April 14, 2006

We are a year into the United Nations Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-14).

What seemed a remote and worthy sentiment 12 months ago has become a pressing issue for governments, society and universities.

Soaring energy prices are tied to questions about fossil fuel reserves; how - even whether - they can be eked out; and if not, how the developed world will sustain its high living standards while alleviating critical shortages in the developing world and meeting its aspirations.

Climate change effects are demonstrably with us, and at the most basic of levels. Pollution affects every society as landfill sites reach capacity and evidence emerges of the impact on personal health.

No university can ignore these phenomena. At the very least an institution that fails to engage with the issues is in effect throwing money down the drain or watching it go up in not-so-proverbial smoke.

The Government and the funding councils are prodding all institutions to do more. But the picture is at best patchy. This supplement celebrates the winners of the Green Gown Awards 2006. They are in a minority - the issue has yet to break fully out of the ghetto. Long-time campaigners such as Sara Parkin are clear that time is running out for universities to adopt sustainable policies and embed their principles within courses across every discipline.

Companies such as Severn Trent Water are leading the demand for graduate recruits with incontestable sustainable development literacy.

The writer Malcolm Gladwell has popularised the concept of the tipping point - borrowed from the moment in epidemiology when a virus breaks out in a community - to describe a cluster of small changes all happening at once.

It may be that 2006 represents that moment for sustainable development policies and practices in our universities.

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