Sustainability: An Organizing Principle for Colleges and Universities: An Open-Letter Call to Action from Arizona State University's President

By Crow, Michael | University Business, June 2007 | Go to article overview

Sustainability: An Organizing Principle for Colleges and Universities: An Open-Letter Call to Action from Arizona State University's President


Crow, Michael, University Business


WE ARE APPROACHING WHAT I would term a critical inflection point in the evolution of global society. Such inflection points occur when new advances in our understanding converge in some meaningful way with our existing social, cultural, economic, and historical circumstances and practices, allowing us to glimpse new opportunities. Sustainability is a term that is easily applied to so many things that we constantly risk diluting its power as a concept, but without doubt it represents nothing less than a reconceptualization of our relationship with both the planet and the community.

The task for scholars and administrators in our nation's colleges and universities is to register the significance of this inflection point and to consider how best to refigure institutions to accommodate and advance the new transdisciplinary teaching and research critical to our collective well-being.

New Challenges, New Solutions

With a global population of 6.5 billion that is projected to increase to 8.5 billion by mid-century, we face challenges of unimaginable complexity, both as a species and, more narrowly, in terms of our American standard of living and quality of life as a nation. The increasing interconnectedness and integration of societies and economies worldwide makes us interdependent, but we are all wholly dependent on the dynamic and interactive system of complex biogeochemical cycles that makes life on earth possible in the first place.

Yet despite our efforts to advance our understanding, there remain both incomprehension and complacency regarding the extent to which the Earth is falling increasingly under our influence as the dominant life-form.

As we impinge more and more on natural systems--with our planet falling increasingly under the domination of a single species with the capacity to modify natural systems, extract and consume resources, and generate waste on a scale that even in the recent past would have been unimaginable--we must assume challenges that remain beyond our historic and present capacity to solve.

Nations are falling further behind, both in terms of developing the basic infrastructure necessary to maintain quality of life and an adequate standard of living for all citizens, and in balancing the needs of humanity with the long-term consequences of human impact on environmental systems.

The concept of sustainability, sometimes mistakenly equated with an exclusive focus on the environment, is at once straightforward and far more complex than one might suspect. Sustainability embraces environmental concerns, certainly, but its implications are far richer, spanning issues intrinsic to economic development, health care, environmental planning and urbanization, energy, chemicals, materials, agriculture, national security, business, industry, and government--in short, all the concerns of daily life in societies around the globe. Sustainability acknowledges the needs of human societies but in its framing seeks a balance between social values, including equity and justice, and the environment.

We are at a critical juncture in the evolution of our relationship to the environment--the long-term sustainability of our nation and even our planet remains in doubt--and universities must take the lead in addressing issues of sustainability. Academic communities cannot be removed from the front lines of social change, and our universities must serve as a forum for cultural, economic, political, and social reform. Universities are transformational catalysts for societal change and perform functions essential to our collective survival, but we must confront the fact that we do not fully understand the implications of human impact on the environment and are not adequately prepared to advance policies regarding the optimal intersection of human and natural systems.

The central question that confronts us is whether we will be able to choose wisely among alternative future trajectories, and in this sense our academic institutions are the keepers of the keys. …

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