“Sustainability is a response to a planetary emergency,” Mitchell Thomashow says. “We are doing this because we have huge issues happening now.”
Thomashow, former president of Unity College in Maine, spoke to the Willamette and Salem community Oct. 21 in the Ford Theatre, where he talked about his new book, “The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus.”
In his view, the largest issues facing the environment today are the sixth mega-extinction, the plunging decline in biodiversity, the rapid changing climatic and oceanic circulations and the biochemical imbalances.
“Sustainability is the single biggest challenge for all of education, ultimately linked to the turbulent economy, accessibility and affordability of schooling — and how we think about the future of the planet,” he says.
Steps to Sustainability
For any university to combat these problems — no matter their size, location or financial means — Thomashow says the approach must encourage frugality, debt reduction, living within our means, and protecting future generations.
“We know way more about the world than we have ever known before,” he says. “But we still have a lot more to learn.”
He discusses the steps to creating a sustainable campus in his book, which denotes the importance of infrastructure, community, and learning. These three categories host the nine key elements — energy, food, material, governance, investment, wellness, curriculum, aesthetics and interpretation.
“Ultimately, the point of a sustainable campus is to provide a nourishing and supportive learning and working environment that promotes personal, community and planetary well being,” he says.
Record of Success
At Unity, Thomashow and his administration successfully implemented these concepts, and were the first to do so in the country. Thomashow says Unity integrated concepts of ecology, sustainability, natural history, wellness, participatory governance, and community service into all aspects of the college and community life.
In 2011, Thomashow stepped down as Unity College president, but he continues his work in sustainability as director of a fellow program at Second Nature, an organization that works to create a sustainable society by transforming higher education.
After hearing from Thomashow, students and other members of the community became eager to continue their work on the Willamette campus toward sustainability.
“In higher education in general, I think there’s a pause to think about what’s the next phase,” says Joe Abraham, director of the Willamette University Sustainability Institute and Zena Forest and Farm. “I think Willamette, in many ways, is at a point where it has the potential to innovate in ways that distinguish itself.”
In the upcoming week, about 50 Willamette students, staff members, administrators, and faculty will attend the annual conference of the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education in Portland. This is one of the many steps — along with further action from ASWU, Bon Appetit, Zena Farm and other groups on campus — that are helping Willamette become more sustainable, Abraham says.