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Sustainability Science and Education for Sustainable Development in Universities: A Way for Transition

Abstract

The debate about sustainable development (SD) in higher education institutions has expanded over the past decades. It has been recognized that universities play a pivotal role in promoting sustainability principles, contributing to the paradigm shift toward a more sustainable present and future. Campus sustainability—commonly understood in a broad sense that includes the physical, educational (teaching, curricula, research), and institutional dimensions—is an evolving study field, as indicated by the growing number of articles in academic journals, conferences, awards, and books (like the present one) dedicated to the subject. From the academic point of view, the emergent fields of sustainability science and Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) have advanced the efforts of mainstreaming sustainability and implementing concrete practices in universities. But despite some progress and good examples, only a few institutions follow a SD implementation process holistically. A one-sided trend of “going green,” driven by market requirements, marketing advantages, and economic benefits, increases the risks of greenwashing. Reductionist models and misconceptions may cause sustainability initiatives to be wrongly reduced to single aspects of SD like environmental initiatives, losing meaning and credibility. This chapter addresses the question of what role the emerging fields of sustainability science and ESD can play within the transition to more sustainable universities. It aims to contribute to a more holistic perception of SD and examines some of the trends being observed in the higher education sector. Universities are challenged to reflect about educational objectives and strategic goals in their sustainability implementation processes, if they aim to educate the academic community beyond eco-efficiency and recycling. ESD and sustainability science are normative academic fields, action-oriented and close to society. Along with universities as democratic institutions, these fields constitute essential vehicles to investigate, test, and develop conditions for truly transformative change.

Keywords

  • Sustainability science
  • Education for sustainable development
  • Higher education institutions
  • Transition
  • Campus sustainability
  • Greenwashing

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    The concept of green economy (GE) emerged primarily outside the context of the SD framework and is not built on sustainability principles (Baer et al. 2012). The Rio +20 summit in 2012 can be seen as an attempt to introduce the GE concept into the SD debate, and it was strongly promoted by some global players, whilst at the same time being received sceptically and rejected by others (Brand 2012; Bullard and Mueller 2012). GE is based on pillars like the environmental technology sector and green jobs, and strives for economic measurement beyond GDP. It still adheres basically to the concept of economic growth as a strategy for human well-being while reducing environmental risks and ecological shortages (Jones 2012).

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Acknowledgments

The authors wish to thank Derek Moench for his valuable and constructive comments on this chapter.

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Correspondence to Antje Disterheft .

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Disterheft, A., Caeiro, S., Azeiteiro, U.M., Leal Filho, W. (2013). Sustainability Science and Education for Sustainable Development in Universities: A Way for Transition. In: Caeiro, S., Filho, W., Jabbour, C., Azeiteiro, U. (eds) Sustainability Assessment Tools in Higher Education Institutions. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02375-5_1

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