Reflections on Sustainability

Imagine fully embracing the idea that we are the first generation capable of determining the habitability of the planet for humans and other species. How might this influence the choices we make in higher education, in our business models, in the way we consume, even in the way we design our technology?

Such was the question posed by Anthony Cortese, president of Second Nature and organizer of a meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education in Denver over Fall Break.  During the course of a dynamic two-day conference, Cortese maintained that sustainability is about a transformation of education that would concentrate the focus of our teaching and research on providing all people with the opportunity to survive and flourish by having a healthy planet support them.

The conference was full of challenging ideas.  A panel of employers emphasized that graduates need “sustainability literacy” and communication and presentation skills—“soft liberal-arts skills”— more than they need technical knowledge. Several round-table discussions explored how to move knowledge out of silos into collaborative partnerships to work on problem-based teaching and research. Many speakers urged the creation of courses across the curriculum that address how best to support the flourishing of all people. Some even advocated that each and every course can and should do so. I heard about schools whose mission had been rewritten to include sustainability, and I learned about environmental studies programs that combine research, social action, community service, and the arts in unique ways.

Swarthmore was well represented at the conference: several college and university sustainability coordinators are Swarthmore graduates, as were several presidents and numerous faculty. All the alumni I met were interested in how our Quaker heritage and our commitment to academic rigor combine to serve as a platform to prepare the next generation to address the challenge of a healthy earth able to support nine billion inhabitants by 2050. Although I didn’t completely agree with all points at this conference, I return to campus with new questions and challenges. For the sake of the people and the planet, especially for the sake of our students and their future, we must consider them.