Preaching NOT to the Converted: Why Sustainability Courses should be Required for All Students at All Colleges and Universities

The Declaration, Volume 7, No. 1: Summer 2004  [Curriculum]

By Mick Womersley

Unity College bills itself as “America’s Environmental College,” which is the kind of bragging that only the little guy on the playground can get away with. We are about thirty faculty and five hundred students tucked into a converted farm in rural Maine. We are easily ignored.

Our students come predominantly from modest backgrounds; most from rural New England. They take conservation degree majors like “Conservation Law Enforcement,” “Wildlife Biology,” “Forestry,” and “Parks, Recreation, and Ecotourism.” A slightly more liberal minority takes “Environmental Policy” or “Environmental Writing.” Most aspire to jobs in conservation fields, in law enforcement, in wildlife management. They know they need to work after college, and most try to work through college. They try not to take loans. (Our fee structure is appropriately modest.) They want to work in government agencies, often in uniform. They are stolidly conservative, after a rural New England fashion. They are not stereotypical American environmental liberals. Most do not even like to be called environmentalists. They are nice kids. Some are in the services, the guard or reserve. They go to Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan. They rarely protest. Sustainability has nothing to do with them.

So they think.

But about six years ago the faculty looked at the correct writing on the wall, and put together a required core curriculum in “environmental stewardship.” In addition to math, English, and speech, students would take sequential interdisciplinary courses exposing them to the environmental movement, to conservation history, to the social science of environmental problems. Writing would be integrated across this core curriculum. Math would be included. And so would sustainability, under the rubric of “human ecology.”

The faculty passed the curriculum and began implementing it over a number of academic years. Soon it was time to teach the primary sustainability course, the third in the sequence, for the first time. I was almost done with my PhD in Environmental Policy for the School of Public Affairs at the University of Maryland. Sustainability was my thing, and I applied. A year later, we found another sustainability specialist in the shape of Dr. Nancy Ross, expert in food policy and agricultural sustainability, and a new college president, Dr. David Glenn-Lewin, an ecologist. The new president made sustainability one of five top priorities for the college. David appointed Nancy and I to the Campus Sustainability Committee. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s a very interesting history, we think, for people who worry about sustainability in higher education; a comprehensive program for sustainability almost identical to that called for by the Talloires Declaration and in other materials disseminated by ULSF.

We believe our programs are unique for their focus on undergraduates and on sustainability training for all, regardless of major. We like to think we’re training leaders for the whole of society, not just academia. Wind turbine towers yes; ivory towers no.

This is a contribution to national priorities. There’s a concerted effort on the part of leaders of the National Academy of Sciences, National Science Foundation, and various professional societies to set up interdisciplinary graduate programs in these areas to meet needs brought about by climate change and sustainability issues in general.1 Very few programs, however, are concerning themselves with undergraduate education; those that do are primarily interested in training specialists, and most of these folks will presumably also go on to graduate work.

But, and here’s the rub, polls show that only about thirty percent of Americans believe climate change will affect them.2 Climate change is just one of several important sustainability issues that will affect all Americans. Oil depletion is probably the next most important.

Here at Unity College, we’re trying to provide a solid education in sustainability to all our undergraduates, regardless of major. We believe strongly that this is appropriate both for the benefit of our students and for society as a whole. This means we have to worry about what to teach, and how best to teach it. The field is rapidly changing, highly politicized (to the detriment of common sense), and complex. A lot of universities and colleges are involved in sustainability issues, whether from the point of view of improving the campus physical plant, or education, or both. Few have a good idea of the priorities or how best to think about them. We think we do, and are being quite successful.

First, a note about pedagogy. We couldn’t do this work as well as we do if we just approached it in the same soft, new agey manner that bedevils environmental studies around the nation. Our conservative students would rebel, and rightly so. The commitment to rigor and quantification turns out to be key to overcoming students’ latent conservatism. We stick to the facts, which are scary enough by themselves. So does our policy of hands-on learning. It isn’t just the maintenance department and the school’s architect that are at work. When we say we’re going to put up a wind turbine, we mean that students are going to put up a wind turbine, not some contractor. That way, they really learn.

