Sustainability at Universities - Opportunities, Challenges and Trends

July 8, 2010

Sustainability at universities generally falls into three categories. First, there is research on sustainability. In Britain, a reservoir of funding is ready to be tapped by directing research towards the environmental effects of carbon and climate change. The proliferation of master's courses adopting the environmental angle on traditional disciplines, from environment economics to climate modelling, also points to the currency of this aspect of sustainability in UK universities.

Second, there is the process of sustaining the university itself. This involves the appointments of energy-reduction officers, "green deans" and the like. Its focus is the reduction of deleterious environmental effects, cutting carbon and energy bills. Less common, but still important, is the role universities have in contributing to their local environment - socially, culturally and ecologically. Sadly unmentioned in this edited volume, however, are the emissions generated by overseas students and academics' travel habits.

There is a third category, which might be called "universities of sustainability". Here the focus is on the education of environmentally responsible citizens, on tweaking curricula to ensure that courses contain useful skills for a world altered by climate change and post-peak oil.

In Filho's selection of articles, all three aspects are covered, specifically through the lens of the emerging field of renewable energy. This lens forms an important limit and stops the volume becoming any more unwieldy. Issues around sustainability can rapidly become as fluid as their implications are large. The interface between issues of sustainability and the university is fecund territory indeed. There is a need for universities to provide much of the research and knowledge production that a low-carbon economy desires, both in terms of technological acumen and social reception theory.

Two themes woven throughout this collection are essential if university engagements in issues of sustainability are to go beyond greenwash: transdisciplinarity and the fluidity of sustainable talk. There is also a constant call for an approach that is transdisciplinary. This word is preferred to previous disciplinary prefixes of multi- or inter- for good reason: the challenge to decarbonise our energy systems is so massive that no one discipline can provide the solution. What is needed is cross-discipline communication that goes beyond catch-all phrases such as "sustainability", and that refuses to take the lowest common denominator approach that is the bad side of cross-field research.

The success of integrating sustainability into the university can be seen throughout this book in microcosm. The editor does well to collect a diversity of voices bringing together multiple takes on matters of increasing importance for and to the university. What isn't done so well goes right to the heart of why sustaining our energy systems is so difficult. The book's conclusion claims that 70 per cent of universities "widely understand" the issues around sustainability. Given the environmental state of universities, either that understanding is shallow or universities are full of staff and students happily existing with a dissonance between their understanding and their actions. The great virtue of a topic such as sustainability, that it requires collegiality and transdisciplinarity, can also be its great vice, making it a plastic phrase that all adhere to with varying invested meanings. The phatic nature of sustainable development is not critically interrogated in this volume and this is its biggest let-down.

There is a fallacy in talk of sustaining the university. What appears to be a morally responsible institution striving for ecological justice can often hide very unsustainable practices. The subjectivism of "sustainability" is both its strength and its weakness. It speaks to a feel-good, inoffensive view of oneself and one's institution, yet it also has the power to hide the reality of harmful social patterns. This book engages with important issues, but to move beyond discussion we require more practical, critical analysis.

Sustainability at Universities - Opportunities, Challenges and Trends

Edited by Walter Leal Filho
Peter Lang, 340pp, £41.90
ISBN 9783631596906
Published 13 November 2009

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