Science Inventory

Sustainability, Indicators, and Institutions of Higher Education. Chapter 42


Cai, T., T. Olsen, AND Daniel E. Campbell. Sustainability, Indicators, and Institutions of Higher Education. Chapter 42. In Proceedings, Emergy Synthesis 7: Theory and Applications of the Emergy Methodology, Gainsville, FL, January 11 - 14, 2012. Center for Environmental Policy, University of Florida, Gainsville, FL, 369-379, (2013).


The university system of higher education is examined by considering the current frameworks for assessing the university’s role in sustainability, i.e., (1) by reducing consumption of energy in running their program and (2) by educating students on the possible consequences of current patterns of resource use. Emergy accounting is used to take a more comprehensive look at the University’s role in establishing a sustainable society and specific indicators and strategies for assessing sustainable action by a University are suggested. The impact of this paper is not expected to be large due to its limited circulation in conference proceedings and the complex nature of the discussion presented.


Indicators of commitment to sustainability commonly applied to institutions of higher education provide no estimate of the actual effects that these institutions have on the persistence or prevalence of the socioecological systems that encompass them. Emergy methodology provides a theoretical framework for addressing this practical oversight based on its fundamental insight into the interdependence of the long-term prevalence of any system with that of the broader network of mutually reinforcing resource flows that support it. Our limited ability to predict long-term prevalence in systems characterized by innovative resource flows supported by a pulse in the depletion of available energy storages requires explicit recognition during indicator development and application. Accordingly, conventional emergy syntheses of critical resource fluxes must be supplemented by indicators sensitive to the distinction between pulse-amplifying and resource-reinforcing fluxes of alternative energy resources. Institutions of higher education are of particular interest due to their pivotal role in generating the information flows required in making distinctions of this nature that are appropriate to different stages within the pulsing cycle of a system. This paper considers challenges and opportunities associated with this role and highlights the technical challenge of quantifying effects (on resource allocation patterns and preferences in socioecological systems) of products of higher education that derive from the information flows and signaling associated with education, basic research, innovation, and degree granting. Despite these challenges, institutions of higher education can enhance their contributions to sustainability through programs designed to help both individuals and institutions assess the balance of their amplifying effects on potentially sustainable resource uses with their more generally pulse-amplifying effects.

URLs/Downloads:   Exit

Record Details:

Product Published Date: 01/14/2012
Record Last Revised: 02/21/2014
OMB Category: Other
Record ID: 269361