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This piece by Unity College President Stephen Mulkey originally appeared on Climate Access and is reposted with permission from that site.

Crisis and opportunity in the Environmental Century: Inspiring a generation to greatness
By: Unity College President, Stephen Mulkey

As an ecologist, I know that we have precious little time to prepare a generation to respond to the ecological crisis of our planet in peril. As the president of Unity College, I am alarmed by how little progress has been made in focusing higher learning on what is undoubtedly the most important challenge facing humankind. Given the overwhelming scientific evidence of imminent climate disruption, failure to make climate literacy a requisite part of any undergraduate curriculum is inexcusable.

Recent papers in the journal Nature show that we have transgressed the boundaries of a safe operating space for humanity with respect to several key environmental factors. Chief among these is climate change, which amplifies the effects of all other critical factors such as freshwater depletion, nitrogen pollution, biodiversity loss, ozone depletion, and changes in land use. There is now mounting evidence that sometime during this century we will reach a state shift in the planet’s ability to support us (doi:10.1038/nature11018). Climate change will affect every facet of the academy and change the practice of essentially all fields of study.

Unity College aspires to be America’s Environmental College and thus climate change must be a centerpiece of our programming. It is nothing short of mission critical that we get this right. At my request the faculty and Board of Trustees have adopted Sustainability Science (sensu U.S. National Academy of Science) as our overarching framework for all academic programming, and especially for upper division courses. Although this approach addresses all aspects of global environmental change, because of its innovative delivery, it is especially suited to the urgency of climate change. As a four-year liberal arts academy, a focus this specific has sweeping implications for our programming, but it does not obviate the need for critical skills such as oral and written literacy. Thus I am quick to point out that the humanities are foundational to implementation of Sustainability Science as pedagogy.

As multiple components of our life support deteriorate, I think it likely that this century is destined to be the Century of the Environment. There can be little doubt that a child born today faces the prospect of living in a vastly diminished world unless we are able to make significant adjustments in our use of natural resources and bring new sources of energy rapidly online. Development of a sustainable relationship with our natural resources is an imperative for our survival as we face the ultimate test of our adaptability as a species. Owing to the lead-time required to address climate change, it is likely that we have little more than a decade to vigorously transition towards sustainability. Because our curriculum is science-based, we do not shy away from acknowledging that the consequences of failing to respond will be catastrophic and irrevocable over a millennial time scale. Such a broad frame for the work of Unity College gives profound meaning to everything we do.

Interdisciplinary programming in higher education is accepted as necessary for effective instructional delivery of complex environmental problems. Unfortunately this approach has largely failed because of the impediments to sharing resources among disciplinary silos at universities. Moreover, the need for students to sequentially access information from different disciplines makes integration of knowledge unwieldy and slow. In contrast, Sustainability Science employs transdisciplinary programming, which requires that the perspectives of various disciplines be simultaneously integrated in problem-focused pedagogy. This is a promising alternative framework that focuses on the dynamics of coupled human-natural systems and is defined by the problems that it addresses rather than by the disciplines it employs. Students are empowered to become knowledge brokers, while faculty act as curators of knowledge to provide students with networked resources that are generally external to the classroom.

Although an exciting innovation in delivery, Sustainability Science will not be useful if we cannot quickly produce effective practitioners. We are simply out of time to address many aspects of climate change. Accordingly, it is the streamlining of knowledge management that we think is one of the most significant advantages of Sustainability Science as a paradigm. The entering class this fall will be the first to matriculate under this new framework, and we are eager to demonstrate that our graduates can bring the right stuff to the green economy.

Because of the opportunities inherent in our long ecological crisis I see many reasons for hope. This crisis, made hugely immediate by climate change, represents an opportunity rarely witnessed in the history of our species. During this century the current generation of students will be forced to the limits of their ingenuity, cooperation, and innovation. I am struck that the results of such efforts will be immensely rewarding.Those who are prepared and can lead will have unprecedented opportunities for service through the creation of a new global economy based on sustainable practice. They will be remembered long after their time for laying the cornerstones of a stable human ecology.

I believe that we have a covenant of duty to not merely prepare, but also inspire this generation to rise to greatness. Indeed, this is the Great Work of their generation (cf., Thomas Berry). As a scientist, I know that climate change will be the defining environmental issue of this century, but as an educator I know that an even more pressing challenge is one of motivation and inspiration. History shows us that our species will not rise to meet great challenges unless there is a force that speaks to our hearts. Inspiration and affective power must be embedded in this endeavor if it is to succeed.