Here are the bones of what we’re currently doing and wish to improve on:

1) All students take a two-course, sophomore/junior sequence in sustainability/human ecology as part of their mandatory general education. No one graduates unless they pass both courses. They are systematic and rigorous (thanks here to Herman Daly, Robert Sprinkle, Steve Fetter, Peter Brown and the other teachers at the UMD environmental policy program for making it clear that one could be rigorous about environmental policy and not lose the desire to do good in the world). The courses together cover many topics, but include at least human economic history, ecological theory, climate change, natural resource depletion, basic quantitative modeling, climate emissions accounting, a little sustainability engineering (solar panels, wind turbines, composting, landfill technology, and so on), and a considerable amount of critical thinking about how human societies work with regard to sustainability.

2) The campus is becoming physically more sustainable in regard to all inputs and waste outputs. The basis for knowing whether or not this is achieved is rigorous and quantitative. (In the last two years we reduced our climate emissions by 27% overall.) Through lab days and course projects, students are involved in designing buildings, composting, building wind turbines and solar power systems.

3) A minority of interested students are prepared for graduate school and successfully placed in the leading sustainability policy and sustainability science graduate programs using advanced classes and a minor in human ecology and sustainable development. Of this group, some are encouraged to join Peace Corps or other service agencies. (Our students are also leaders in the Northeast Climate Campaign, and regularly put in more national level appearances talking about sustainability than we do.)

4) We are making solid connections with our local community, including business leaders in sustainability, to get the leadership we need to make sure all the above works and works well. We’re reaching out to people who run wind farms, who make fuel cells, who organize farmer’s markets. We invite them to campus. We have them speak. We ask them what they think should be taught. We try to place students in internships with their organizations.

As a result of successfully doing all of the above, within a very few years we intend to be the recognized national experts in training undergraduates in sustainability.

We recognize several weaknesses in our program. First, even with the business connections described above, our program is directed primarily towards government and NGO work, not private business. We now offer a five-year combined BS/MBA in cooperation with Husson College, but have not forged good connections between this new program and sustainability, or with business leaders in sustainability. We know there are growing opportunities out there in business for good sustainability thinkers, but we haven’t completely made the connections. Second, we’re small and remote. Getting regional and national attention is extremely difficult for us. Third, we’re congenitally under-funded, primarily because for nearly forty years we’ve trained conservation workers who get relatively low-paid jobs and who can’t afford big donations. We boast alumni high in the EPA, the State DEP, and the Colonel of the Maine Warden’s Service, an alumnus himself, is coming back here soon to teach conservation law, but we’re 98% percent tuition driven. It’s time to get over this, but doing so will take some help.

In short, because we’re small and flexible, and because of our existing environmental expertise, Unity College is able to do what other larger institutions currently find terribly difficult, but will shortly find essential: teach meaningful courses in sustainability to all undergraduates regardless of major. And it works. Alumni surveys at Unity College show that after five years, 61% of respondents are in employment related to the conservation field they studied, while 80% give up to 40 hours per month of paid or unpaid labor to an environmental cause. These core courses are taught to all students, not just the converted, the current denizens of the environmental programs. This job has to be done, and it has to be done well. It’s their future, not ours. We have the responsibility to teach them how to deal with it as best we know how.

1 Good examples of this momentum include recent publications by the National Research Council such as Our Common Journey: A Transition Towards Sustainability, or similar texts in the area of global change. In graduate programs, the one that is making probably the greatest theoretical contribution is the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics at the University of Vermont, but many other significant programs have begun in the last decade.
2 From a 2002 poll by the Gallup organization, published on the Internet under “Poll Topics and Trends: Environment,” at

Mick Womersley earned a PhD in Environmental Policy from the University of Maryland School of Public Affairs and an MS in Resource Conservation from the University of Montana Forestry School; both degrees were awarded for research involving problems in sustainability. He was a NOAA Sea Grant fellow in Environmental Policy from 1997-2000, working as research assistant to David Wasserman and Mark Sagoff of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy studying the sustainability of Maryland fishing villages. He has also taught as visiting professor at both Bard College and at the Institute of Ecology, University of Georgia. His primary interest is human ecological sustainability, but he also writes and publishes articles on urban planning and on public policy ethics.

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