Earth U: Inspiring institutions of sustainability
"There is no magic wand that can resolve our problems. The solution rests with our work and discipline."
—Jose Eduardo Dos Santos
Higher learning has come a long way since Earth in the Balance (1992) brought global warming to international prominence. Today, a new generation of environmental education and research institutions are cropping up all over, racing against time to head off the spectre of near term food, water and, energy shortages. These models of hope are developing new environmental technologies to reduce our carbon foot print and help preserve our precious natural resources. For these institutions, discovering new energy efficient and environmentally friendly solutions means cleaner physical plants, lower costs, and a healthier and more sustainable planet. Just consider the evidence gathered by environmental scientists from the increasing number of extreme weather events around the globe– i.e., tsunamis, typhoons, tornadoes, landslides, floods, and droughts.
In Mexico City, Mayor Edbrard Casaubon launched “Plan Verde” to put the city on the road to becoming fully sustainable in 15 years. Once notorious for its toxic air pollution, Mexico City’s Resource Renewal Institute is now a leading international example of how Municipal Green Planning can help mitigate climate change.
In Germany, The Institute for Energy and Environmental Research serves clients ranging from the World Bank and the European Commission to Friends of the Earth. In carrying out its somewhat unique mission, the Institute provides a nimble approach to renewable energy sources, sustainable development, and proactive environmental impact assessment.
In Africa, Asia and the Middle East, Aga Khan University and its affiliated Development Network have extended their outreach around the world -- making public health and sustainability an urgent priority. Beyond public health, medical research and sustainability, Aga Khan has invested in agricultural, educational, and economic development initiatives. In Aga Khan’s case, the challenge of improving environmental conditions might not be in the inherent conflict between humans and the natural world, but in the paucity of natural resources that often forces underdeveloped nations to consume dwindling environmental assets. So it is no surprise that among the Aga Khan’s high priority projects lies its Water and Sanitation Extension Programme creating potable drinking water and effective sanitation systems; the Building and Construction Improvement program—installing over 15,000 energy efficient products; the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme which has reclaimed arid lands; and the transformation of Azhar Park, a 500+ year old dump into a “green lung” for Cairo in the form of a park.
Texas A&M, a national leader in sustainability, has reaffirmed its commitment by discovering and deploying emergent best green practices. For Texas A&M, this means converting campus vehicles from gasoline/diesel to natural gas and electric; recapturing condensate from air conditioning and rainwater for irrigation; converting all plastics used for dining purposes to biodegradables; developing community gardens; and installing wind/solar generators. From Texas A&M operations staff, we learned that the university values a campus that preserves our national environment and respects human resources and financial responsibility. Closer to the Bay State, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute enables a cadre of world class marine scientists and engineers committed to understanding all facets of our ocean, to advance knowledge about our planet, and in so doing, help guide our focused stewardship for preserving our ecosystems.
Among those who have dedicated their lives to create bold new environmental solutions, Irving Backman, stands out as a tech savvy social entrepreneur and philanthropist. At 89 years old, Backman is now creating BackmanGreen Institute, a living testament and noble legacy of global sustainability. Behind the Institute stands a multidisciplinary team of scientists, engineers, and environmentalists dedicated to solving our planetary challenges. Among their leading inventions are “the Energy Avenger” which saves usage without changing any light bulbs; a “shoe box” size Fuel Cell; nonchemical water purification technology that eliminates dangerous bacteria from cooling towers in large buildings and municipal water resources and a hydroponic "AgriAccelerator" which produces high yield stackable edible plants year round in a controlled environment using minimal energy. At the end of the day, Backman put it simply this way: “The answers to our environmental challenges may turn up soon in some young scientist’s basement”.
Though we find hope in these environmental solutions, the collective economic, geopolitical and social stakes have never been higher. American higher ed would do well to read the handwriting on the wall in devising new strategies of sustainability to guide and inform its future growth and development on campus and beyond.
—James Martin and James E. Samels, are authors of The Sustainable University (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.