The Sustainable University

Christopher Uhl
May 01, 1999
atmosphere from space

Sustainability—the notion of stewardship of the biosphere and living within limits—has attracted broad attention from governments, resource managers, grassroots groups, and academics. A society organized around this principle would gauge well-being in ways that reflect both planetary health and human fulfillment, such as freedom from armed conflict, clean air and water, stable ecosystems, safe streets, high literacy, and equity. In such a society citizens would be keenly aware that forests, fertile soils, fisheries, and clean water are assets to be used at a rate no faster than their innate rates of regeneration.

Sustainabilityís power as an organizing concept for modern life has come about, in part, because of three remarkable lessons that humans have slowly absorbed over the past 50 years. The first is the lesson of exponential growth, most stunningly illustrated by the J-form of the human population growth curve, but exhibited just as dramatically in scores of production, consumption, and waste trends. The second lesson, learned from manís sojourns in space, is that the Earth is essentially a closed system—a blue planet orbiting a star. Our resources are finite, and there are physical limits to growth. The third lesson is that the Earthís exponentially increasing mass of humanity can actually disrupt planetary functioning. We are already experiencing these effects in the form of acid rain and global warming. Taken together, these three remarkable lessons have gradually sensitized society to the fragility of our Earth and the need to practice more sustainable lifeways.

Penn State and universities in general have a special role to play in guiding us toward a sustainable future. David Orr, professor of environmental science at Oberlin College, puts it this way: "The planetary emergency unfolding around us is . . . a crisis of thought, values, perceptions, ideas, and judgments. In other words, it is a crisis of mind, which makes it a crisis of those institutions which purport to improve minds." Orr laments that at universities we teach about the breakdown of the Earth, but fail to put ourselves in the picture; too often we see the problem as "out there."

Three years ago, working with Barbara Anderson at Penn Stateís Center for Sustainability, we gathered together a bright, eager group of undergraduate and graduate students, 30 people in all. Our mission: to put Penn State in the picture. We wanted to understand our ecological dependencies and the environmental impacts of our university. We visited the Somerset County landfill that receives our trash, journeyed to the open pit mines near DuBois that provide our coal, and walked through the nearby well fields that supply our water. And this was just a start. Our team went on to look into our dumpsters to see what we were throwing away, examine the food offerings in our dining halls, study land transactions at the County deeds office, calculate the loss of campus green space using resources in the Pattee Library Map Room, determine the number of exotic vs. native plants on campus through botanical surveys, characterize the ecological literacy of graduating seniors by administering questionnaires, and much more. The results came pouring in:

  • Students consume about 60 gallons of water per person per day: 40 in showers, 10 in toilet flushing, 3 in the sink, and 7 in clothes washing. They seldom drink water.
  • We consume about 7,000 pounds of coal per person per year at University Park, resulting in the emissions of about 10 tons of carbon dioxide per person.
  • The food that we consume in our dining halls travels great distances—often well over 1,000 miles—before reaching our plates. The amount of energy required to process, package, and ship this food is many times greater than the energy contained in the food itself.
  • We consume about 90 pounds of paper per person per year on campus (i.e., a plot of forest measuring about 55 feet on a side is necessary to sustainably supply each of our paper needs).

And this was just the tip of the iceberg. Soon we had a whole filing cabinet full of reports and data, as well as stacks of computer disks crammed with numbers and analyses. Our research efforts culminated in the release of The Penn State Indicators Report in September 1998. The report presents a different and challenging view of Penn State.

Rather than relying on traditional metrics (e.g., SAT scores of incoming freshmen, size of endowments, percentage of Ph.D.s on the faculty, winning football seasons, and so forth), the Indicators Report examines Penn Stateís performance and well-being through the lens of sustainability. The report examines policies and performance in material consumption, water conservation, recycling, purchasing, energy use, building design, and research ethics; it takes a hard look at our food and transport systems and ask if they are moving us in a sustainable direction; and it checks to see if our institutional power is being used to strengthen regional economies and promote corporate responsibility. The data for indicators are plotted, and depending on the trends over time, "indicate" a movement toward or away from sustainability. For example, the report shows that per capita energy use at Penn State is higher today than a decade ago—a trend away from sustainability. Meanwhile, the amount of solid waste recycled has increased since 1992—a trend toward sustainability. When viewed together, the various indicators provide a new and important kind of status report for the University. They are analogous to the vital signs a doctor uses to assess the overall well-being of a patient. Like a patientís vital signs, these measures of institutional well-being can serve as a starting point for constructive change.

So, how is Penn State doing? For seven of the reportís 34 indicators, we are clearly moving toward sustainability (e.g., water consumption and recycling). But for another seven indicators the situation is strongly nonsustainable with no sign of a turn-around (e.g., food purchasing policies, green space converted to parking space). An additional 14 indicators also reveal clearly nonsustainable practices but nonetheless show signs of awareness. For the remaining six indicators, more data and discussion are needed before a judgment can be reached. Overall, the report depicts an institution whose performance on sustainability indicators is not exemplary. For category after category—energy, food, materials, transportation, buildings, decision making—Penn Stateís practices depart little from the status quo. Our "vision" is the national vision that we can continue business as usual—growing and consuming—without worry.

There are hopeful signs. Ample evidence exists that Penn State is becoming aware of what needs to be done. The University Provost, John Brighton, accepted the final report on behalf of the University. The report was also sent to all members of the Board of Trustees. In addition, President Spanier promptly passed the report on to his vice presidents, instructing them to study its recommendations. Meanwhile, dozens of University faculty, staff, and administrators offered strong public endorsements of the report. One of them, Ronald Fillipelli (Associate Dean of Liberal Arts) had this to say: "This report is a demonstration of the kind of exciting and relevant learning that can take place when students and faculty work collaboratively. The sustainability project demanded methodological rigor and an interdisciplinary, integrated systems approach to the problem. But it also required the participants to grapple with ethical and moral questions involving distributional justice and the responsibility of the University to society. Penn State should be proud of the result."

The Indicators Report presents Penn State with a remarkable opportunity. Will we seize it? We have the expertise to design highly energy-efficient buildings, to create "living machines" in those buildings to purify our water so that the water coming in is as clean as that leaving. We could, if we chose, support regional farmers by providing them with guaranteed markets for foods that store well (e.g., potatoes, squash, and other root crops). We could partner with local governments to create a sustainable transportation system—one that reduces our reliance on cars and promotes walking, biking, and clean, reliable public transportation such as light rail. We could also commit ourselves to only purchasing products that have a high recycled content, are produced in an environmentally sustainable manner, demonstrate maximum durability or reparability, and are energy efficient and nontoxic.

Two powerful sets of values have emerged and now present themselves with compelling force in American universities: One relies largely on economic criteria to make decisions; the other seeks to ground decisions in values and ethics. One is linked to unlimited growth, speed, and top-down solutions; the other centers on the sharing of power, living within limits, and mindfulness. The former calls us to be consumers; the latter to be citizens.

We have spent much of the past century showing how clever we can be; we will only flourish in the next if we can show how wise we can be. Indeed, future generations will measure us by our foresight and for what we were willing to risk on their behalf.

Christopher F. Uhl, Ph.D., is professor of biology in the Eberly College of Science, 208 Mueller Laboratory, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-3893; or Garrett Fitzgerald is the student coordinator for the Penn State Indicators Project. Copies of the Penn State Indicators Report are available from Uhl for the cost of printing ($6.00); the report is also on the web at

Last Updated May 01, 1999