Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 31 Number 1
Fall 2008

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Photo by Dinaamir Predov from

Green campus, green future

by Michael Hamburger

For the first time in history, a single generation — among them students at Indiana University — may decide the ultimate habitability of our planet. The increasingly deleterious effects of human activity on Earth’s finite natural resources are manifesting in inescapable signs of global climate change, accelerating loss of habitat and extinction of species, increasing impact of natural disasters, and growing scarcity of critical resources. The emerging field of sustainability research examines the causes, potential impacts, and, ultimately, solutions to these global-scale challenges of human-environment interaction.

Sustainability, a term becoming ubiquitous on the covers of popular magazines, is difficult to define and even more difficult to put into practice. The sustainability movement is distinguished from the environmental concerns of the 1970s and 1980s in its departure from more local concerns about how pollution affects our quality of life to focus on global questions about the survivability of our civilization. Sustainability has a very practical side as well; it focuses on identifying workable approaches to mitigating our human impact on the natural environment, incorporating aspects of environmental science, engineering, economics, and social policy to identify local-scale solutions to global-scale problems.

The most broadly accepted definition of sustainability emerged from a landmark 1987 United Nations report issued by the Brundtland Commission on the Environment and Development, which de­fined it as “meeting the needs of the pre­sent without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The Brundtland Commission extended issues of local and global environ­mental quality with social and economic issues associated with resource use, environmental literacy, and social justice.

In my own discipline of geology, the concept of sustainability comes quite naturally. It is simply a matter of expanding our view of human society to its broader context in space and in time. The spatial view links our institutions and communities with the interdependent Earth systems that provide our life-support system — the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere. The temporal view of a geologist sees present natural resources as our inheritance from the long-term coevolution of our planet and its inhabitants and sees stewardship of those resources as our legacy to the future generations. This dual view drives us toward an inescapable responsibility to reexamine the way in which we interact with our planetary home.

The Institutional Response

As many individuals and institutions struggle to redefine humans’ relationship with the natural world, they look at how their own lives, workplaces, and communities contribute to their “ecological footprints” on our planet. This is particularly true of universities, which have been quick to embrace the “greening” of institutional life.

The Talloires Declaration, developed at an international conference in Talloires, France, in 1990, is an historical landmark in the university sustainability movement. The statement represents the first collective commitment to environmental sustainability in higher education, laying out a 10-point action plan for incorporating sustainability and environmental literacy in teaching, research, operations, and outreach at colleges and universities. It has since been signed by some 350 university leaders from more than 40 countries.

Critics point out that universities, which represent only a tiny fraction of our country’s population, gross national product, and energy use, cannot single-handedly change even a small fraction of our society’s impact on the environment. As with other great societal challenges, however, institutions of higher education and other centers of learning have a crucial role to play. The research and investigation taking place at universities gives us new tools to understand and respond to the complex interplay of physical, biological, and societal processes that govern human-environ­ment interaction. Academic institutions across the nation are rising to the challenge of global sustainability.

The sustainability movement is truly an interdisciplinary endeavor. It involves contributions from virtually every discipline, from physics of nanofibers to philosophic reexamination of social institutions, from geologic models of carbon sequestration to economics of renewable energy investment; it evokes creative activity from photography and poetry to films and modern dance. It is a discipline that cannot possibly be housed within a single department or school.

On a university campus, a sustainability initiative has the potential to engage with all aspects of university life, with the campus itself turned into a living laboratory in which new models of sustainable operation can be developed, tested, and analyzed. Sustainability also offers unprecedented opportunities for applied research to combine with classroom training and community service, creating a rich service-learning environment with strong linkages to the community in which the university resides.

The Greening of Big Red

Since the founding of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs more than 35 years ago, Indiana University has been at the forefront of integrating environmental science and policy. Our recognized strengths in environmental science and policy, in international affairs, in information technology, and in teacher education and community outreach position IU well to take a leadership role in the emerging academic area of sustainability research.

In response to this emerging opportunity, the IU administration initiated a Sustainability Task Force for the Bloomington campus in March 2007. The task force, working over a nine-month period and involving more than 100 IU faculty, students, and staff, gave birth to a 130-page Campus Sustainability Report that charts an ambitious series of goals for a coordinated IU program in sustainability research, education, and campus operation. Through support from the IU administration, plans are under way to create a campus office of sustainability, providing a clearinghouse for sustainability-related research and teaching and a mechanism for initiating many of the suggestions proposed in the task force’s report. Similar sustainability programs are in motion on other IU campuses, paralleling those envisioned at sister institutions across the state and nation.

Even in its formative stages, IU Bloomington’s sustainability program has had a major impact on student engagement, involving more than 30 student sustainability interns whose research projects range from basic data collection on campus greenhouse gas emissions to detailed engineering studies of building design and informatics of utility monitoring systems. On the Bloomington campus alone, some 85 faculty members, distributed among 14 depart­ments, are involved in sustainability-oriented research. But these efforts are only the tip of the iceberg. The potential for growth in this emerging academic endeavor is unprecedented, and the potential contributions to our society are immeasurable.

As it turns out, the sustainability initiative at IU is finding a way to tap the only resource that doesn’t seem to be in finite supply: imagination.

Michael Hamburger is professor of geological sciences and associate dean of the faculties at IU Bloomington.


To learn more about IUB’s sustainability initiative, see