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Sustainable Development and Universities: Combining the New and the Old

By Sorina Antonescu

History and overview of sustainability/sustainable development

One of the most well-known attempts at defining the concept of sustainable development is found in the Bruntland Report (WCED, 1987). The report, which captures the deliberations of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED), a United Nations formal group, aims to find ways to systematically pursue the conservation of the environment at an international scale in light of economic, social and political considerations. (Filho, 200o, p.9)

According to the report,

Humanity has the ability to make development sustainable to ensure that it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (WCED, 1987, p.16)

The concept of sustainable development is thus a concerted effort to bring together growing concerns on the increasing environmental degradation and interrelated socio-political and economic factors, in order to lay the foundation for a process that links these apparently stand-alone factors to human equity (Hopwood et al., 2005, p.2).

Yet, despite the fact that sustainability or the concept of sustainable development (henceforth SD) permeates the scientific field as a whole (with particular relevance in the earth sciences) the tracing of the concept’s origins remains a challenging task, more so as its wide appeal and applicability to a wide range of societal issues has left it subject to political discourse and rhetoric (Filho, 2000, p.9).

According to Filho (2000, p.9) the use of the concept of sustainability can be traced back to the 1970s to refer to the management of the forestry sector. Sustainability has been synonymous for expressions such as ‘long term’, ‘durable’, ‘sound’ or ‘systematic’ (ibid). However, as Blewitt and Cullingford (2004, p.17) point out,

The problem with the notion of sustainability is that is has become a cliché.

This is one of the main reasons why there is prevalent disagreement in providing a clear outline of the term. While it can be applied to an array of contexts – whether those are social, economic, cultural or political- allowing room for intellectual manoeuvre (ibid), it has also become a tool increasingly popular in political rhetoric, whereby opposing or competing parties misuse the term such that it de-legitimises the resonance of the idea. They continue to add that,

When phrases such as ‘robust, sustainable, lifelong agenda-setting’ trip off the political tongue, all kind of legitimate intellectual ideas are contaminated.

Carter (2001, p.2) refers to this tendency as the party politicisation of environmental issues, whereby sustainable development ascends the political agenda to become electorally salient and the subject of party antagonism. A direct consequence of this verbal dexterity has been that sustainability has become what Blewitt and Cullingford (2004, p.18) refer to as a 'Humpty-Dumpty word'.

While it is unlikely to be a universal consensus on the meaning of SD due to one’s training, work experience or political and economic background, establishing some ground rules is a first step in search for a consensus, despite differences stemming from individual opinions and perspectives (Filho 2000, p.10).

One way to overcome the problem is by outlining the different approaches to the processes which may ultimately lead to sustainable development and narrowing its application to a particular domain (ibid). The present article and its subsequent issues will have universities as a focal point in the context of sustainable development.

  1. Sustainability and SD: a magnifying glass perspective
  2. The role of universities

So what does sustainability really mean and what does SD actually entail?

Filho (2000) attempts to capture the essence of SD from 4 different angles. These include:

a)     The systematic, long term use of natural resources where the management of natural resources should be carried out in light of principles of human equity;

This view is echoed in the Bruntland Report and refers to the actions undertaken by individual countries.

b)     The modality of development that enables states to progress, economically and socially by adopting an ecocentric mind-set which entails placing emphasis on environmentally sound policies;

This second interpretation of SD refers to domestic policies.

c)      The type of development which is ‘socially just, ethically acceptable, morally fair and economically sound’ (ibid, p.10);

This view refers to the social dynamics of the SD process.

d)     The type of development where there is an equal amount of prominence given to environmental and economic indicators;

This last view is concerned with the implementation of alternative policy paradigms of SD and ecological modernisation (Carter 2001, p.6). This is a policy strategy which aims to reconfigure capitalist political economy along more environmentally benign lines. It stems from the premise that economic growth and environmental protection are interdependent (ibid).

