Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Beyond Greening: Challenges to Adopting Sustainability in Institutions of Higher Education

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Beyond Greening: Challenges to Adopting Sustainability in Institutions of Higher Education

Article excerpt

It is common for colleges and universities to include sustainability in their mission statements and strategic plans. On many campuses, however, sustainability is associated with green practices only, rather than the comprehensive integration of social equity, economic, and environmental principles on which the concept was founded. In their review of the outcomes of the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STAR), which quantifies sustainability practices of member institutions of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), Urbanski and Filho (2015) found that there were significant differences in the interpretation of sustainability by higher education stakeholders, which could potentially result in unintentionally lower commitments. Beyond this limited interpretation of the concept, research has identified numerous obstacles to the adoption of sustainable practices. The goals of this paper are to examine the obstacles to the comprehensive adoption of sustainability in institutions of higher education, in general, and to suggest a conceptual framework of a sustainability culture as one most appropriate for the more effective incorporation of comprehensive practices.

The Concept of Sustainability

In 1987, the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations defined sustainability as "meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (WCED, 1987, p. 8). To make this a reality, the integration of economic, social and environmental efforts is required (Ralph and Strubbs, 2014). Sustainability is now considered to be a paradigm with which to frame future development decisions (UNESCO, 2011). To become sustainable, decision making must be framed in a way that balances how we use the environment, the need for social equity, and the need for economic growth.

These elements and their interrelationships are typically represented by a Venn diagram (Figure 1). Individually, each element is important and can be considered independently, but, in so doing, tremendous potential for negative externalities are possible. When integrated, the impacts are powerful and have the potential to create substantial growth and change.

The environmental aspect of sustainability encompasses the idea that humans exist as part of the biosphere and, as such, must be aware of the impact their actions have on the Earth's biodiversity and finite resources. Consequently, sustainable decision making means using resources wisely and respecting the environment in which we live.

The social aspect is often framed in the context of social equity. This can range from equal opportunity legislation, to working to ensure that all people have access to resources to meet their basic needs, to working towards social justice in distant countries.

Growth is the goal of virtually every economy in the world. The economic component recognizes the need for productivity and the creation of jobs. Economic decisions, however, often take place in a vacuum, with short-term profit-made possible by the availability of cheap raw materials, cheap labor, and a large consumer base-as the focus. For many, this means economic growth is the sole measure of success and, as such, supersedes the environmental and social aspects in terms of importance. Economic sustainability means planning in the long term and valuing resources (both human and natural) appropriately to ensure continued economic sufficiency

Growth is possible when all three of these aspects of sustainability: environmental, social and economic, are integrated in a complementary manner in decision making. Integration is key; their interrelationships are more important than the individual elements themselves. These interactions are complex and vary geographically. While some people see sustainable development, or sustainability, as an unrealistic goal which can never truly be achieved, others see it as a set of guiding principles to be used in decision making to ensure the long-term survival of not only the human species, but of the entire planet. …

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