Communicating Sustainability

by Matt Peterson and Wynn Calder / 11 March 2016

It goes without saying that there are many approaches to communicating sustainability in education. “Sustainability” comprises a large, comprehensive and complex set of concepts for improving the condition of people and the planet. Like democracy, it has been defined as “an ideal end-state” (AtKisson, 2010). Arjen Wals (2010) has described it as “both urgent and inevitably unknown.” While schools often settle for terms like “environmental” or “green” or “stewardship” to define their efforts, we encourage using the word “sustainability,” despite its drawbacks. But this can only work if schools take the time to define what they mean and to reinforce that definition in their teaching, learning, and daily life.

There is little doubt today that, as physical, place-based institutions with buildings, grounds and parking lots, schools should support the most environmentally responsible and sustainable campuses they can (from energy and water conservation to waste reduction and recycling). This is nearly always the place to start when schools take on sustainability. But we are interested in a commitment to sustainability that engages all dimensions of school life. Simply put, if we can’t engage our teachers, if we can’t enlist them in teaching the content and skills of sustainability (or sustainable development), then we have failed to play our part, as educational institutions, in solving the challenges of our time.

A surprising challenge with the term “sustainability” is its global and comprehensive relevance. Its all-encompassing nature is also its detriment: because we as educators understand how everything is connected, we often struggle to know where to start or how to define or limit the conversation. In response, it is tempting to want to do away with the conventional disciplines, replacing them with new approaches. But few of us are at schools either visionary or progressive enough to envision and staff such a prospect. Instead, we must embrace our roles as interpreters, guests, and storytellers –reforming from within our schools’ cultures, curricula, and values.

Whether teachers know it or not, all disciplines have a part to play in the teaching of environmental, cultural, and economic sustainability. In fact, many are playing that part unwittingly, but by different terms and ends. The work of inclusion and communication, however, is primarily ours, as practitioners and educators of sustainability. With our help, all disciplines can find the room(s) of sustainability sufficiently large and welcoming. To succeed, we must approach our task knowing we are the guests, seeking to understand the spirit of each discipline rather than shoehorning sustainability into syllabi and colleagues’ classrooms.

At the secondary level, when it comes to curriculum, sustainability is too often boiled down to environmental science. That way, by giving “sustainability” its own class and faculty, nothing elsewhere needs to change very much. But the values that have denuded landscapes have also inspired destructive regimes and wiped out cultures – the bread and butter of literature and history. Thus, our language must be generous enough to allow for technical application, broad reflection, and application in one’s life – the rich and varied interconnections necessary for a coherent worldview. Our task is to foster an approach to sustainability that values the ethical and esthetic underpinnings of humanity’s social and environmental challenges and prospects; to equip students with the ethical, social, ecological, and scientific know-how to grapple with our era’s complex and interrelated challenges.

We might wish there were a standard method for transitioning to teaching and practicing sustainability. But no two independent schools are quite alike in their cultures and values. Nevertheless, we hope the following suggestions provide some perspective on the challenge of discerning and communicating sustainability at your school.

A- Understand your school culture.

How liberal or conservative or progressive or counter-cultural is your school? Where do the majority of your faculty, administration, staff, and students sit on the continuum? What words are most often used to describe your school’s “green” or “sustainability” efforts? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “Words create worlds.”

B- Develop an official definition and/or vision statement.

Many schools have benefitted from developing sustainability mission or vision statements. Use your school culture as a starting point to find language that inspires the community to embrace this larger vision. As a community statement, however, it requires community participation. Beginning the conversation amongst members of your sustainability or environmental committee makes sense, but it’s critical to include the larger community once you have something worth sharing. Note: The simplest process is to create a online document and invite feedback from all constituencies for a limited period of time. Much can be gained, as well, from a faculty retreat that is carefully organized to identify common aspirations and elicit honest feedback. Throughout the process, we recommend that you:

(a)- Redeem sustainability from the realm of “special interest.” Help people understand that sustainability is a fundamentally conservative issue and one that concerns all people. It reaches to the root of common sense.

(b)- Consider sustainability in the context of values and human flourishing. If we limit sustainability to a matter of technology, we will have only addressed the symptoms of our excessive appetites. As we move into the Anthropocene, we must honestly ask ourselves how humans have come this far and consider where our species is headed and where we’re taking Earth with us.

(c)- If possible, discern a spirit of sustainability within the school’s wider mission, summoning the school’s seminal language to ensure continuity.

C- Use the vision to guide programming and curriculum over time.

(a)- Seek coherence and integration; root out inconsistencies. When institutions discern inconsistent goals, they can begin to see the inadequacies of their narratives or mythologies. The cognitive dissonance can summon us to reconcile what we want with how we have sought it.

(b)- Build friendships with different people to prevent the echo chamber. Shared and durable language emerges by embracing all that your faculty is. Do not make a habit of vainly wishing everyone would think as you do. Listen for the principles of sustainability in others’ language.

(c)- With a strong vision in place, spark formal and informal conversation with personnel who oversee curricula, from deans to department chairs and academic committees. Through conversation and study, colleagues may begin to see that sustainability is surprisingly familiar and, in time, refreshingly powerful. Sustainability seeks to apply the humanities. It urges ethical and compassionate engagement with the world, whether in laboratories or in the field. Note: This is obviously not the job of one person. It requires the steady efforts of a core of interested faculty and staff.

D- Communicate progress and successes regularly.

Doing so allows you to manage your school’s cultural shift. Few schools do this well, but committing to it properly frames and develops an identity beyond individual events. It becomes a story for others to tell and repeat (i.e., Marketing, Communication, and Development offices, spotlight on the dining hall, kudos to staff in Facilities).

Moving a school toward an ethos of sustainability is good, slow cultural work that engages people as individuals and professionals. It is work we can and must do. We owe it to our students to model this work so they can continue and extend it.


AtKisson, Alan (2010). Believing Cassandra, 2nd ed., Routledge.

Wals, Arjen (2010). “Message in a Bottle,” Inaugural Address.

Matt Peterson is English Department Chair and Academic Dean at Western Reserve Academy. Wynn Calder is Sustainability consultant to NAIS and Director of Sustainable Schools LLC.

NOTE:  This blog was initially posted on the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) website.

Written by Wynn Calder

Wynn Calder

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