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Planning for our future now

Jim Walker, director of sustainability for the university, kicks off the forthcoming Know series on multidisciplinary perspectives on sustainability.

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Our Campus Sustainability Policy defines sustainability as “societal efforts that meet the needs of present users without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” drawn from the classic Brundtland Commission definition, and continuing “sustainability presumes that the planet’s resources are finite, and should be used conservatively, wisely, and equitably. Decisions and investments aimed to promote sustainability will simultaneously advance economic vitality, ecological integrity, and social welfare.”

Today, sustainability is one of the great challenges facing Texas and the world. The University of Texas at Austin’s brand “What Starts Here Changes the World,” captures the idea that the university is able to make a greater impact in the areas of innovation and social and economic growth. The core values within our, or any, definition of sustainability can be found within the core brand of the university.

Sustainability in higher education is about broadening our critical thinking within all disciplines to routinely consider our society’s natural resource needs and impacts, our ability to adapt to changing natural and societal conditions, our collective sense of humanity and social justice, and our impact on another’s quality of life.

It’s also about society’s definition of return-on-investment and how much further that equation needs to reach to be useful to future generations.

We have become adept at talking about working to the benefit of future generations, but we struggle in our work with balancing the benefits we seek for ourselves with the benefits we desire for our descendants.

Universities across the country are beginning to delve into their business and academic models to target research and attract scholars who exemplify broader critical thinking about society’s future concerns. While The University of Texas at Austin is early in its pursuit of campus-wide sustainability, we are poised to become a leader.

  • The University of Texas at Austin is investing in research on campus aimed at global energy challenges at the new Energy Institute led by Dr. Ray Orbach and the Thermal Lab associated with the School of Architecture. University researchers are also collaborating on a new solar installation on the Manor parking garage to utilize the array for testing solar technologies.
  • Recognizing student interest in sustainability in the classroom, the Provost’s Office commissioned the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center to develop an online database of all sustainability related courses, faculty, research centers and initiatives and degree plans available on campus. The directory is set to launch in March.
  • Dr. Jay Banner led an effort to establish a new bachelor’s degree in environmental science to go along with existing graduate level portfolio degree plans in sustainability.
  • Over the last 15 years, The University of Texas at Austin has made over $140 million in efficiency upgrades to the campus central power plant, resulting in annual cost savings over $11 million and annual reductions in greenhouse gas emissions of almost 90,000 metric tons. Our campus power plant has won state, national and international awards as a model of efficiency.

Sustainability is a pursuit — for individuals, for institutions and for nations. With sustainability continuing to grow as a priority for prospective students, faculty and research funders, we should continue to strive to become a leader in all facets of sustainability.

I am excited about the opportunity to present university-related sustainability content in Know. Being the (still) relatively new director of sustainability for The University of Texas at Austin, the diversity in the concepts and implementation of sustainability on campus continually surprises me. I hope this series focused on perspectives of sustainability, encourages even more discussion and creative action.

This introduction was adapted from Platform, Fall 2010.

Articles in the Know January-February 2011 sustainability series:

Jan. 21 — Sunlight to clean hydrogen fuel

Jan. 31 — Oil past and present

Feb. 3 — Building a ‘Green Star State’

Feb. 9 — Chillin’ like it’s 1977

Feb. 14 — Living Landscape

Feb. 19 — Sustainable building in a hot and humid climate