Sustainability Column: Going Beyond Sustainability

I recently attended the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It was a large forum between students, faculty, staff and alumni for sharing the best practices around the implementation of sustainability in higher education. There were many conversations surrounding sustainable and local foods, divestment from fossil fuels, recycling and composting on college and university campuses. However, many conversations also broke the mold and challenged the traditional definitions of the sustainability movement. If you’ve ever taken a sustainability-related course here at Colgate (and I recommend that you do), you’re probably familiar with the Brundtland definition of sustainability, formalized by the Brundtland Report in 1987. It defined sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The introductory speaker for the Student Summit at AASHE, Charlotte Bonner, challenged this traditional definition by questioning whether we have ever really been meeting the needs of present generations. 

Investigating this, Bonner raised an important point. Although poverty rates have been declining over the past several decades, in 2011, 2.2 billion people still lived on less than $3.10 per day. Although there has been a reduction in poverty rates, it has not been experienced equally around the world. So if the needs of present generations aren’t being met, and if sustainability can’t really be defined by the Brundtland definition, then what does sustainability look like? 

In reality, sustainability means different things to different people in different places based on how they value ecological, economic and social sustainability. At Colgate, a student will likely value sustainability differently than a faculty or staff member, and people in the English department will likely value sustainability differently than people in the Environmental Studies department. Although every person may value sustainability in a unique way, that doesn’t mean that Colgate can’t work towards sustainability across each department, residential hall and athletic team to achieve our sustainability goals outlined in the Sustainability and Climate Action Plan.  

Just as the AASHE conference challenged my understanding of sustainability, I encourage the Colgate community to reflect on what sustainability means to them and how that individual definition may manifest itself here on campus. United States Green Building Council employee Jesse McElwain raised another interesting point: no one should be passionate about sustainability; people should be passionate about getting beyond sustainability. At Colgate, we have a unique opportunity to make our campus a model of this – we should strive for “sustainable” or “green” actions to just become actions. This can be achieved by living out our individual definitions of sustainability within our own niches and sharing our definitions with one another. 

I urge all of you to think about sustainability in the context of your office, your classes, your residential hall and your home, and act on these unique definitions. Ultimately, in your lifetime, you will be impacted by some ecological, economic or social impact of climate change. Although you may not have a major or desire a career associated with the environment, you will be impacted if Colgate fails to get beyond sustainability. As an institution of higher education, we have the unique opportunity to engage, make an impact and set a precedent for the sustainability movement, and every member of this campus can play a role in that.