In 1970, Charles A. Reich published his bestseller The Greening of America. The book argued that a fundamental shift was taking place in American consciousness, reflecting the 1960s counterculture which emphasized egalitarianism, personal liberty, and respect for nature. This emerging new worldview was predicated on a firm rejection of the “military-industrial complex” and the values which underpinned it.

Reich’s analysis was caught up in the enthusiasms of the 1960s, and much of what he took as the beginning of a permanent transformation of American society did not come to pass. But not everything in Reich’s celebrated new worldview evaporated with the aging of the Baby Boom generation.

A concern about the health and integrity of the planet, and the metaphor of “greening,” have undergone a resurgence. Academia has played a critical role in that resurgence, on campus and far beyond. As the internationally-respected geneticist David Suzuki writes in this issue, scientists, especially those in our universities, have had an enormous influence in the contemporary environmental movement. Their research has highlighted and raised concerns about climate change, its causes and consequences. They have alerted governments and the public about the need to adopt solutions which recognize the complex interconnections of the biosphere.

Suzuki challenges academics to educate the public about their research and the interdependence of our world while acknowledging the strengths and limitations of the scientific enterprise. He also worries that as universities become increasingly entwined in funding partnerships with the private sector, a willingness to criticize corporate behaviour has been compromised.

Another concern is the use of scientific research, particularly in the development of environmental public policy. To what degree do ideology, politics, and self-interest shape how academic research is incorporated into policy development? William Rees, well-know for his work on human ecology, provides a rather sobering account of this dynamic. He writes that while U.S. science is being forced to conform to the political philosophy of the Bush administration, there are disturbing trends in Canada as well. In both countries, policy decisions are being made which are not only contrary to the findings of sound academic research but are also not in the long-term public interest.

Scientific research in areas such as climate change and global warming, however, are not without their controversies, as noted in the provocative article by environmental economist Ross McKitrick. He argues that we need to move away from broad general terms, such as “the environment” and categorizations such as “crisis” and instead focus on the specific and measurable.

The findings of research on greenhouse gases, alternative energy sources and ecologically-friendly building materials, among other areas, are now being directly applied to university campuses. Theory has been put into practice, but how green are universities in Canada? In a new survey of twenty institutions, architect Brian Wakelin and environmental scientist Kathy Wardle reveal that important initiatives have been taken to promote environmental sustainability. But, the record is mixed. They find that most Canadian universities have sustainability managers in place and have been pioneers in this initiative. Few have greenhouse gas inventories or reduction plans, however. While the design standards for new and retrofitted buildings show some commitment to environmental sustainability, it is not as extensive as it should be. The same applies to the use of renewal energy.

Wakelin and Wardle paint a broad canvas of sustainability initiatives on Canadian universities. Rob Corry, who teaches landscape architecture at the University of Guelph, provides a more detailed appraisal of the record on his campus. He writes that the transition from “verdant hue” to full-fledged green has yet to be made. Outlining the logistical hurdles that need to be overcome to create energy efficiency on campus, Corry observes that elementary and high schools have outpaced universities in creating an energy-efficient infrastructure. “While institutions of higher education move minds forward,” he writes, “mine and most universities are not leading in innovative action for conservation and electricity generation. We don’t walk our talk.”

The renewal of concerns about global sustainability is taking place at a time of intellectual, economic and political ferment. It holds out the promise of significant change. Whether that change represents a shift that is more enduring than the transformation envisioned by Reich almost forty years ago, however, remains to be seen. AM

Mark Rosenfeld is editor-in-chief of Academic Matters and associate executive director of OCUFA