Making sustainability central to the ANU curriculum, and to life

[Published by The Canberra Times 4 May 2012]

I experienced two kinds of management in my 27 years at the Australian National University, and I know which one worked better.  One looked forward, was ambitious, and supported anyone who had their own ambition.  The other worried about constraints and expended a lot of energy trying to identify and eliminate “under-performers”.

Vice Chancellor Ian Young’s recently announced intention to free up resources by cutting ANU’s expenses, through various measures that still include firing some people “as a last resort”, leans toward the negative.  It immediately provoked unrest on campus and it will undermine morale for as long as the policy is pursued.

Reading a book by the late Ray C. Anderson, the founder and CEO of billion-dollar US company Interface Carpets Inc., inspires me to point to another course.

Through Anderson’s vision and leadership, Interface has been pioneering the path to having zero footprint on planet Earth by 2020.  It aspires then to become a “restorative” company, a company that improves the Earth’s environment as it goes about its business.

The company has some impressive accomplishments already, including cutting material waste by 80%, water use by 80% and greenhouse gas emissions by 94%.  In the process it has increased sales by 66%, doubled earnings and raised profit margins.  Far from hobbling the company, becoming sustainable is paying for itself all the way.

In Australia of course such things are known to be impossible.  Nevertheless many other companies inexplicably have started to follow Interface’s lead, including even the giant retailer Walmart.

This new way of doing things is called by some the Second Industrial Revolution.    Rather than the linear take-make-waste model of the first industrial revolution, in the second materials are fully recycled and processes are powered by current energy income, from the sun, thus mimicking the biological world. The simple truth is that we must accomplish this new revolution if our civilisation is to survive in anything like its present form.

The required transformation goes far beyond industry.  We can shift the structure of our cities so living, working and playing minimises travel, and so our urban localities are healthier and more pleasant.  We can shift the organisation of our societies to facilitate the changes.  We can shift our attitudes about what we need and what is fulfilling.  Sustainability can become a central principle of our society.

Among the many ways Anderson shared his vision was through being an advisor to the Georgia Institute of Technology.  He posed the question “What must Georgia Tech’s graduates learn today, next year, in five years if they hope to work for us, or companies like us?”  Certainly not all the wasteful, harmful processes and practices of the old way.

From this follows a challenge to ANU, and to all universities.  If next year’s student intake graduates knowing only how to continue the old way, then ANU will be failing.

ANU already has some excellent programs that promote sustainability, notably the Fenner School of Environment and Society.  The ANUgreen program promotes the greening of physical activities on the campus and in the community.  However sustainability needs to permeate all teaching and research programs.

Thus, for example, law students can learn of the many ways in which present laws and regulations impede the adoption of readily available better practices and lifestyles, and how those laws might be changed.  Humanities students might learn of the different values Western people have lived by at different times.  The social sciences have a wealth of knowledge of how other cultures have supported sustainable, fulfilling lives.

For our society to be sustainable, it needs to be compatible with our own nature as well as with the natural world around us.  Modern ethology makes clear we are innately social beings for whom there is a natural and healthy tension between individuality and the group, between competition and cooperation.  We cannot live at one extreme or the other, we need to balance both.

So on the one hand science and technology programs might ask “will this technology harm or nurture the biological world, our life support system?”  On the other hand business and marketing programs might ask “will this practice exploit or nurture people, weaken or strengthen the social fabric?”

Politics, law, media and management programs might explore how to reduce the socially destructive effects of heavily adversarial and competitive traditions by including more conflict resolving and cooperative approaches.

Perhaps most significantly, the university could critically evaluate the scholarly underpinnings of economic schools of thought.  What are the assumptions underlying the theory of free markets?  Do they take account of modern knowledge from psychology, the other social sciences, ecology, systems theory, physics and common business practices?  What are its main predictions?  Do these bear any useful resemblance to real modern economies?  Is there room for cooperation, and does the economy have to be incompatible with sustainability?

If the ANU made sustainability central to every activity on campus it would, it seems to me, inspire and energise its staff and students.  Management would be perceived as leading rather than limiting.  Operating within constraints is intrinsic to sustainability, so with everyone involved creative solutions to financial constraints might soon be found, just as Interface quickly found ways to reduce waste and save money.

In this way the ANU would, I think, continue its tradition of succeeding brilliantly, and serve Australian society in the best possible way.

1 thought on “Making sustainability central to the ANU curriculum, and to life

  1. ethicalethica

    It’s good to know another university may join the sustainability effort. At my university, we have a small population of environmental activists who really want to change the school, but the school’s stigma as a whole is very lacking in ‘sustainability’. I feel if the faculty and school events revolved around it, students would become more aware, but right now I don’t know how to help this anti-sustainable stigma the students have created. I must admit the administration itself is trying to incorporate such environmentalism into its buildings and related activities though.



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