Towards integrated solutions

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 1 April 2000




Strahl, J. (2000), "Towards integrated solutions", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 1 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

Towards integrated solutions

Towards integrated solutions

Keywords: Universities, Conservation, Sustainable development, Project management

Since the 1960s a number of universities around the world have acquired a green tinge. There are numerous multidisciplinary environmental science centers and more recently a small number of centers for sustainable development. With regard to physical operations we find somewhat similar developments with programs for recycling, energy conservation, and on some campuses in arid regions a move away from having all land covered with green lawns.

These efforts are largely project based. By this I mean that a problem with physical operations leads to some action which reduces the environmental impact; for example, rapidly increasing energy conservation leads to the employment of an energy officer. Another kind of project could be that a group within a university community wants to conduct research on the environment and to do this in a multidisciplinary fashion a center is set up.

These solutions seldom interact with the rest of the university in ways that one might hope. The energy officer may be successful in reducing energy consumption by working to make changes in department operations and even technical solutions such as changes in the existing fans, heaters, coolers, etc. But at the same time the university can be constructing new buildings without adequate input from the energy officer. This can lead to new buildings which are designed with little or no thought about energy efficiency. If the energy officer gets involved too late in the process then attempts to compensate for design flaws may be resisted or be seen as too costly.

A parallel can be seen in the academic part of the higher education community. There are many universities and colleges that have centers for the environment. Such centers are visible, tangible evidence of the organization's commitment to the environment, or so we on the outside are led to believe at least through appearances. Other parts of the university define themselves from the perspective of their discipline: history, mechanical engineering, economics, etc. and therefore there can be a conscious or unconscious sense that those folks there are the environmentalists, that the environment is already taken care of.

A far more difficult but perhaps intellectually more satisfying approach would be to initiate a long-term process of introducing an environmental component into increasing numbers of courses. In this way students who leave with their degree would gain at least partial environmental literacy instead of just a small number of students who take environmental programs becoming environmentally literate and the remainder leaving as "i"The reader may perceive a certain criticism of centers for the environment or recycling projects. Clearly such centers and projects are needed and have much merit. In some cases the "realpolitik" (a policy based on practical factors rather than on ethical objectives) within a university community may make this a viable way of development. Making changes toward sustainability in terms of course content, research agenda or physical operations based on projects may lead to a number of successful projects while the basic day-to-day operations and decisions within a university maintain the same trajectory.

Consider the many physical operations projects to green campuses: in the USA some campuses are well-known for either their environmental procurement or their promotion of public transportation or something else. But it is rather rare to find a university that is moving simultaneously on a broad front toward sustainability (NLH as an exception). The several "how to" books in the USA that are standard texts for environmental coordinators are clear evidence of this project based approach.

In some cases the adoption of a project based approach is because the lone coordinator dares not spread herself too thin. However, even a single, competent coordinator, in the right setting, can oversee several different projects in parallel if most other key players within the university begin to make decisions in light of the environment or at least actively welcome the coordinator's input in decision making. But there must be some instrument which brings the key players and the coordinator together.

It is easy to say that the reason for one successful project not leading to spin-offs and new projects is lack of general commitment to the environment by university leadership and one can suspect that this is true at times. Yet at times university leadership commits itself by either symbolic measures such as signing Talloires or Copernicus, or by a number of well publicized measures. While laudable, years of experience now demonstrate that this is not sufficient.

Let us turn to the content of courses and programs. An individual instructor may be committed in his own discipline and change course content. However, change may often stop at this point and this results in an "island".

In subjects which are not traditionally considered close to the environment or sustainability an instructor may lack sufficient knowledge to transform his course and therefore may be hesitant. For some, sustainability is such a nebulous concept that no attempt is ever made. Project based efforts to include sustainability can have ambitious goals but not be entirely successful. Once the project is over there is a tendency to return to business as usual. At Lund University there was a project to add "the environment" into the social and managerial sciences in the University. At the excellent seminars for instructors that were arranged the same group had a tendency to come. This group was the small number of social scientists who had courses which already touched on the environment and the ecologists and other natural scientists who would invite sociologists and psychologists to hold a handful of lectures in their courses. This approach does not reach the majority of instructors, meaning that the environment and sustainable development remain fringe elements within the University community.

Clearly something is missing which keeps universities from greening themselves. Students have ideas and can be enthusiastic but the student body can be very fickle and is largely very transitory within the campus. Thus students can be the motors for change but seldom maintain any long-term change.

To explore what is missing I suggest that we must seek a suitable framework within which various projects can thrive and which exerts continuous pressure from within that will ultimately lead to change. To find this framework I suggest that the university community must look outside itself, toward industry for example, for assistance.

Progressive environmental action within industry

When industry first began to be pressured to change its practices toward those who took some consideration of the environment, the reaction was often a quick fix. Slowly the more progressive businesses learned and changed their approach. A more detailed version of this history of how some industry has learned to reduce its impacts can be read elsewhere, but essentially more progressive industry has gone from seeing the problem as the smoke out of the stack toward the production process itself and now, increasingly, toward the goods and services which are sold.

There are a variety of "buzz words" with associated techniques that can be heard such as Cleaner Production, Industrial Ecology, and Design for the Environment. Common to most industry that has a progressive approach to the environment is the realization that a lot of work is involved. Just keeping track of the necessary environmental permits at a very large site can be cumbersome and costly if not dealt with in a rational and systematic fashion. Management routines were required to simplify actions, spread knowledge of success and failures, establish indicators to track progress, and facilitate feedback.

In the early 1990s a certain discourse began within industry and later within standardization bodies and other organizations. This concerned the establishment of a standard for environmental management systems (EMS), a general system that organizations could use as a framework for their work. The British Standards organization issued the first EMS standard and this strongly influence the so-called ISO 14000 series. Similar developments for an Eco-Management and Audit Scheme, a voluntary regulation within the European Union, have led to an EU standard similar to that of ISO but with binding annexes, requirements for public reporting, and generally stricter requirements for environmental performance.

A company or just a production site pursuing EMS certification will have to establish a system that is integrated into the regular management structure. In other cases the organization may not seek certification but seek to use the standardized EMS as its framework for further action. In this case if a decision is made to obtain an EMS certificate, then much of the work will have already been initiated. These standards were written originally with manufacturing industry in mind but a variety of other kinds of organizations developed an interest including service companies and local government bodies. Recently EMAS was modified to incorporate a wider variety of organizations, including higher education.

Joe StrahlFeature Editor, University of Lund, Sweden

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