Tony Cortese is president of Second Nature, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the education of sustainability in higher education. He is based in Boston, Massachusetts and can be reached at This is his first article for Facilities Manager.


For the first time in history, humans are pervasive and dominant forces in the health and well-being of the earth and its inhabitants. We are the first generation capable of determining the habitability of the planet for

humans and other species.


With a population of 6.1 billion (which will grow to at least 9 billion by 2050), with the earth’s climate being changed at an unprecedented and dangerous rate, and with 80 percent of the world’s resources being consumed by 20 percent of the world’s population, it is clear that we need a rapid transformation in awareness, knowledge, skills, and values to create a healthy, peaceful, just, and sustainable society. Most of the world’s major international governmental, scientific, and non-governmental institutions as well as many business organizations agree that the changes needed in individual and collective values and action must occur within the next one to two decades, at the latest.


Buildings have a significant impact on the environment, accounting for one-sixth of the world’s freshwater withdrawals, one-quarter of its wood harvest, and two-fifths of its material and energy, leaving a large negative impact on the environment and health. Buildings and land use also impact areas beyond their immediate location, affecting the watersheds, air quality, transportation, health, and living patterns of communities.


The resources required to create, operate, and replenish this level of infrastructure are enormous and are diminishing. By all accounts, we will have to double the built environment in the next 50 years to accommodate the demand. This is not possible without a radical change in the design, construction, operation, and location of buildings that seek to mimic the way nature operates—running on renewable energy, using materials in a complete cyclical fashion, and eliminating the concept of waste, using renewable non-toxic materials, and fitting in with natural systems, among other ideas.


Nowhere has the interest in sustainable design been more palpable than in the education system, particularly higher education. For example, nearly 50 new buildings have met LEED standards and 245 more are in the process of seeking LEED certification. The interest on campuses by students, faculty, planners, and facilities managers in having their campuses’ infrastructure model sustainability is growing exponentially. Higher education professional organizations, such as APPA and the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP), have been rapidly expanding their efforts to make sustainability an integral part of their mission and programs.

Student-based initiatives have led to important changes in transportation, campus and building design, purchasing and collaboration with local communities on more than 500 campuses. A number of new graduate degree programs in sustainable design, engineering, planning and management have been multiplying across the country while undergraduate concentrations, majors or minors in environmental science, studies, management and policy are now in half the 4 year colleges and universities. And a number of nonprofit organizations and university consortia {e.g., Second Nature (SN), New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability (NJHEPS) and the Education for Sustainability Western Network (EFS West)} have emerged to help make sustainability a foundation of all learning, research and practice in hundreds of colleges and universities.


The Challenge

Unfortunately, despite these developments, the overwhelming majority of graduates coming out of higher education do not have the knowledge, skills, and values to lead us down a sustainable path and higher education is not leading the efforts in research and practice to be a model for the rest of society. The current education system is, by and large, reinforcing the current unsustainable paradigm. For example, despite the growing number of architecture schools focusing on teaching sustainable design, none has yet to make sustainable design the default for education and practice for all graduates. The same is true in the education of virtually every

intellectual discipline and profession. As David Orr has said, the crisis we face is one of, not in education.

Why is this the case? Several structural aspects of the current system contribute to the problem. Interactions between population, the environment, and strategies, technologies, and policies for a sustainable future are amongst the most complex and interdependent issues with which society must deal. These issues cross over disciplinary boundaries. Higher education is generally organized into highly specialized areas of knowledge and traditional disciplines. Designing a sustainable human future requires a paradigm shift toward a systemic perspective emphasizing collaboration and cooperation. Much of higher education stresses individual learning and competition, resulting in professionals who are ill-prepared for cooperative efforts.


Moreover, classroom learning is largely separate from operations of the institutions that have an enormous economic, social, and environmental footprint that is largely invisible to students, faculty, and staff. Learning is also generally separate from collaboration with communities of which the institutions are an integral part. And for all the efforts to build new and some existing buildings to meet LEED standards cited above, these represent a drop in the bucket. Higher education is building about 1500+ new buildings and additions and modernizing 2500+ buildings annually. Moreover, expansion of campuses into local communities is huge, often straining

already challenging town/gown relations.


The issue is not the ability for higher education to take on this challenge. It is the will and the timeframe for doing so. There are several major barriers to the rapid, systemic change higher education must undertake. First, the efforts are fragmented or isolated. There is no collective mechanism for sharing and building on the efforts that are going on in a number of higher education institutions, academic disciplines, and professional organizations.


Secondly, the efforts are too slow in comparison to the problems society faces. The change is incremental, not transformational. Thirdly, existing efforts are still not mainstreaming sustainability—it is still seen as an area for specialists instead of being the context for all learning. Finally, there are too few avenues through which external stakeholders can guide and assist the growth of campus sustainability learning and practice. Transformative change will not come from within the academy without the push and assistance of the external stakeholders such as parents, alumni, local and regional communities, future employers, professional associations, funders of education and research, and accreditation organizations.


Without strategies to make education for sustainability “second nature” for future professionals, businesses, government, and professional organizations will be in a constant mode of remedial education for existing professionals—an expensive and time-consuming strategy. Remedial education is also not as effective since it involves working against an ingrained mindset that is antithetical to the holistic thinking necessary for sustainability practice. And it is not likely that they will be successful in time to avoid the critical challenges that we currently face and that are rapidly accelerating. A child in kindergarten today will graduate from college in 2020 so we must begin now.


