Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Spring 2000

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Transforming Higher Education Through Sustainability and Environmental Education

Terry Link
Environmental Studies Specialist
Chair, University Committee for a Sustainable Campus
Main Library
Michigan State University


Current concerns over the sustainability of our biosphere for future generations of humans are being scrutinized on the fringes of the higher education complex. What role does higher education play in creating a more sustainable future? What responsibility do librarians have for the current decline in biological systems around the globe? How might we rethink what we do and how we do it? And where do libraries, which were once considered the heart of the university, fit into these questions? I will argue that the situation is potentially critical, that our responsibilities are substantial, and that our chance to show leadership is ripe.

In fall 1997, the Union of Concerned Scientists initiated the "World Scientists' Call for Action" at the Kyoto Climate Summit. This statement urged all government leaders to:

The statement was signed by more than 1,500 scientists from over 60 countries including 104 of the 178 living Nobel prize winning scientists, and 60 US National Medal of Science winners. The statement called for leadership.

Five years ago, in the World Scientists' Warning to Humanity, 1600 of the world's senior scientists sounded an unprecedented warning:

Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms.

Addressed to political, industrial, religious, and scientific leaders, the [1992] Warning demonstrated that the scientific community had reached a consensus that grave threats imperil the future of humanity and the global environment. However, over four years have passed, and progress has been woefully inadequate. Some of the most serious problems have worsened. Invaluable time has been squandered because so few leaders have risen to the challenge (Union of Concerned Scientists 1997).

If there was more space, a longer litany of the signals of decline could be listed. Are the concerns of these acknowledged scientific leaders conclusive? No, of course not. We don't live in an age of certainty. But the precautionary principle would suggest we heed their advice. Shall we, or would we rather, follow the technological optimist's view? And if we choose the precautionary route, what might it entail? Could it lead us to a sustainable future (Constanza 1998)?

But what has changed in higher education since the 1997 statement? I suggest the key issue of relevance for us is that higher education has generally neglected to address either the issues raised or the science behind this alarm in any systemic way. In fact, instead of leading our society to understand and address these concerns, we have all but denied they exist. As recent books suggest, colleges and universities are marketing themselves by pitching the quality of undergraduate life as if they were selling time shares, promising students apartments rather than dorm rooms, high-tech gadgetry and state-of-the-art gyms...And students are more vocationally oriented and less idealistic than even a generation ago. Business majors make up 25% of all undergraduates up from just four percent in 1970. The pressures of the marketplace point toward a world where knowledge production and transmission must now justify itself in terms of its economic value (Kirp 2000).

This is the antithesis of another nascent movement of our time: sustainability, a real buzzword these days. But what does it mean and how does it relate to us in our work? The word came into our vernacular after the publication in 1987 of the United Nations Environment Conference report, Our Common Future. "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (World Commission 1987) or more recently:

Sustainable development involves the simultaneous pursuit of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity. Companies aiming for sustainability need to perform not against a single, financial bottom line but against the triple bottom line... Over time, human and social values change. Concepts that once seemed extraordinary (e.g. emancipating slaves, enfranchising women) are now taken for granted. New concepts (e.g. responsible consumerism, environmental justice, intra- and inter-generational equity) are now coming up the curve (World Business Council 1995).

There are several areas of emphasis in most definitions of sustainability: long-term views, systems thinking, and a balance between environment, social justice, and economy. How does this apply to higher education, and academic libraries in particular?

Higher education will spend billions of dollars over the next few years erecting edifices that will stand about 50 years or more and will absorb and use tons of energy and other resources, while releasing untold volumes of pollution and greenhouse gases. How many institutions are committed to structures that are ecologically conscious, socially just, and functionally and aesthetically stimulating? How many new libraries on the drawing boards now will have zero pollution outputs, will produce more energy than they consume, will strengthen local economies in which they reside, and will cause no harm elsewhere? How will the buildings teach their users about the world? Will buildings connect users to the natural or seal them off from it? Such are the design principles for a newly opened environmental studies facility at Oberlin College (Ingalls 2000).

How much of our curriculum focuses on these relationships, and therefore, how many of our graduates leave us environmentally literate? How will they function when they leave our ivy towers? What will they take with them to teach their own children and grandchildren about sustainability (Orr 1992, Bowers 1996)? Sure, there are small programs at lots of schools with an environmental focus, but which institutions have heeded the call of the world scientists to go farther? Most of higher education, and arguably the larger universities are worse, is ensconced in disciplinary fiefdoms. This reductionist emphasis takes the world apart and very little effort is used to "think the world together" as educator Parker Palmer implores (Palmer 1998). When "interdisciplinary" studies exist they are frequently among different disciplines within a larger field, like humanities, social sciences or natural sciences. The challenges before us cannot be met by peering through the lens of any single discipline. The arrogance that too often coincides with narrow knowledge areas becomes a barrier to finding solutions.

How then might we in higher education address these concerns? The literature in this area is admittedly young, but nonetheless powerful and persuasive. David Orr, Chet Bowers and others have tackled these issues head on. (See especially David Orr's essays in the journal Conservation Biology over the past decade.) Organizations including {University Leaders for a Sustainable Future} (ULSF), {Campus Ecology}, Second Nature, and HENSE (Higher Education Network for Sustainability Through Education) are working feverishly to raise issues, suggest direction, and to offer support to people on campuses willing to walk down this uncertain road to the future. Ball State has hosted three Greening of the Campus summits over the past five years. Declarations and charters have been issued ({Talloires Declaration}, {Copernicus Charter}, {Halifax Declaration}, {Swansea Declaration}, etc.) urging action from universities around the globe (International Institute for Sustainable Development 2000). While much energy has gone into this arena, there is very little systematic work being done on most campuses. These organizations are supporting efforts to look at curriculum, operations and research at higher education institutions around the globe . At the heart of their work is support for campus environmental audits, development of a database of syllabi, and support for local community development and service learning efforts that make the community itself the classroom and laboratory. Making connections and discerning relationships across boundaries of disciplines, organizations, and employment status is central to their work. They argue as much for a change in traditional pedagogy as in what should be taught.

