Next Generation Sustainability

Spring 2013

By Maura K. Adams

The word “sustainability” gets thrown around a lot these days. Sometimes the focus is on “financial sustainability,” making sure we can pay the bills over the long run. Other times, we talk about “personal sustainability” — getting the rest and care we need to function at our best. But hundreds of colleges and corporations are using “sustainability” primarily to describe their efforts to create a world that sustains both human and ecological well-being. It extends beyond environmental responsibility; in a sustainable world, we would ensure equitable resource distribution and maintain a basic level of health and well-being for all, while regenerating resources and keeping ecological systems intact. 

When schools genuinely commit to this latter definition of sustainability, they are aiming to both exemplify and create such a world.

Doing so is no easy task, but it’s one we can’t afford to avoid — and one that is already embedded in our missions, whether we recognize it or not. For example, my school’s mission says we aim to “nurture… a commitment to engage as servant leaders in a complex world,” and that we “model and teach a respect for self and others; for one’s spiritual, physical, and emotional well-being; for the natural environment; and for service to a greater good.” This is exactly the work of sustainability. It’s only recently that schools started calling it that, naming sustainability as an explicit objective, and designating people to lead the charge.

While schools have long been committed to certain aspects of what we now know as sustainability — diversity programs, global education, community service, and others — the environmental component is relatively new. In that regard, I think it’s safe to say that we are still in the first generation of environmental sustainability. That means we have plenty of opportunities for easy wins: lighting retrofits with quick paybacks, trayless cafeterias, small schoolyard gardens, and the like. Such projects are both symbolically and environmentally important, and give traction to sustainability programs that are just starting to gain community support. But sustainability isn’t just about going green, and it’s not always going to be fun and easy. In fact, if it feels easy, we probably aren’t working hard enough or thinking deeply enough. We might liken our current situation to the early days of multicultural education. Just as Toni Morrison books, revised word problems (“If James, Esperanza, and Shanice have 12 marbles...”) and Black History Month assemblies do not themselves create a multicultural school, recycling campaigns, compact fluorescent lights, or new LEED-certified buildings do not indicate a culture of sustainability.

So how can schools take their environmental sustainability to the next level? One way to start is to ask ourselves challenging questions about priorities and traditions. Is there anything about independent schooling that is inherently at odds with our common desire to move toward sustainability? I offer some ideas on what next-generation sustainability might look like in five areas — travel, endowment investment, energy, social justice, and academics — in hopes of prompting discussion and self-reflection about what we might need to change if we are to more fully realize our sustainability commitments.


Many of our schools take long-distance travel for granted. We transport student athletes thousands of miles each year to compete regularly against out-of-state teams, and send them around the world on study abroad or service trips. Admission and development officers crisscross the country (and globe!) seeking applicants and donations. We recruit increasing numbers of international students, all of whom fly back and forth across the world several times a year. To put that last point into perspective, emissions from just one round trip between Seoul and New York City, to give a typical example, exceed that of powering an average house for a year.1 

While travel may promote students’ global awareness and help keep our schools financially strong, how much of it is necessary? Instead of incurring the environmental and fiscal costs of travel — which will only increase with time and, perhaps, eventually require a carbon tax — we could consider alternatives such as these:

• Establish virtual connections with classes abroad. The NAIS Challenge 20/20 initiative, which pairs U.S. schools with counterparts abroad to solve one of 20 global problems, presents one exciting opportunity to do so.2

• Compete athletically against nearby schools instead of those within a larger geographic league.

• Conduct interviews and meetings via Skype or videoconferencing.

• Develop small satellite schools or distance learning programs to give international students a low-residency option. 

I learned of one California school that decided not to send students on a service-learning trip to Nicaragua because of the high cost. Instead, their students spent a week with migrant farmers in California’s Central Valley — just as eye-opening an education, with a far lower environmental impact. Moreover, these farmers’ geographical proximity may have given the students a greater sense of connection and responsibility than if they had been “dropping in on” farmers in a different country. 

How can we reframe constraints as opportunities?

Endowment Investment 

Together NAIS-member schools have more than $17 billion in endowment investments,3 giving us a weighty platform from which to promote sustainability, if we so choose. 

A new student-led campaign for divestment from fossil fuels, designed on the divestment campaign that helped end apartheid in South Africa, has taken hold on numerous college campuses.4 Bill McKibben’s — a nonprofit aiming to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere to a sustainable level of 350 parts per million or less — has just launched a similar global movement, stating bluntly that “it just doesn’t make sense for universities to invest in a system that will leave their students no livable planet to use their degrees on, or for pension funds to invest in corporations that will ruin the world we plan to retire in.”5 

Reform in this area will be tricky. A 2011 article in this magazine reported that only 17.4 percent of NAIS-member schools consider social responsibility when making investment decisions.6 The means by which schools invest — putting funds into managed pools — does not lend itself to review or intervention. Further, an investment committee’s mandate is to achieve the highest return, which in turn allows schools to spend more on other components of sustainability, from renewable energy to financial aid. But while socially responsible investment (SRI) returns may not have performed as well as traditional funds in the past, dozens of socially responsible mutual funds are now available that are competitive with others.7 The SRI world is maturing quickly

