Sustainability did not originate on the college quad, or even in faculty offices. Instead, it took form in the UN Brundtland Report and seeped into America’s consciousness slowly. The story of its ascent involves a couple, a summit, and a new idea. In 1990, when John Kerry met Teresa Heinz at an Earth Day rally in Washington, D.C., sustainability was not part of the values commonly shared by the American public. Activists had celebrated the first Earth Day in April 1970 and prompted President Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency in December. These benchmarks were part of a larger environmental awakening that included the passage of the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Air Act (1970), Clean Water Act (1972), Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), Endangered Species Act (1973), and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974). President Nixon, more concerned with swing voters than with the merits of environmental protection, signed the bills. But under Reagan and Bush senior, environmental concerns played second or third or fourth fiddles to economic growth, international affairs, and tax policy. Sustainability was not even a well-known term. Kerry, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, spoke at the 1990 rally, as did Mrs. Heinz’s husband, Republican Senator John Heinz from Pennsylvania. Senator Heinz introduced his colleague to his wife briefly, as the two waited to address the crowd. Senator Kerry and Mrs. Heinz met a second time in 1992, this time in Rio de Janeiro at a UN Earth Summit called to address escalating fears of climate change, the fourth in a series of UN climate talks around the world. Kerry was still a Massachusetts senator, divorced in 1988. Heinz, widowed in 1991 after her husband was killed in a helicopter crash, attended as a delegate from the U.S. State Department. At the Earth Summit, delegates adopted a Climate Change Convention that led to the emissions-cutting Kyoto Protocol in 1997. They also developed Agenda 21, an action plan for nations, local governments, and private organizations to strengthen “sustainable development” by combating poverty, empowering women and minorities, providing food and resources for children, protecting biodiversity, conserving virgin land, and setting out educational goals to teach citizens about the importance of sustainable programs of action. The U.S. technically adopted Agenda 21 when President George H.W. Bush signed it at the Summit, but the document was not legally binding and did not require formal ratification by the Senate. President Bush declined to enforce it. If sustainability were to become prevalent in American thinking, private advocacy groups would need to succor it. One such advocacy group was the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI). ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability smuggled the principles of Agenda 21 into unwitting townships and counties. But that tactic provoked outrage in Oklahoma, Iowa, Missouri, Maine, Tennessee, New Hampshire, Alabama, Arizona, and Kansas, all of which took action to prevent the implementation of the Agenda in their states. Kerry and Heinz left the Summit united by a different idea. They decided to target colleges and universities as seedbeds of the idea, lending sustainability the sheen of professional scholarly validation and training a new generation in its values and ambitions. Higher education already provided a haven for left-leaning ideas outside the mainstream, and a growing number of ecologists, scientists, philosophers, and poets were beginning to organize into a loose network of environmentally-conscious intellectuals. While other organizations, such as ICLEI, attempted to slip Agenda 21 into local governments and city planning meetings, higher education could afford to be more forthright in its goals. One year later Kerry and Heinz launched a nonprofit, Second Nature, with the mission to “create a sustainable society by transforming higher education.” Kerry and Heinz married in 1994, and their brainchild, Second Nature, went on to become a major force in creating the American sustainability movement. Second Nature started by targeting professors willing to introduce sustainability matter into their courses (adding units and themes here and there in nonenvironmental courses). Second Nature also encouraged the creation of new centers of sustainability study. But the most powerful ally turned out to be college presidents themselves. In 2006, at a joint meeting with the heads of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and the advocacy group ecoAmerica, Second Nature commissioned one of the most powerful agents of the American sustainability movement: The American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. The idea was simple. College presidents possessed the power to set their institutions’ agendas and to introduce sustainability as a key principle. They had an unparalleled ability to shepherd the new movement to adulthood. And they had the financial flexibility to experiment with new technologies and programs. In December 2007, twelve presidents became founding signatories of the Commitment. Some of the institutions in this first cohort were not prominent, but the Commitment snagged a handful of very important presidents and institutions, including Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, and Bernard Machen, the president of the University of Florida. The group of twelve pledged that they could “recognize the scientific consensus that global warming is real and is largely being caused by humans” and affirmed the need to slash global greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 (at latest) in order to “avert the worst impacts of global warming and to reestablish the more stable climatic conditions” that they believed characterized previous history. They avowed that American energy independence was needed “as soon as possible.” And they testified that higher education was uniquely responsible to convince the broader public of these facts and to set an example by going carbon-neutral. “We believe colleges and universities must exercise leadership in their communities and throughout society by modeling ways to minimize global warming emissions, and by providing the knowledge and the educated graduates to achieve climate neutrality,” the preamble read. It continued,
Campuses that address the climate challenge by reducing global warming emissions and by integrating sustainability into their curriculum will better serve their students and meet their social mandate to help create a thriving, ethical and civil society.
They pledged to audit all campus-caused greenhouse gas emissions, identify ways to cut back, and develop a target date and strategy to eliminate or offset 100 percent of all campus emissions. They also promised to complete at least two of seven activities to draw attention to sustainability: mandate that all new campus buildings meet LEED silver certification for efficiency, purchase only ENERGY STAR certified efficient appliances, offset (by purchase of carbon credits) all emissions caused by institutional air travel, encourage or provide public transportation for all students, staff, and faculty, buy energy from renewable sources, engage in shareholder activism to pressure the corporations in which the college owned stock to move towards climate neutrality, and host a recycling competition among the students. The pledge was a success. By March 2007, another 140 had signed on as charter signatories. As of this writing (January 2015) 685 colleges and universities have taken the pledge to eliminate all carbon-based emissions and to train their students in the habits of sustainability. Excerpted from the National Association of Scholars report, Sustainability: Higher Education's New Fundamentalism. This excerpt has been lightly edited. Read the rest of the report here.