Sustainability Character

Mitchell Tomashow

An excerpt from The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus, MIT Press

IN THE EARLY 1990’S, THICH NHAT HANH, THE VIETNAMESE Buddhist, presented a series of meditation workshops oriented towards the specific challenges of environmental professionals. I had the good fortune to attend one of those workshops. In my experience during the program and following twenty years, the reverberating mantra “you can’t take care of the environment if you don’t take care of the environmentalist” resided in my awareness. I used it as a way to balance the challenging demands of professional life, to serve as a way to place aspiration and accomplishment in the deeper perspective of a whole life.

Much of the sustainability ethos has its origins in the virtues of simplicity, a vision of a “good life” that has Thoreauvian roots, including what Philip Cafaro describes in his book Thoreau’s Living Ethics as “health, freedom, pleasure, friendship, a rich experience, knowledge (of self, nature, and God), reverence, self-culture, and personal achievement.” Simplicity also reflects an enduring tradition in American history. In The Simple Life, David Shi, reveals the origins and practice of this sensibility. He describes how the simple life was intrinsic to the Progressive movement, including “a cluster of practices and values that have since remained associated with the concept: discriminating consumption, uncluttered living, personal contentment, aesthetic simplicity (including an emphasis on handicrafts), civic virtue, social service, and renewed contact with nature in one form or another.”

On college campuses, sustainability advocates typically support such Thoreauvian values in principle, yet their work environments are exceedingly demanding. The sustainability ethos promotes “the good life” but the urgency of the “planetary challenge” coupled with the various stresses of contemporary higher education often creates pressured and tense work environments. Most campus sustainability professionals I encounter, including staffers, faculty, and managers, all the way up to the senior leadership, are challenged by a seemingly unlimited portfolio of urgent and demanding tasks and requests. They are compelled to respond for three main reasons: the perceived importance of the sustainability mission, the motivation to accomplish tangible results, and their desire to uphold standards of personal achievement. This is stimulated and reinforced by the presumed ubiquity of work, an implicit work ethic, and the assumption that individual and organizational success depends on the exemplary accomplishment of that work. It is relatively rare to find people on college campuses who proclaim that they’ve achieved a “balanced” work life. Rather people complain, proclaim, or take pride in how busy they are.

WE HAVE A PROFOUND CONTRADICTION HERE. The sustainability ethos deeply values a “good life” informed by simplicity, communion with nature, and reverence. But the provision of that good life seems to obviate its realization. Of course many people find great satisfaction in sustainability work and find that the work itself is sufficient reward. And how people choose to spend their time and balance their life is an individual matter. Still, my impression, informed by hundreds of conversations with higher education sustainability professionals, is that most of these people (regardless of their place and position) experience a fundamental imbalance between the promise of the “good life” and its realization.

What I wish to convey, then, is the inevitable link between sustainability, character, and life practice. Sustainability practitioners are ultimately interested in human flourishing: they serve as the campus conscience for personal health and fitness, community purpose and vitality, and ecological resilience. They are inevitably scrutinized because they are espousing ways of thinking, living, and acting. They are expected to model the very behaviors they advocate. As Emerson suggests, how they live and act is as important as what they say.

In my role as “supervisor in chief,” I had to learn how to create high expectations for the college while espousing a balanced work life.

During my tenure as a college president I directly confronted this issue. In my role as “supervisor in chief,” I had to learn how to create high expectations for the college while espousing a balanced work life. Unless I found the same balance in my own life I wouldn’t be taken seriously in that regard. There was a stunning parallel between how I conducted myself publicly and the tone I set for the whole campus. As I lived on campus, this was an inescapable reality. We constructed a modest LEED platinum, zero carbon presidential residence to set a public standard for sustainable living. The house functioned simultaneously as our private living quarters and an educational venue for campus sustainability. Our lives were on display. But the public nature of my life didn’t end there.

As a college president, I discovered that people inevitably scrutinize everything you do and say. Like so many of my peers, I aspired to maximize the educational value of that scrutiny. I won’t say that I achieved the balance between high-level professional accomplishment and the sustainable “good life.” But I did publicly pronounce my desire to do so and attempted transparency in my successes and failures accordingly. I also emphasized the importance of a balanced life for those employees who reported directly to me, and I instructed them to do the same in their departments. As the president of a small college (in a small town), almost every work-related dissatisfaction eventually arrives on your desk. The “well-being” of your constituents is always on your mind. There is no solace in knowing that you can’t please everyone or that some people just find trouble. And the more accessible and transparent you are, the more likely it is that people will come to you with their issues.