Historically, the arts and humanities have been the key to such willingness, and I see these fields as utterly indispensable to Sustainability Science. Our vision of a sustainable future must inspire, rather than burden, and thus it should be partnered with fine art, great literature, and powerful music. It must lead, rather than support the status quo. It must build, rather than merely struggle to maintain. It must counter fear with a luminous path forward. It must provide brilliant, pragmatic hope when the future seems devoid of options. Through the ineffable power of art and literature we can experience the grandeur of the quest for sustainability. By infusing sustainability education with such primal affective substance we can reclaim the identity that connects all of us as obligate social primates to each other and to the Earth.

It is my fervent hope that we will soon arrive at a cultural tipping point when higher education will embrace the imperative of this mission. David Orr has noted that “all education is environmental education,” and I take this to be literally true if we are to have any hope of supporting a civilization of over nine billion humans by mid century. Placed in the context of our own survival, there can be no more important mission for higher education. Yet, like awareness of the inevitability of our own death, awareness of impending ecological collapse is overwhelming, and thus unthinkable. We push it from our minds, especially if the evidence is not in our faces. So, for now we continue with business as usual in higher education, acquiescing to the perennial demand to educate students for jobs. The great irony is that within the next few decades these jobs will certainly not exist if we do not address the environmental imperative that we so assiduously avoid.

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Unity College is a signatory of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Read the public reports including greenhouse gas inventories, Climate Action Plan, and Progress Reports by Unity College at rs.acupcc.org.

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By Mitchell Thomashow, President Emeritus, Unity College and Second Nature Presidential Fellow

Five years ago a small group of visionary college and university presidents gathered to initiate the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). They were motivated by their conviction that higher education had the capacity and responsibility to make a significant commitment to climate and sustainability action for the sake of their students and society.

As we prepare for the 5th Anniversary ACUPCC summit, it’s important to celebrate our accomplishments, especially at a time when higher education’s public image could benefit from some good news. In just five years, 675  colleges and universities have signed the ACUPCC, representing 35% of the national student body. We’ve seen hundreds of institutions implement remarkably innovative sustainability initiatives. We’ve seen the sprouting of hundreds of new sustainability related academic programs, in every conceivable subject, at every educational level.

Yet higher education is also in a crisis. Challenges of accountability, affordability, workforce preparation, and relevance are sweeping the sector. The volatile global economy remains unpredictable, with ramifications impacting every campus. Meanwhile despite our best efforts, the climate issue becomes more daunting daily.

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By Stephen Mulkey, President, Unity College

Over the last decade, Unity College has made great strides in developing its sustainability portfolio by implementing numerous infrastructure projects and sustainable practices into our operations.  Our former president, Mitchell Thomashow, did much to enhance our commitment to sustainability (see our remarkable 90 percent passive dorm, TerraHaus, and our net zero multipurpose facility, Unity House).  Most recently, I have committed the College to participation as a founding member of the Billion Dollar Green Challenge developed by the Sustainable Endowments Institute, in partnership with the ACUPCC, Second Nature, AASHE, and others.   The green revolving fund established through our participation will provide Unity College with a source of recurring dollars to fund sustainability projects over the long term.

Unity House at Unity College

Equally important to our infrastructure improvements is our institutional commitment to teaching sustainability.  As an institution focused on environmental and natural resource sciences, we have renewed our development of a curriculum focused on Sustainability Science.  All of these efforts have built on a much longer tradition of engagement with local and regional partners committed to sustainable resource use.  Unity College has a long list of such partners including several conservation land trusts, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and a variety of commercial and noncommercial entities concerned with food and energy sustainability.

I believe in the connection between our effectiveness as a regional anchor for sustainability scholarship and practice, and our increasing public support and expanding donor base.  Our College Development office has weathered some lean times, but recently we have experienced a significant increase in donor activity, including a $10 million gift from an anonymous donor, which we announced in late August 2011.   (more…)

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A team of students and faculty from Alfred State College pose with electric car at AASHE 2011.*

The 2011 AASHE Conference, held in Pittsburgh Oct. 9-12, was a great success.  Second Nature was very involved, delivering plenary talks, panel sessions, and more, that highlighted our work supporting the ACUPCC.

The following members of the Second Nature staff, fellows and board were in attendance: Peter Bardaglio, Sarah Brylinsky, Tony Cortese, Georges Dyer, Bill Johnson, Nilda Mesa, Steve Muzzy, Toni Nelson, Andrea Putman, and Mitchell Thomashow.  As were our friends from the following ACUPCC Sponsor organizations: Organica, Siemens, Trane, Waste ManagementGreenerU and the American Meteorological Society.