Transforming Higher Education

What if higher education were to take a leadership role, as it did in the space race and the war on cancer, in preparing students and providing the information and knowledge to achieve a just and sustainable society? What would higher education look like? The education of all professionals would reflect a new approach to learning and practice. A college, university or professional school would operate as a fully integrated community that models social and biological sustainability itself and in its interdependence with the local, regional, and global community. In many cases, we think of teaching, research, operations, and relations with local communities as separate activities; they are not.


The content of learning will require interdisciplinary systems thinking, dynamics, and analysis for all majors, disciplines, and professional degrees. Understanding how the natural world works and learning how to have human technology and activity mimic and live within the limits of natural systems would be core to all learning.

The context of learning will change to make human/environment interdependence, values and ethics a seamless and central part of teaching of all the disciplines, rather than isolated as a special course or module in programs for specialists. All students will understand the ecological services that are critical for human existence, how to make the mostly invisible ecological and social footprint of human activity visible, as benign or, as positive as possible.


The process of education will emphasize active, experiential, inquiry-based learning and real-world problem solving on the campus and in the larger community, including government and industry. It is widely known that for long-term retention of knowledge, skills, and values, we retain 80 percent of what we do and only 10 to 20 percent of what we hear or read. A campus would “practice what it preaches” and make sustainability an integral part of operations, planning, facility design, purchasing and investments, and tie these efforts to the formal curriculum.

Because the university is a microcosm of the larger community, the manner in which it carries out its daily activities is an important demonstration of ways to achieve environmentally responsible living and to reinforce desired values and behaviors in the whole community. This would include an analysis of the full impact of the throughput of resources and energy at the university, the life cycle impact of all the operations and would embrace a strategy for developing indicators to measure the impact and progress in making changes to move to the positive. This will necessarily lead to discussion of issues like energy and water consumption, recycling, green buildings, transportation of people and goods to and from the campus, sustainably preferable purchasing, etc. Transparency is important here. We need new indicators of movement toward sustainability and institutional success because we measure what we value and manage what we measure. As always, the role of faculty and students and connecting these efforts back to student learning, research, and action are critical.

Finally, the learning and benefit to society of higher education forming partnerships with local and regional communities and businesses to help make them socially vibrant economically secure and environmentally sustainable will be a crucial part of successful higher education. Higher education institutions are anchor institutions for economic development in most of their communities. The 4,100 higher education institutions (half are community colleges) in the United States alone are, themselves, large economic engines with annual operational budgets totaling $280 billion in 2002, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. This is greater than the GDP of all but 25 countries in the world and 2.8 percent of GDP.


Imagine the economic leverage if universities were modeling sustainability by purchasing sustainably preferable

products and services and how much greater the benefit could be if they were doing joint purchasing with local communities. Utilizing faculty and students to conduct the research,

as an integral part of the learning experience would greatly enhance their education and promote a strong sense of connection to and caring for the local and global communities and to the ecosystems of which they are a part.


A Strategy for Transformative Change in Higher Education

Second Nature, a nonprofit organization with extensive experience in education for sustainability, proposes the development of a bold strategy to make sustainability be the foundation for the education for all design and planning professionals—building and landscape architects, engineers, interior designers, community, land use and transportation planners, and others—by the year 2015, at the latest. This unprecedented strategy will be implemented through the formation of a large national coalition of professional, business, academic, governmental, student and nonprofit organizations who will work individually and collectively to achieve this unprecedented goal.

            This coalition will attempt to do several things that have never been done before:

The Potential for Success

Several of the potential partners with whom we have spoken think it facilitates an unprecedented degree of collaboration among professional organizations involved in planning, design and construction and the academic institutions that train their professionals and significantly help the professional organizations increase their effectiveness, visibility and achieve their goals more rapidly.


If we build the coalition with active involvement by all members as suggested above, it will be extremely cost effective because it calls for a very small budget relative to the magnitude of the task and it depends on the active involvement of all the organizations inside and outside academia working in concert.


The potential synergy from the coalition will provide both an effective compass in assessing and directing our individual and collective efforts to a achieve the unprecedented goal of making sustainability the default for the education of all design, engineering and planning professionals in a decade.


Planning is now underway for United Nations’ Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, which is 2005-2015—the time frame for this project. There will be great international interest and the possibility of reaching the coalition goals internationally and the creation of economic opportunity worldwide for coalition members.

The coalition will create a prototypical partnership involving academia, professional associations, government, NGOs, corporations, and communities that is necessary for the transformation of the collective mindset to make sustainability “second nature.”



This project will have a huge multiplier effect in advancing sustainable communities, economies, and public policy through an unprecedented strategy to link all the external and internal stakeholders for education of future design, engineering, and planning professionals. Society has finally reached a kind of “tipping point” in professional associations, many business and design organizations, the construction and materials industries, in many academic institutions, and especially among students.


We can make a quantum leap forward if we can harness all of the energy and interest of the students, professional, academic, business organizations, communities, and state and federal government. We have a window of opportunity here at an auspicious time for humanity.