In many respects, the daily challenge of maintaining high morale at a college that espoused the sustainability ethos was the most stressful element of my job. I had to balance the psychological demands of the position, my expectations for achieving a sustainable campus, and my aspirations to live and lead “a good life.” I contend that this balance is crucial for any sustainability practitioner, although considerably magnified for a chief executive. Mileage varies according to the culture of each campus, the personal style of the practitioner, and the level of leadership responsibility intrinsic to your position. However, there are some behavioral tenants for implementing that balance in any institution. These reflect approaches I use (not always successfully) to promote “a good life” in an organization.

1 Accept that You’re a Role Model

If you espouse sustainability, people will expect you to live according to your ideals. You can’t practice an energy guzzling lifestyle. It just won’t work. Similarly, if you espouse campus wellness, you should probably eat well, pursue physical fitness, and balance work and play. If you can’t do so, then how can you promote it for others? When I was the president of Unity College, I organized a noon-time bicycle ride for senior staff and invited any students and faculty to join us. I was always on my bicycle. I encouraged the Dean of Student Life to develop comprehensive wellness programs for students, staff, and faculty. We created a spirit of wellness for the entire campus, and we knew that if we took the lead in our own lives, it would have much more impact. I would take the lead in encouraging everyone on campus to alleviate stress, practice fitness and relaxation, and engage in both work and play.

2 Provide a Sense of Proportion and Scale

It’s often difficult for people to distinguish between working hard and working well. Throughout my career people have questioned me as to how I’m able to take breaks during the day for exercise, or find time to pursue my many interests. The answer, I think, lies in the fact that people often misappropriate their time. I spend much of my supervisory time working with people to help them align their priorities accordingly. When you are the chief executive, you are more able to do this. The first question I ask my employees is to tell me how they spend their time, what rationale they use for making their time management decisions, and whether they feel that their work is important. Just about everyone I encounter requires such conversations.

Similarly (from an institutional perspective), people often worry about the wrong things. Often, this is the reason for misappropriating time: they are working and worrying about issues that aren’t really that important. Surprisingly, providing this kind of counsel can be the key to promoting campus wellness. You can’t have a balanced working life unless you can figure out how to manage your time.

3 Emphasize Clarity and Accountability

Any campus with high aspirations must create a challenging and demanding work environment. How can campus wellness coexist with such aspiration? The key to this balance is requiring clear accountability and expectations. People must know what they can and should expect from each other. The most egregious miscommunications often can be traced to a misunderstanding of who is accountable and what is expected of them. When there is lack of clarity, the stress level in an organization becomes inordinately high. Then you have to spend far too much time (see point 2 above) trying to figure out who was supposed to do what or what people meant when they said something.

4 Emphasize Politeness and Respect

This is an incredibly simple way to promote a sense of campus well-being. When people treat each other with politeness and respect, they insure better communication, they are more likely to speak and listen well, and they will come to every encounter with more confidence and integrity. In contrast, an environment of intimidation, bullying, sarcasm, and condescension promotes anxiety and defensiveness. I have spent hours of supervisory time mediating such bad behavior. I have always placed a huge emphasis on creating conditions of conviviality and good interpersonal manners. However, it’s crucial that people don’t mistake conviviality for a lack of discipline or an unwillingness to set limits. Conflict is inevitable and different perspectives will always emerge. The manner in which conflicts are resolved reflects volumes about campus morale and community vitality.

5 Create an Improvisational Flow of Creative Imagination

I always try to stimulate a creative, improvisational working environment that rewards innovation and imagination. This attitude is absolutely necessary in demanding working environments. It provides an outlet for stress, encourages participation, and demonstrates open-mindedness. Sometimes there are multiple solutions to vexing problems. An improvisational flow doesn’t necessarily mitigate a stressful challenge, but it can create more stimulating and rewarding conditions for taking on the challenge. People are most fully engaged in campus life when they are using their imagination to solve challenging problems. An improvisational attitude also suggests there is a willingness to experiment and explore as a way to adapt to changing circumstances.

6 Purity is the End of Potential

In the introduction to The Collected Works of Gary Snyder, poet Jim Dodge tells a wonderful story. He describes a group of students who were visiting Snyder to discuss various environmental issues. Snyder served a meal of “road-kill stew” in bowls without silverware. Observing the scene, Dodge wondered whether Snyder has gone Zen-pure. But, then, Snyder went to the kitchen to fetch dessert. He came back to the dining area and tossed Hostess Twinkies to all of the seminar participants. There’s a lesson to be learned here. For Jim Dodge, it’s that purity is the end of potential. I recount this story on numerous occasions as a reminder that we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. Our important work requires comedy and lightness.

