National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America: An Opportunity to Advance Higher Education for Sustainability

The Declaration, Volume 3, Number 1 : March 1999  [Feature]

by Thomas J. Rogers

The 1992 UN Summit for Environment and Development held in Rio de Janeiro, which produced Agenda 21, the global sustainable development agenda, set in motion a wide array of government and civil society activities to implement sustainability. Amongst these was the establishment of national councils on sustainable development. In the United States, The President’s Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) was established by President Bill Clinton in June 1993 to advise him on sustainable development and to develop “bold, new approaches to achieve our economic, environmental, and equity goals.” The PCSD is a federal advisory committee with no real power to set policy, but a very real opportunity and obligation to stimulate support for movement towards sustainability in the US. Its mission, as described in an official overview, is to 1. “Forge consensus on policy by bringing together diverse interests…” 2. “Demonstrate implementation of policy that fosters sustainable development…” 3. “Get the word out about sustainable development…” and 4. “Evaluate and report on progress…”

The Council is comprised of representatives from all sectors of US society including business, education, labor, government, civic groups, etc. The body, co-chaired by a representative of business and a representative from the environmental community, worked over the course of three years to generate a consensus amongst very diverse interests and perspectives on moving the US towards sustainability. This process occurred in the context of the Council as a whole and in an array of sectoral task forces established to include hundreds of other citizens. The result of this work, by 1996-97, was agreement on a definition of sustainability (from the Brundtland Commission, 1987), a vision statement (see inset), a statement of shared beliefs, and ten “national goals for sustainable development” along with an extensive series of policy recommendations. These were all articulated in Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity, and a Healthy Environment for the Future, a report by the PCSD released in 1996. Also produced were a series of nine reports from task forces involving hundreds of representatives from particular sectors. One of these task forces focused on “public linkage, dialogue, and education.”

“Our vision is of a life-sustaining Earth. We are committed to the achievement of a dignified, peaceful, and equitable existence. A sustainable United States will have a growing economy that provides equitable opportunities for satisfying livelihoods and a safe, healthy, high quality of life for current and future generations. Our nation will protect its environment, its natural resource base, and the functions and viability of natural systems on which all life depends.” (Sustainable America, iv)

The PCSD defined the national goal on education in the following manner: “Ensure that all Americans have equal access to education and lifelong learning opportunities that will prepare them for meaningful work, a high quality of life, and an understanding of the concepts of sustainable development.” Education was identified as an integral part of the PCSD’s long-term strategy for rebuilding communities and moving into the next century. The Public Linkage, Dialogue and Education Task Force, which included many prominent educators and thinkers from throughout the nation and all levels of the educational system, went further and articulated a vision of education for sustainability (see inset), a set of indicators to measure progress, and a series of recommendations on paths for achieving these objectives. In three policy recommendations, the task force also called for: 1. Reforming formal education to integrate education for sustainability, 2. Encouraging informal education and outreach on sustainability, and 3. Strengthening education for sustainability through policy changes.

“Education for sustainability is the continual refinement of the knowledge and skills that lead to an informed citizenry that is committed to responsible individual and collaborative actions that will result in an ecologically sound, economically prosperous, and equitable society for present and future generations. The principles underlying education for sustainability include, but are not limited to, strong core academics, understanding the relationships between disciplines, systems thinking, lifelong learning, hands-on experiential learning, community-based learning, technology, partnerships, family involvement, and personal responsibility.” (Public Linkage, Dialogue and Education Task Force Report, 1997)

Since the release of these reports, the education for sustainability community, which includes ULSF and cooperating partners such as the members of the Alliance for Sustainability through Higher Education, have supported the continued implementation and further development of the agenda articulated by the PCSD task force. Efforts by Alliance members, including ULSF, have focused on building a movement for sustainability in and through higher education as well as on increasing the capacity of individual institutions to embody sustainability in their scholarly activities, curricula, operations and outreach. Recently, these efforts have increasingly focused on building demand for education for sustainability in the higher education community. While steady progress has been made, it has been slow and often isolated rather than systemic. As Tony Cortese, President of Second Nature, an Alliance partner, has stated: “We wish to make Education for Sustainability a cornerstone of all learning, research, operations and community outreach in higher education so that the next generation of teachers and other professionals will have the awareness, knowledge, skills and values to practice and promote sustainable development. For the overwhelming majority of 3,700 US higher education institutions, such an educational experience is not a priority.”

A consensus has grown within the community of those committed to advancing this agenda that it is necessary to make a quantum leap towards education for sustainability in the US or suffer the consequences of having a society unprepared for the challenges of the 21st century. This must be done through greatly expanding the network of those involved in this effort. An opportunity for launching such a network and movement is being presented this year.

In May of 1999, the President’s Council for Sustainable Development, along with the Global Environment and Technology Foundation (GETF) and other groups, are sponsoring the National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America in Detroit, Michigan, and other points across the US. This unprecedented gathering of some 3,000 Americans aims to “catalyze a national movement towards sustainable development” in the United States. As the PCSD program announcement states, this three-day event “will build on the collective efforts by the PCSD and other stakeholders to define and achieve a sustainable future for America.” ULSF, it’s Alliance partners, and many other representatives from the education for sustainability community have been deeply engaged in planning for this important gathering and a major program focus on education has been included.

The National Town Meeting will bring together educators and policy makers from throughout the United States and provide an opportunity to highlight and profile the unique role which education plays in shaping the thinking, values and actions of Americans. It will also emphasize the great potential educators and institutions of higher education have for advancing the sustainability agenda. The gathering will also provide an opportunity to highlight “best practices” in education for sustainability and those practices that build links between institutions of higher education and the communities they serve. Finally, it is hoped that the event will provide an opportunity for educators to build towards a new, national and broad-based initiative in education to strengthen the movement for education for sustainability which is so critical to building a sustainable future in the United States and the world.

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