On sustainability and being “green”

APU’s Strategic Plan has three core themes: academic excellence, sustainability, and enrollment growth. I’m often asked, “What do you mean by sustainability?”  I like the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations definition that “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  In its Strategic Plan, APU adopted the three pillars or the triple bottom line of sustainability–People, Profits, Planet–as operational measures to assess its performance.

With respect to people, our aspiration is to foster a learning community where students, faculty and staff– to draw upon the wisdom of Parker Palmer–“create a space in which the community of truth is practiced… we do not learn best by memorizing facts about the subject..we learn best by interacting with it…knowing is a profoundly communal act… that we must reweave us into the community that is so threadbare today…that community is central to four issues that have long been basic to the life of the mid: the nature of reality (ontology), how we know reality (epistemology), how we teach and learn (pedagogy) and how education forms or deforms our lives in the world (ethics).”

With respect to profits, APU must, as is the case with any Non-Governmental Organization (NGO), make a profit (earn more net revenue than it spends) to remain a viable, sustainable enterprise.  NGOs reinvest their net revenues back into the organization’s mission while corporate profits accrue to stockholders and corporate executives. 

Traditionally, most institutions of higher education in the U.S. have been NPOs until recently where for-profit mega-universities, led by the University of Phoenix in the U.S., have entered and captured significant market share and profits that accrue to their stockholders and key executives. 

Planet, the third bottom line, is the “green” aspect of sustainability.  The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) has developed an extensive rating system for colleges called the Sustainability Tracking and Assessment Resource Tracking System (STARS. ) https://stars.aashe.org/    The Princeton Green Review is another rating system.  While STARS is the measure I associate with being green, the end game is 1) carbon neutrality and 2) zero waste.  When an organization factors these two criteria into every organizational decision, they are on the path to becoming green.

As one example, my previous campus, The Evergreen State College in Olympia Washington, scored a perfect score on the Princeton rating system and was generally considered one of the top five “green” campuses in America.  Evergreen prepared a Climate Action Plan to determine their baseline carbon emissions and solid waste output so that they could monitor them each year and set target years to achieve carbon neutrality and zero waste.  This allowed them to prioritize the actions each year that would move them closer to their goals. Students voted to tax themselves i.e., increase their student fees and use those funds to purchase energy from clean, renewable sources.  Students researched and implemented an extensive composting facility, the compost supplying the organic farm which produced organic produce for the campus dining service which, in turn, and collected excess food waste to return to the composting facility. In an effort to reduce energy bills and use more renewable sources, Campus Facilities investigated and are in the process of securing funds for a biomass energy plant on campus.

APU has joined 667 other college campuses to sign on to the President’s Climate Commitment   http://www.presidentsclimatecommitment.org/   to “model ways to eliminate global warming emissions and by providing the knowledge and the educated graduates to achieve climate neutrality.” APU’s sustainability council is in the process of preparing our Climate Action Plan including an inventory of our greenhouse gas emissions. As is the case on most campuses, the three major components of greenhouse gas emissions i.e., APU’s carbon footprint will be space heating, electricity usage, and commuting to and from campus. In the short run, this means we will focus on creating more energy efficient buildings, investigate cleaner sources of energy for space heating, reduce commuter trips to campus i.e., getting people out of their cars and into active transportation modes; feet, bikes, skis, or using buses or car pools, and practice the three Rs–recycle, reduce, and reuse.

Alaska is the ‘canary in the mine” for global warming; nowhere is the impact more evident with the loss of land ice (Alaska lost 400 billion tons of land ice since 2003) and melting of the permafrost e.g., there is an estimated 950 billion tons of carbon stored in the million square miles of northern tundra–more carbon than currently resides in the atmosphere –that could be released upon thawing. http://www.presidentsclimatecommitment.org/files/documents/climactic.pdf   Of 229 Alaska villages, 32 face immediate threats from global warming, many others in danger of being impacted. 

The message is simple: Green the campus, green the curriculum (integrate sustainability into the entire curriculum across the board).  Students get it-sustainability is the most sought after field of study for incoming freshmen. They understand that “green” job skills will be needed in the future and that it is an area where they can truly make a difference in society.

Clearly, sustainability is an evolving concept and APU, as a learning community, must continue to engage its entire community in an ongoing dialogue as to what it means and where we want to go with it.