The divestment campaigns may force the issue in the next few years. For now, schools might consider one cost-effective way to make a positive investment: establishing a green revolving loan fund (GRF). These funds support the up-front cost of a variety of energy-related projects, and at least 50 percent of the savings are returned to the fund for reinvestment in new projects. Seventy-nine colleges and universities have now established GRFs, with a collective $111 million invested. The median return on investment is 27 percent, and the savings from efficiency projects reduce operating budgets indefinitely. One excellent resource for GRF development is the Billion Dollar Green Challenge, a project of the Sustainable Endowments Institute that provides a variety of tools for institutions wanting to get started.8


Under most circumstances today, energy from fossil fuels is cheaper than that from renewables — and also inherently at odds with the sustainable world we wish to create. Political reform and technological advancement may eventually level the economic playing field between fossil fuels and renewables. In the meantime, how do we balance our need to minimize operational cost with our desire to operate with environmental and social impact in mind? 

Fortunately, the options are diverse. One is to reconsider construction. New green buildings, often LEED certified,9 are a common way for schools to demonstrate their environmental commitments. But I worry about the message this sends. Any new building takes substantial resources to construct, then to heat and cool for decades to come. Moreover, constant campus renovation and expansion send the message that more is better — a philosophy at odds with sustainability. Can you renovate an existing building instead of constructing a new one? If building a new building, can you rethink programs, schedules, or other factors to minimize the scope of your construction project? How modest can your building be while still meeting programmatic goals? Are you able to invest up front in substantial renewable energy systems that dramatically reduce operating costs down the line? A number of new public school buildings nationwide are net-zero energy, using no more energy per year than they produce renewably on site.10 Net-zero should be the minimum standard for new school buildings, especially at comparatively wealthy independent schools.

Other ways schools can start rethinking their energy use include the following:

• The cheapest energy is the energy you don’t use. Many efficiency measures pay for themselves in savings within a few years and then reduce energy costs indefinitely. Incentives from utilities and government entities are often readily available to offset the capital cost.11

• Numerous schools have taken advantage of power purchase agreements, wherein a third party owns and operates renewable energy technology on school property in exchange for the school’s commitment to buy the power produced there. Especially in states with strong incentives for renewable energy projects, this can be lucrative for the third party and economical for the school. The Lawrenceville School (New Jersey) and Berkshire School (Massachusetts) are two recent examples; their solar photovoltaic arrays will provide 90 percent and 40 percent, respectively, of the schools’ electricity at a highly competitive rate for years to come. 

• Renewable energy should make use of the most readily available local resource. In the Southwest, this likely means solar power; on the Great Plains, wind. In Connecticut, The Hotchkiss School just turned on a biomass facility that will heat the entire campus with trees from nearby forests. In some locations, geothermal heat pumps are a logical option — Phillips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire) just installed them to heat and cool a renovated academic building. My school, St. Paul’s School (New Hampshire), continues to seek a hydroelectric design that makes use of an existing dam and our ample water resources. The point is that there are local solutions for each school, and that investigation will likely turn up site-appropriate, cost-effective opportunities for renewable energy projects that at least begin to minimize reliance on unsustainable fossil fuels.

• We can use the transition away from fossil fuels as an educational opportunity. Students can help study the costs and benefits of on-site renewable energy opportunities or advocate for state and federal policies that support renewable energy and energy efficiency. That would be campus sustainability at its best: improving operations while educating students.

Social Justice

Social justice and environmental degradation are intricately connected: poor people suffer disproportionately from industrial pollution and resource extraction, consequences largely invisible to beneficiaries at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum. Consumption habits and educational inequity both prop up this model, which is at odds with independent schools’ values and sustainability objectives. In fact, despite our best intentions, we may be complicit in exacerbating inequity, as Fred Bartels argued eloquently in this magazine in Fall 2012.12 

Samuel Drury, clergyman head of St. Paul’s School from 1911 to 1938, said schools’ job was “not to conform to the rich and prosperous world which surrounds us, but rather, through its children, to convert it.” 

Bartels asks whether we should be doing more as institutions to “convert it” and offers key questions to consider. 


