts have been to organize and support the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC) network and to work with under-resourced colleges and universities to build their capacity to address sustainability in operations and education through the Advancing Green Building Program.  We have partnered and continue to partner with a wide variety of organizations, including AASHE, the Campaign for Environmental Literacy, AASHE, UNCF, AIHEC, HACU, USGBC, CA-CP, Energy Action and the mainstream higher education associations.

We are ecstatic about the unprecedented and exponential growth, especially in the last 5-7 years, in environmental sustainability academic research and education programs from the community college through the professional and doctoral level in every discipline. Progress on campuses modeling sustainability has grown at an even faster rate and is unmatched by any other sector of society. Students have often been the driving force behind these actions in a manner that reflects the most sophisticated student movement since the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960’s.  We at Second Nature are privileged to have watched, celebrated and played a small part in this effort.

Unfortunately, higher education is doing a poor job on the health, social and economic dimensions of sustainability. The overwhelming majority of graduates know little about the importance of sustainability or how to lead their personal and professional lives aligned with sustainability principles.

The ACUPCC: A Beacon of Systemic Change
The ACUPCC, with 675 colleges and universities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia covering 35% of the college student population, is the first majorsystemic commitment by higher education to both act as a model institution for sustainable practices and ensure that all of the graduates can help society do the same.  This represents unprecedented leadership by higher education. Higher Education is the first and only major U.S. sector with a significant number of its members to commit to what is scientifically necessary, climate neutrality, as a fundamental means of creating a thriving sustainable society. This is especially important given the inability of the international community and the US Congress to act. The signatories believe that the positive impact of collective leadership by all colleges and universities is critical because climate disruption and creating a sustainable society is a global challenge requiring solutions of immense scale and speed.

For the members of the network, the ACUPCC has created a successful learning community among the participating institutions: sharing plans and experiences, working together to address challenges and helping to create new knowledge and financial resources to benefit all of the institutions in higher education.  We are pleased to report that almost 550 schools have completed GHG inventories and 320 have completed climate action plans.  Finally, the ACUPCC has fundamentally shifted higher education’s attention on sustainability from a series of excellent, distinct programs to a strategic imperative of presidents, academic officers, business officers and trustees.  Sustainability is becoming akey lens for measuring success.  It represents an unprecedented institutional andcultural shift to focus on all aspects of social, economic and ecological sustainability.  Attached is an overview of the ways that the signatory presidents view the ACUPCC.

We at Second Nature appreciate how hard it is for the signatory schools to achieve the extraordinary commitment that they have made.  One of the hardest things society will do is to become a low-carbon, less auto-dependent and circular production society that lives off of nature in a sustainable manner.  We thank you all for your untiring efforts. We will continue to do everything we can to support the ACUPCC and all of higher education to lead this effort because higher education is the only sector that can provide the necessary knowledge and skills on a broad scale.  We will continue to help lead the national Education for Sustainability (EfS) movement through active collaboration with other national organizations.  In the next addition of The Implementer we will outline some of the ways we will do so in 2011, building on the successful efforts in 2010.

Of course, we cannot do this without the cooperation and the financial support of the signatory schools that is essential to providing the core/basic support for the ACUPCC and leveraging corporate and foundation funding to help accelerate its scope and impact.  We are grateful that 83% of the signatory schools have contributed dues so far in 2010.  As always we welcome any suggestions on how we can improve our efforts to support the ACUPCC and all of higher education.

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