Taking Stock of Sustainability Efforts

June 5, 2014
By Alvin Powell, Harvard Gazette

After years of toiling to increase the efficiency and lessen the environmental impact of campus operations, it’s time for university sustainability workers to step back, examine broader goals, and make sure their efforts are aligned to achieve them.
That’s the advice of William Clark, the Harvard Kennedy School’s Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy, and Human Development, and a co-director of the Sustainability Science Program. Campus sustainability initiatives have, for many years, been on the cutting edge, promoting efficiency, influencing institutional practices, encouraging new construction and major renovations, and changing behavior among students, faculty, and staff.
In fact, Clark said, he and other specialists in sustainability have learned from the efforts of Harvard and other institutions. Still, he said, campus leaders should take a look at the broader picture before plunging ahead once again.
“We’ve been taking for granted that you recognize sustainable development if you saw it,” Clark said. “What are we trying to promote? It certainly isn’t just reductions in emissions.”
Clark posed the question Tuesday (June 3) to a Cambridge gathering of representatives from universities and nonprofit organizations across 34 countries. The gathering was part of the eighth annual conference of the International Sustainability Campus Network(ISCN), which was jointly hosted by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Sustainability, he said, should promote human well-being in a long list of areas — housing, work, education, health, and community among them. Further, he said, sustainable development ensures that well-being is shaped in a way that is not purchased at the cost of other people elsewhere in the world or, in the case of long-term environmental degradation, at the expense of future generations.
The focus of university efforts shouldn’t just be on the flow of goods and services to and from campus, Clark said, but should also ensure that the development of other important assets — the built environment, knowledge passed on to students, social capital created on campus, and even the natural environment — are handled sustainably.
“On your campus, what are the specific capital assets most relevant to enhancing the inclusive well-being of your community, both locally, surrounding, and through the world?” Clark asked. “How well do you monitor and report the size and quality of those asset stocks, not just the flows in and out of them — greenhouse gas emissions, waste recycling rates and so on. [Those are] all hugely relevant, but not about the stock of assets we are, or are going to, pass on to the future.”

William Clark at the podium

Bill Clark, Harvey Brooks Professor of International Science, Public Policy and Human Development, introduces a panel.
Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell

“On your campus, what are the specific capital assets most relevant to enhancing the inclusive well-being of your community, both locally, surrounding, and through the world?” Clark asked.

 


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