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The Executive Officer’s Column

Educating for a Sustainable Future

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer

In May of 2006, leaders from 13 national discipline associations, including the ASA, convened to discuss higher education in relation to promoting an environmentally sustainable future for human society. ASA had been invited to participate by the Association for American Colleges and Universities and the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, and the meeting was organized by the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium (HEASC). HEASC is an informal network of higher education associations with a commitment to advancing sustainability within their constituencies and within higher education. HEASC was formed in 2005 to support and enhance the capacity of higher education to fulfill a critical role in producing an educated and engaged citizenry and associated knowledge to create a culture of sustainability.

Sustainable Development Background

The United Nations has declared the period 2005-2014 as the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, in order to promote the local and global understanding of principles of “sustainable development” (see www.uspartnership.org). The vision of a sustainable human society resides in the simultaneous creation of healthy economic growth and equity, healthy ecosystems and conservation of natural resources, and worldwide social development. Three elements—a flourishing environment, viable economy, and social health—yield a sustainable society, and these elements comprise what the business world calls the “triple bottom line.”

While the sustainability initiative’s goal is all people on earth living well without compromising the quality of life for future generations, interdependencies among economic, environmental, and social justice structures and processes require new ways of thinking and acting. Education is key to achieving this goal. According to the World Summit on Sustainable Development, different actions are needed in different regions, but the efforts to build a sustainable way of life require integrating action in three key areas:

Economic Growth and Equity—Interlinked, global economic systems need an integrated approach in order to foster responsible long-term growth while ensuring that no nation or community is left behind.

Conserving Natural Resources and the Environment—To conserve our natural resources for future generations, economically viable solutions need to be developed to reduce resource consumption, reduce pollution, and conserve natural habitats.

Social Development—Worldwide, people require jobs, food, education, energy, health care, water and sanitation. While meeting these needs, the world community needs to also ensure that the rich fabric of cultural and social diversity—as well as the rights of workers— is respected, and that all members of society are empowered to play a role in determining their futures.

Sociology Education

Higher education leaders across disciplines are urged to play a key role by updating curricula, syllabi, and course content with sustainability-related concepts, examples, and service learning. By weaving the sustainable development theme throughout a course, educators could make the material relevant to the challenges facing today’s students both in their colleges and universities and in their wider communities. The sustainability paradigm leads educators to curricula that encourage a worldview from one of “man conquers nature” (i.e., a perception of endless frontiers with natural resources separate from nature) to one that recognizes the individual’s interdependence with the natural world.

Sociology has a unique role within the social sciences in this educational effort. Whether in K–12 or higher education, sociology courses provide knowledge in the essential components of sustainability: social and economic stratifications and inequalities; social institutions; population and the environment; and societal change. An understanding of these topics in the context of education for a sustainable future could help students focus on the types of behavioral changes that would better protect the environment and create healthier, more sustainable communities with reduced human suffering. For sustainable development to occur, students need to take into their communities an understanding of the possibilities for the future of our society by developing both the commitment and the skills to build a more positive and sustainable future.

Many sociology courses already cover environmental protection, social inequality, and social change, but they may miss the integration of these topics into an understanding of sustainable development. The HEASC aims to assemble educational material that can be woven throughout the semester so students can learn to apply many different course topics to sustainable development. Sustainability material, for example, could be included in the examples and applications used within the course topics as well as in any special sections on thinking critically about sociology. Many colleges and universities are already organizationally involved in sustainability efforts, and service learning—as part of departmental curricula—can be used as one education strategy to link students to this effort at the institutional and community levels.

Possible Educational Enhancements

Missing from much higher education, including sociology, according to educators involved in the sustainability initiative, is a holistic approach to the concept of developing a sustainable future. But more than 1,000 syllabi in a variety of disciplines have already been collected that demonstrate how a fluid integration of sustainability can be incorporated into courses. The HEASC is developing on its www.aashe.org a list of sustainability related projects that faculty can assign to their undergraduate and graduate students. ASA invites the sociological community to contribute to the effort by contacting the President of the U.S. Partnership for Education for Sustainable Development (Debra Rowe, dgrowe@oaklandcc.edu).

Sally T. Hillsman, Executive Officer