Below are brief summaries of Second Nature’s main activities at the conference.  And here are links to presentations from some of Second Nature’s sessions:

Sunday, Oct. 9

Student Summit: The 2011 AASHE Student Summit hosted more than 600 attendees with a keynote from Bill McKibben founder of 350.org, and several motivating peer-to-peer presentation sessions.  Sarah Brylinsky represented the Second Nature team by facilitating breakout discussion groups for networking and action planning with the students, and provided an overview of the ACUPCC to students interested in climate action and sustainability education work on campus. Sarah also led a breakout networking session Tuesday evening with Steve Muzzy and members of the AASHE team for 30-40 students, focused explicitly on connecting students working on similar issues, including signing the ACUPCC and regional climate action.

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For a small college of 500 students located in a rural community of Maine, Unity College has been nothing short of a bright star for its proactive leadership in addressing sustainability and climate actions in the higher education sector. As a result, the institution recently received an anonymous and very generous gift of $10 million to support its mission of education for sustainability.

The college President, Stephen Mulkey, delivered this great news in his first “State of the College” address, which was received with erupted cheers and applause from the staff, students, and community members. President Mulkey acknowledged that the donation would allow Unity an opportunity to enrich its curriculum and educate students for careers in sustainability that reflect the needs and development of 21st century. According to Robert Constantine, Vice President for College Advancement, the gift has tripled the institution’s existing endowment and created $500,000 in additional operating revenue. While the college community has been ecstatic about the great news, the gift is undoubtedly a tribute to the college’s hard work as well as its ongoing efforts towards campus sustainability and climate neutrality1.

Unity College has been actively setting high standards for all higher education institutions across the country in addressing campus sustainability and committing to climate neutrality. Under the guidance of Mitch Thomashow, the former college President and Second Nature’s current Director of Presidential Fellows, the College has been deeply involved in a wide range of sustainability activities, from pioneering innovative plans and achieving “net-zero” on campus, to taking on leadership roles and addressing nationwide climate actions (forming partnership with Bill McKibben and his 350.org to re-install solar panels at the White House). Unity College, a founding signatory of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC), represents a much needed sustainability champion in the higher education community.

As an under-resourced institution, Unity College and its stories of success signify that all colleges and universities have the capacity to champion sustainability and climate actions on their campus through raising awareness, institutionalizing sustainability and undergoing robust climate action planning process. Unity College also proves that being collaborative and proactive in its commitment to sustainability can help open a big window of opportunities to further advance its mission. This generous gift will not only enhance Unity College’s ability to educate its students to emerge as aware and responsible stewards of the planet, but also strengthen its role as a leader in the sustainability movement to transform higher education to create a sustainable, just and healthy future for all!

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The latest issue of DownEast Magazine includes a great article called An Education in Green Living about education for sustainability efforts going on at Maine’s colleges and universities.

The article notes that fifteen Maine institutions have signed the ACUPCC – that’s about half of all of Maine’s the colleges and universities, and they represent about 75% of the students in the state.

The following schools are highlighted in the article (listed here with links to their pages on the ACUPCC reporting system): Unity College, College of the Atlantic, Bowdoin College, University of Maine, University of Maine at Presque Isle, Colby College, and the University of Southern Maine.

The article highlights Unity’s solar road trip, UM Presque Isle’s wind turbine, Bowdoin’s LEED certified hockey rink, UMaine’s Climate Change Institute, COA’s Sustainable Business Program, and many other exciting initiatives going on in the State.  Read the full article here.

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By Ulli Klein, Director of Communications and Operations, Second Nature

(This article appears in the December, 2010 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

The ACUPCC “I am a college president for one reason only: I have such passion for sustainability and environmental conservation,” says Mitch Thomashow, President of Unity College in a new video lesson series Second Nature produced during the 2010 ACUPCC Climate Leadership Summit. He goes on to explain how he was inspired to do work on sustainability issues when he saw the cover of a book that featured a photograph of our planet in a bookstore in downtown New York City during the 60s.

Unity College President Mitch Thomashow

Telling stories is one of the best ways to communicate and share best practices and ideas.  We had the fortunate opportunity to interview nine senior sustainability leaders from across the country during this year’s ACUPCC summit in Denver and ask them to share their lessons and experiences about sustainability and the ACUPCC on their campuses. The people interviewed represent a variety of school types, e.g., Arizona State University’s President, Michael Crow, and Delaware State University’s Associate Vice President for Development, Vita Pickrum.

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