The New Revolution

By Samuel Thomas, Ph.D.


Sam Thomas is an assistant professor of religion and Co-chair of the CLU Sustainability Task Force.

A new wave of environmentalism has swept across college campuses in recent years. While American universities have fostered various incarnations of the environmental movement since the 1960s, the new sustainability revolution is unlike anything that has come before. It is not about trees, granola, free love, or transcendental meditation (though it may include those things).

This revolution has to do with a broad cultural shift that has elevated environmental sustainability to the level of a serious issue in the social, economic, political, and even religious spheres of our common life. This relatively new and widespread phenomenon cuts across customary lines of identity—in other words, there is no stereotype of the new environmentalist, and there is no single ideological source of the turn toward sustainability.

Though specific definitions can be subjective, sustainability is often defined in a general way as providing an acceptable quality of life for present generations without compromising the quality of life for future generations. As such, sustainability comprises a set of issues that can include ecological and environmental stewardship, social justice, long-term economic viability of people and businesses, and wise political leadership.

DiceSustainability is not just about saving baboons or about recycling. It is a foundational approach to human living that integrates many of the central aspects of CLU’s educational mission: It is both local and global; it calls for service and justice; it requires character and judgment; it has to do with how we understand and form our identities.

And on the vocational side of things, sustainability promises a whole new range of career directions for skilled and imaginative people—to the point that the School of Business has begun investigating ways to integrate issues of sustainability and professional preparation into the curriculum for students interested in careers in green (or at least greener) businesses.

President Chris Kimball and the Strategic Planning Steering Committee have endorsed the formation of a task force on CLU’s sustainability. This group is composed of various members of the University community— staff, administrators, faculty—and its primary objective for the year is to establish a long-term institutional framework that intersects with and informs the many aspects of sustainability in our campus life and beyond. We are addressing areas such as curriculum development, opportunities for research and grant money, student-led programming to increase education and awareness at CLU and throughout Southern California, waste management and energy solutions, employee training, institutional advancement, planning and building design, dining services and procurement, and marketing and communications, among others.

There are many resources for thinking about and acting on campus sustainability. First among them, of course, are the human resources of our campus community itself—the most important and the most reliable guides to any of our specific actions and goals. There are also local, regional and national conferences and collaboratives (see, for example, the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, www.aashe.org). As we work to give additional structure and significance to what we mean by sustainability at CLU, we must not only consult our own resources but also continually seek new ones, and we must make decisions in accordance with both our identity and our means.

Last spring in my Environmental Ethics course, my students and I approached a variety of environmental questions from the ethical perspectives of many different religious traditions. At times, the students were deeply perplexed about the seeming intractability of environmental problems. At other times, they found it surprising and enlightening to uncover the foundations of their own beliefs and values. At still other moments, they expressed optimism that human beings can wisely navigate the enormously complex problems that always face us. One product of such sober and reflective optimism was our class project to evaluate the current state of CLU’s approach to sustainability. As part of that project, we crafted a CLU Sustainability Vision Statement that connects broad, global themes with our specific institutional identity and mission. The statement reads in part, “We understand that education and hope are inextricably linked. We recognize that one crucial purpose of the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is to be able to envision new possibilities for a better world, and to be prepared to enact those possibilities in our everyday lives.”

This statement and these students give me hope that perhaps we are up to the very serious task of learning to live in a way that meets our present demands without compromising future generations.

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