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Winter Park / Maitland Observer Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2012 6 years ago

Higher education's true role

Second Nature comes to Rollins
by: Anthony D. Cortese

Higher education leaders, especially the 674 college and university presidents in 50 states who have signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, recognize that providing sustainability education and modeling sustainable behavior and action is critical to meeting its social responsibility to provide the knowledge and educated citizenry for a thriving civil society.

Higher education is facing its greatest challenge in meeting its responsibility because humanity is at an unprecedented crossroads. The earth’s population has grown from 1 billion to 7 billion in the last two centuries, while energy consumption has risen 80 times and economic output has risen 68 times. Most of that has occurred in the last half century. Despite the impressive array of environmental protection laws and programs in the industrialized countries since 1970, all living systems (oceans, fisheries, forests, grasslands, soils, coral reefs, wetlands) are in long-term decline and are declining at an accelerating rate, according to all major national and international scientific assessments. Some (e.g., major ocean fisheries, coral reefs, forests) have partially collapsed and more are moving rapidly to total collapse.

At the same time, we are not succeeding in many health and social goals: 3.2 billion people are without sanitation and earn less than $2.50/day, more than a billion have no access to clean drinking water. The gap between the richest 20 percent of the world and the poorest 20 percent has jumped from 28:1 to 85:1 since 1960. Even in the U.S., the gap is the greatest since the Gilded Age of the late 19th and early 20th century. We have a worldwide economic recession and international conflicts and wars over resources such as oil and water that are destabilizing world society. This is happening with 25 percent of the world’s population consuming 70-80 percent of the world’s resources.

How will we ensure that current and future humans will be healthy and have strong, secure, thriving communities and economic opportunity for all in a world that will have 9 billion people and that plans to increase economic output 4-5 times by 2050? This is the greatest moral and social challenge human civilization has ever faced.

As Einstein said, “We can’t solve today’s problems with the same level of thinking at which they were created.” We need a transformative shift in the way we think and act. We currently view health, social, economic, political, security, population, environmental and other major societal issues as separate, competing and hierarchical when they are really systemic and interdependent.

"We need to redesign the human economy to emulate nature."

We need to redesign the human economy to emulate nature — operating on renewable energy, creating a circular production economy in which the concept of ‘waste’ is eliminated because all waste products are raw materials or nutrients for the industrial economy and managing human activities in a way that uses natural resources only at the rate that they can self-regenerate — the ideas embodied in sustainable forestry, fishing and agriculture. A growing consensus of business, government, labor and other leaders believe that a clean, green economy based on these principles is the only way to restore American economic leadership, create millions of jobs and help solve global health and environmental problems.

I am excited to be visiting Rollins College again next week to discuss these ideas and how they can be become a core part of the educational experience and the operations of the college. I had the privilege of visiting Rollins about a decade ago as part of an environmental stewardship initiative of the Associated Colleges of the South. Rollins has had a strong foundation in environmental dimension of sustainability in its teaching, student projects and in some of its operations, which make it well positioned to take a next big leap in fulfilling its mission.

Anthony D. Cortese, Sc. D. is the president of Second Nature. He presents “Transforming Higher Education for Sustainable Society” at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 18, at the Bush Auditorium at Rollins College. Visit or

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