And so what do libraries have to do with all this? For starters, we are consumers in the workplace where we spend nearly half of our waking lives. We use paper, lighting, heating, cooling, and PCs in great quantity. How much are we wasting? How smart do we shop to reduce environmental impacts? Do we have principles in place to guide our decisions in this area? For example, with PCs, do we buy only those machines that are Energy Star rated by EPA? Do we configure them to save energy after we purchase them? Do our laser printers print back-to-back? Many Hewlett Packard laser printers, for example, can be easily retrofitted to do just that! Do we have a policy on turning PCs off, monitors off? A Rocky Mountain Institute recent policy brief suggests the following based on studies at the Lawrence Berkeley Labs and practices at Hewlett Packard and IBM.

Arguments that thermal cycling harms the internal components of computers don't seem to be well founded. Modern computers are designed to handle 40,000 on-off cycles before failure, and you're not likely to approach that number during the average computer's five- to seven-year life span. In fact, IBM and Hewlett Packard encourage their own employees to turn off idle computers, and some studies indicate it would require on-off cycling every five minutes to harm a hard drive.Meanwhile, turning off your computer not only saves electricity, it reduces pollution created by the power plant that supplies electricity for the computer -- and in an office setting, it also decreases the air-conditioning load, which saves more energy and pollution. In light of all this, we recommend turning off your monitor whenever it will be idle for 15 minutes or more, and turning off the computer when it will be idle for two hours or more (Rocky Mountain Institute 2000).

As a major consumer of copy and laser printer paper on our campus, the Michigan State University Libraries just led the University towards purchasing regionally produced paper manufactured with 100% post-consumer waste, processed chlorine free and acid free; the cost per ream is comparable to less environmentally friendly grades. The point is that we don't have to wait for orders from on high about how to begin walking the walk of sustainability.

Libraries have a legacy in their communities as the heart of learning. It is through libraries that people can step outside of the boxes of disciplines, ideologies, and narrow thinking. Librarians used to be considered true generalists, although in academia many of us now follow the disciplinary specialization. Nonetheless, our understanding of the ecology of knowledge is our strong suit and it is here that we must stand and encourage a wider review of the issues at hand. While we are generally not pedigreed to debate the narrow confines of subspecialization in any discipline, we are better served to act as the birds in Huxley's utopian novel Island, which echoed reminders to the inhabitants to pay attention to the environment immediately around them (Huxley 1962). Paralleling our collection building efforts, we can begin by hosting dialogues around important issues, without disciplinary bias or arrogance. What else might we do:

Librarians need to find their voices and exercise them no matter where they work. We are citizens of the planet like everyone else. The concept of neutrality has for too long, gagged us as a profession. While none of us has the "correct" vision of a sustainable future, we must support the widest review of the options. We must lead our communities to what Professor Benjamin Barber calls "strong democracy:" democracy that engages more and more of the community in charting the direction in which to move. We must bring voices to the conversations by building of collections that challenge narrow disciplinary answers to the issues before us. We can encourage more dialogue, we can help focus attention on broad issues of sustainability and provide a platform and a safe place for dialogue, unrestrained from disciplinary mine fields. Perhaps most importantly, we can renew efforts to make the library in our community, whether it be public, school, or academic, once again the heart of the learning community.

If we choose to sit on the sidelines, hiding behind the veil of neutrality while existing forces bankrupt the future for our children, how should we be judged?


Barber, B. 1984. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Bowers, C. A. 1997. The Culture of Denial : Why the Environmental Movement Needs a Strategy for Reforming Universities and Public Schools. State University of New York Press, Albany.

________. 1995. Educating for an Ecologically Sustainable Culture : Rethinking Moral Education, Creativity, Intelligence, and Other Modern Orthodoxies. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Costanza, R. 1999. Four visions of the century ahead: will it be Star Trek, ecotopia, big government, or Mad Max? The Futurist. 33(2): 23-28.

Huxley, A. 1962. Island, A Novel. Harper, New York.

Ingalls, Z. 2000. Green building at Oberlin is a new dream house for environmental studies. Chronicle of Higher Education. January 21: B2.

International Institute for Sustainable Development. 2000. Declarations for Sustainable Development: the Response of Universities. [Online] Available: {http://web.archive.org/web/20111218162408/http://www.iisd.org/educate/declare.htm} [April 16, 2000]

Kirp, D. L. 2000. The New U. Nation April 17: 25-29

Orr, D. 1994. Earth in Mind : On Education, Environment, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, Washington, DC.

________. 1992. Ecological Literacy : Education and the Transition to a Postmodern World. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Orr, D. and Eagan, D. (eds.) 1992. The Campus and Environmental Responsibility. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco.

Palmer, P. 1998. The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

Rocky Mountain Institute. 2000. Computers and Peripherals. [Online] Available: {http://www.rmi.org/images/other/E-HEB-Computers.pdf} [May 11, 2000]

Union of Concerned Scientists. 1997 World Scientists' Call for Action at the Kyoto Climate Summit. [Online] Available: http://www.ucsusa.org/ [April 16, 2000]

World Commission on Environment and Development. 1987. Our Common Future. Oxford University Press, Oxford, Great Britain.


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