When students research real-world problems, learn from people in their communities, teach others, collaborate to write and present proposals, and so on, they are developing real skills needed to literally change the world. More and more schools are recognizing the value and importance of integrating sustainability into their curricula, going beyond the one-time field trip or the environmental science elective taken by only a small group of students. In 2000, Vermont became the first state to include sustainability and understanding of place in its public school standards; organizations such as the Center for Ecoliteracy, Cloud Institute, and Sustainable Schools Project are helping districts and schools align their entire curriculum with sustainability principles.13 Many examples are provided in Michael Stone’s Smart by Nature, which notes that students involved in sustainability education “become more engaged in their studies and score better in diverse subjects, including science, reading and writing, and independent thinking.”14 Exemplary projects include these:

• All students at the Catlin Gabel School (Oregon) contribute to the Elana Gold ’93 Memorial Environmental Restoration Project in Mt. Hood National Forest, learning about ecosystems and the importance of land restoration while doing important, hands-on work. Since the project began in 1991, states the school’s website, “students have contributed over 15,000 hours of labor in areas that were severely degraded by a century of cattle overgrazing, severe wildfire, and intensive salvage logging.”15

• At Darrow School (New York), an environmental science course for all freshmen teaches fundamental lab skills and scientific principles in the context of a Living Machine, a system that uses plants, bacteria, and other natural processors to treat wastewater.16 Old Trail School (Ohio) has also installed a Living Machine, which offers year-round educational opportunity for the students as part of the school’s global sustainability program. 

• At Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast, Maine, students grow 8,000 pounds of food each year in hoop houses they have built themselves, providing produce to all schools in the district and to soup kitchens as well. The inquiry-based academic component of this project addresses a wide range of Maine education standards.17 As the school puts it, “at the heart of the program are the young people excited by making a real difference in their school and community.”18

The Climate Change Imperative

In posing questions, providing examples, and offering resources for schools wishing to deepen their sustainability work, I’m assuming that taking sustainability to the next level is a matter of choice. But it may not be. I am writing just two weeks after Hurricane Sandy shocked the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, destroying homes, killing people, disrupting schools, and throwing coastal communities into turmoil. Along with all the damage it has caused, the storm drives home one point that we can’t afford to ignore: climate change may force us to address the sustainability issue. Most scientists concur that the weather patterns driving the intense storms, droughts, and fires of recent years are attributable to climate change, and that what we now think of as extreme weather events will become the norm.19 

As Sandy demonstrated so clearly, extreme weather events will constrain our ability to travel and use energy from the grid. In doing so, they have also increased the value of local and renewable (and more secure) energy sources. The fortunes of environmentally unsustainable corporations in which we now invest may decline, while those of more resilient industries remain stable. Social inequity could become more pronounced, with the poor being more vulnerable from the beginning and having fewer resources to draw upon during disasters,20 making it more important than ever that we work for a more equitable society. As for classroom education, our students need to know not only what climate change is and how it may affect them, but also about geopolitics and history. In addition, they must be able to develop skills of resilience, cooperation, and adaptation. How have civilizations before us weathered tremendous environmental change — or succumbed to it? Opportunities exist in every discipline to directly engage the issues that are going to shape and test the next generations of students. 

The most forward-thinking schools are already preparing for the unpredictable decades ahead, whether they think of their decisions as climate-driven or not. Just as schools on the forefront of multicultural education were better prepared for the effects of globalization and an increasingly diverse U.S. population, schools that respond now to the increasingly obvious signs of climate change will graduate students who are better able to help us mitigate and adapt to its effects. For better or worse, climate change is giving us an immediate and critical reason to demonstrate and teach sustainability principles — including global citizenship and ethical leadership — more substantially and more quickly than we otherwise might. Independent schools can exemplify the creative, resilient, solution-seeking communities that we will need to develop everywhere as society responds to climate change. With aspirations for a better world built into our missions, we are prepared to accept the gift and the challenge that sustainability presents.


1. Calculated with the Environmental Protection Agency’s greenhouse gas equivalencies calculator and the GCO2 (the carbon management company) flight emissions calculator,

2. NAIS Challenge 20/20 Program,

3. Independent School National Table on Endowment,

4. Divest for Our Future,

5. See’s Do the Math campaign,

6. Natalia Armoza, “Socially Responsible Investing,” Independent School, Fall 2011.

7. “Performance and SRI Investments,” US SIF,

8. Billion Dollar Green Challenge,

9. LEED buildings do not necessarily perform well — there are plenty of routes to LEED certification that do not involve particularly green building measures. I have ample experience using LEED on a variety of projects, and I caution schools to think long and hard before committing to the expense and labor that LEED requires.

10. A helpful overview of net-zero (a.k.a. zero energy) schools is here:

11. Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency,

12. Fred Bartels, “Our 1 Percent Problem,” Independent School, Fall 2012,

13. Sustainable Schools Project,

14. Michael K. Stone, Smart by Nature: Schooling for Sustainability, The Center for Ecoliteracy,

15. Elana Gold Project, Catlin Gabel School,

16. Darrow School Academic Program,

17. The Garden Project at Troy Howard,

18. The THMS Garden Project,

19. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,

20. his news article illustrates how the poor are not only more concentrated near industrial areas, but also more susceptible to natural disasters — and what happens when industrial pollution and storms collide.
Maura K. Adams

Maura K. Adams is the environmental stewardship manager at St. Paul’s School (New Hampshire). She can be reached at [email protected].