Why is Thoreauvian simplicity such an enduring aspiration? For starters, it cuts against the complicated intricacies of contemporary life. In the early nineteenth century, Thoreau conceived a counter to what he considered to be the ubiquitous monotony of daily work life, especially as informed by the routines of commerce. Those routines prevented people from living a full life, mainly by distracting them from direct experience of the natural world. Thoreau’s many projects entailed deep immersion in the extraordinary mysteries and intricacies of the immediate landscape, He aspired to shed the shackles of commerce, to roam freely through the fields and forests, and to commit himself to the daily practice of observing nature. Philip Cafaro neatly encapsulates the essence of this daily practice in his book Thoreau’s Living Ethics:

It is striking how often Thoreau, in discussing the good life, specifies human flourishing and excellence in relation to nature. Some of this is quite basic. The simplest messages in Walden are to get outside, use your limbs, and delight in your senses. Run, walk, swim, sweat. Taste the sweetness of the year’s first huckleberries and feel the juice dribble down your chin. It feels good to plunge into a pond first thing in the morning and WAKE UP, or to float lazily in a boat along its surface, wafted we know not where by the breeze, gazing up at the clouds…. What we need to know in order to live better lives may indeed be very simple.

Nearly two hundred years have passed since Thoreau’s time. The routines of commerce, the schedules of daily life, the intervening layers of technology, and the expectations of productivity remain considerable. The fields, forests, and ponds are not nearly as accessible. Yet Thoreau’s aspirations remain vibrant and his concept of human flourishing (which also includes the pursuit of knowledge and creative expression) is absolutely relevant. How can it be justified in a time of ecological urgency?

As a college president, I would often address prospective students and families. Why should they consider the environmental field as their educational foundation and a possible career? These are questions that clearly deserve answers. And they transcend college open houses or days for prospective students. In all kinds of other circumstances (with colleagues, friends, or in public settings) I find myself explaining the virtues of an environmental career and life, or how to incorporate a sustainability ethos into one’s life practice. The essence of my appeal is twofold. I explain that environmental sustainability is the ultimate service profession. Wherever you are, however you work, you are engaged in activity that serves your neighborhood, community, and planet. Service is rewarding, engaging, and meaningful. Second, by studying sustainability and the natural world, you are gaining a deeper understanding of life processes. In so doing, you are constantly reminded of the mystery and wonder of the biosphere. As you do so, you gain an appreciation for the sanctity of life.

I can think of no better way to integrate personal growth and the pursuit of a career. The justification is embedded in this appeal. Thoreau’s daily practice of observing nature was far more than a testimony to direct experience. It was a way to build appreciation for the very circumstances of his life. Rather than taking the natural world for granted, he chose to probe its intricacies. In deepening appreciation, he summoned gratitude. The good life beckons gratitude. For Thoreau, this is the very essence of human flourishing.

I explain that environmental sustainability is the ultimate service profession. Wherever you are, however you work, you are engaged in activity that serves your neighborhood, community, and planet.

How can this sensibility be relevant to the 24/7 world of contemporary higher education? It’s not easy. Expressions of gratitude can be washed away in cynicism, sarcasm, anxiety, and stress. Or they may be perceived as sanctimonious. How can I express gratitude when you’ve just slashed my budget? The budget-cutting mentality, the trappings of accountability and assessment, the constant need to justify higher learning beyond sheer productivity and career building—these pressures can shatter gratitude into the scattered fragments of spare change. Where does Thoreauvian simplicity belong here?

Perhaps the most vivid reminder of gratitude is to call attention to the great privilege of education itself. Just as we often feel entitled to the earth’s bounty, so do we expect that education is an entitlement. Yet the great majority of the world’s population has no access to either. These two fundamental expectations—the fruits of the earth and the gifts of higher learning—are indeed the culmination of the good life, and taking them for granted leads to their squander. Budget cutting is so threatening because it ultimately implies less access to both prospects. Let us be thankful for what we have and conserve its best use.

This idea of gratitude is at the heart of Thoreauvian simplicity. It is also the very essence of the sustainability ethos because it teaches that the culmination of gratitude is reciprocation. Reciprocation implies giving back what you have received. It involves an exchange, transformation, and acknowledgment. Reciprocation is a circulation from the biosphere through human awareness and back again, passing through social networks, educational venues, creative expression, and community service. It is the very foundation of human flourishing. If reciprocation and gratitude are so essential to the good life, how can such qualities become intrinsic to the curriculum of higher education?



Mitchell Thomashow devotes his life and work to promoting ecological awareness, sustainable living, creative learning, improvisational thinking, social networking, and organizational excellence. He is the author of Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist (MIT Press, 1995), Bringing the Biosphere Home, (MIT Press, 2001), as well as The Nine Elements of a Sustainable Campus (forthcoming from MIT Press 2013). The past president of Unity College, Thomashow now serves on the advisory board of Orion Magazine as a consultant to Second Nature. 

Cole Caswell, Image 1