It is undeniable that the current anthropocentric practices which manifest themselves at a societal level in the form of consumerist dogmas, individualism and undeterred exponential economic growth on a planet of finite resources and a fragile life-support system, are simply no longer practicable.

According to Ferrer-Balas et al. (2010), as we are increasingly confronted with an unsustainable present and a precarious future, one of the central issues on the global agenda is to search for potential leverage points in order to catalyse the transition towards more sustainable societies. From a post materialist angle, a sustainable society would be centred around well-being rather than well-having and taking a holistic view of the inherent interdependency between environmental, social, political and economic factors. Such practices would be part of a wide-spread reformist acceptance of capitalist liberal democracy, a new economic model and a broader social justice agenda (Carter, 2001, p.7).  

In this context, there is an overall consensus that universities have the ability to act as a catalyst for triggering much needed system-wide behavioural changes and instilling a sustainability ethos across its curricula and research through operations such as reforming campus facilities management, outreach in their local communities and beyond ( Didac Ferrer-Balas et al., 2010; Cortese, 2003; Alshuwaikhat and Abubakar, 2008; Lozano, 2011; Lozano et al., 2011; Lidgren et al., 2006; Davis, 2003; Clare and Mathaisel, 2005; Savageau, 2013; Holmberg et al., 2008; Filho, 2000; Blewitt and Cullingford, 2004).

The reasons why there is such an overwhelming consensus in the literature regarding the pivotal role of universities in contributing towards the development of more sustainable societies is twofold.

At a first glimpse, higher education institutions (HEIs) enjoy unique academic freedom which along with the critical mass and wealth of skills that exist within their confines, enable them to act as society’s worst critic and allow pioneering ideas to flourish whilst raising the awareness, knowledge, beliefs, values and skills to ‘engage in bold experimentation in sustainable living (Cortese, 2003, p.17).

Cullingford (2004, p.13) makes a poignant observation when he states that ‘the modern university is part of the ethos of the time’. From their earliest beginnings universities have always mirrored their wider societies and their purpose has evolved in parallel with that of their surrounding environment.

The central motif of Newman’s (1873) The Idea of a University, with its moral ideal of the unbiased quest for truth that combines human understanding with knowledge, has been gradually eroded by a society centred on careerism and catering for a system unable to face some of the more complex issues facing the world today that are partly the result of an increasingly globalised and interconnected world.

Universities have thus a profound, moral responsibility to challenge the status quo and take the lead in overcoming the challenges associated with SD proactively.  As Cortese (2003, p.17) explains,

HEIs train most of the professionals who develop, lead, manage, teach, work in and influence society’s institutions, including the most basic foundation of K-12 education. Besides training future teachers, higher education strongly influences the learning framework of K-12 education, which is largely geared towards subsequent higher education.  

Aside from a moral drive to incorporate sustainability into the HEI curricula and research, there is also the ‘practical necessity’ to tackle campus pollution (Abubakar, 2008, p.1777)

Campus sustainability has become an issue of global concern for university policy makers and planners as a result of the realisation of the impacts, activities and operations that universities have on the environment (ibid).

The sheer size of universities along with their use of resources designed to cater for its student population in terms of energy use, the research materials that provide the learning resources for various projects, to campus activities, as well as elements of waste disposal and effective resource management, render universities as organisations with enormous potential to provide social, economic and environmental leverage to their local communities, the cities they identify with, while setting a leading example of innovative thinking in SD for the wider society in general.

This explains why in 2000, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued an enforcement alert whereby similar standards imposed on industry with regards to factors of human health and environment were also allocated to colleges and universities. (ibid).

In the next section, we will examine the various setbacks that render the embedding of sustainability into HEIs a challenging task, by taking a broad overview of the role universities play at a societal level, some of the implications of complying with the increased centralisation of government directives and how the constraints arising both from internal and external factors pose potential setbacks to imbuing an ethos of sustainability within HEIs. We will reveal how there are challenges arising from issues of finance, high-level policy making and the practical implementation of principles of SD at the level of university curricula, research, operations and outreach.



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