Right now, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development's Rio+20 meeting is in full swing, with the concentration of its collective mind that typically comes from knowing you're to be hanged in the morning. Meanwhile, the ACUPCC is celebrating it's fifth anniversary with pretty much the opposite set of emotions (at least in public).
The final outcome of the UNCSD meeting is hardly in doubt, as the final text to be signed is already fully negotiated. The gloom many feel is that while this document sets out a noble set of aspirations (elimination of poverty (personal and pervasive social and economic unsustainability), attainment of justice, equity, peace and security, etc.), the political will to accomplish these (or, in the case of President Obama, even to be associated with them) is clearly lacking. The entrenched interests of the globalizing North and the increasingly-globalized South are just too far apart, too intractable, too subject to reinforcement by those who benefit most from globalization.
Nor is the celebration of ACUPCC + 5 particularly in doubt. For example, Business Officer (the monthly journal of NACUBO) has a nine-page article on the subject in this month's issue. It's a bit of a puff piece but, given that the audience is campus bean-counters (oops, I mean "business officers") and that campus bean-counters are often some of the toughest decision-makers we have to convince, I see that largely as a good thing.
What isn't a good thing is that the whole topic of sustainability in higher education, five years into the process, is still being defined and discussed largely in terms of energy utilization, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas emissions local to campuses. The success the article celebrates, using data emanating primarily from Second Nature, is impressive only when assessed in its own terms. Pick what it says apart, even a little bit, and the situation looks far less worth celebrating. College campuses may (may) be operating more energy-efficiently than in the past, but the problems facing society weren't caused by inefficient campus operation, and they won't be solved in that arena.
In a very real sense, the higher ed sector has been guilty of the same sort of greenwashing that sustainability folks criticize consumer goods producers for practicing. Rather than engaging seriously with the sustainability implications of our products, we've presumed that those products (education and other services) are fundamentally OK; we've focused primarily on the facilities within which those products are created. Like the manufacturer of giant side-by-side refrigerator-freezers who touts his LED-lit factory space, or the marketer of single-serving bottled water who advertises that now those bottles contain slightly less petroleum-based plastic, or the maker of "personal watercraft" who trumpets that his vehicles now spout slightly less in the way of noxious fumes than previously (still, of course, while transporting people and goods pretty much nowhere), we've challenged ourselves to do that which is most likely of nominal success, and least likely of real significance. Now we're proclaiming that success and hoping for another five-year hitch.
The presumption behind the ACUPCC is pretty simple: higher ed can model sustainable behaviors for society, and society will follow our lead. In the Business Officer article, Tony Cortese (president of Second Nature, a key ACUPCC backer) is cited as saying that "society looks to higher education to solve current problems, anticipate future challenges, and develop innovative solutions." It's a useful conceit, a nice turn of phrase and a comfortable story to tell ourselves at bedtime, but it strikes me as more false than true. For such practical things, society seems to turn more often to Apple Computer or Honda Motors than to colleges and universities. Higher ed may be associated with pure scientific research, but it I wanted a better mousetrap, I'm not sure that State U is the first place I'd look. Higher ed doesn't turn out solutions. What we turn out is folks who -- down the road and in different organizational settings -- may be expected to turn out solutions. And what we put into those folks is as much a worldview and a set of expectations as it is knowledge and technique. Unfortunately, the worldview and expectations we've been turning out for the past century or so have been major contributors to the decision-making and solution-providing that have gotten the planet into this mess. Continuing to imbue those values, that paradigm -- even while doing it on a slightly more energy-efficient campus -- isn't going to accomplish any noticeable reversal of fortune.
To put things into perspective, compare the numbers. Second Nature's blog has the ACUPCC targeting a cumulative reduction of 9.5 million metric tonnes of CO2-equivalent GHGs in the next 15 years. Meanwhile, the mayors of 59 large cities around the globe are shooting for a reduction of 248 million metric tonnes in 2020 alone, and over a billion tons annually by 2030. The climate change problem is driven more by cities where manufacturing of stuff (including the stuff used on campuses) takes place than it is by any number of campuses themselves. That's where it's happening. That's where it can be addressed.
None of which is to criticize the ACUPCC, Second Nature, or campus sustainability wonks in any way. They, and we, took as our first steps the only first steps we could reasonably take. The ACUPCC includes language around inserting sustainability into the curriculum, and a few institutions are trying out ways to make that happen. But as things have worked out, the less-unsustainable-behaviors-in-less-unsustainable-facilities example we had hoped to set is being set better (and bigger) by others better positioned to set it. And consideration of issues of sustainability aren't usefully discussed when grafted onto the side of an unsustainability-producing curriculum. It's time that we turn our attention to making the fundamental changes -- worldview, paradigm and resulting curriculum changes -- that we're in the best (perhaps the only) position to make. We can support urban society (particularly our local urban society) in its undertakings to become sustainable, but the activities on and through which we can have our biggest impacts are those that (re)produce society in the academic arena.