Size Matters: Finding Sustainable Solutions in Smaller Places

02/12/2014 03:01 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2014

The lessons being learned in a small borough nestled in Pennsylvania's Cumberland Valley are of global importance and hold the promise of yielding results far beyond the campus of Carlisle, Pennsylvania's Dickinson College.

The college is proving that with the right mix of foresight and commitment a comparatively small institution can have a big impact. Why? Because long before the term was popularized, the college established sustainability as a key institutional priority.

As the clock ticks down on the 2015 deadline to reach the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), work continues to put the finishing touches on the new set of goals that will replace them. The final version of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) remain a work in progress, but like the MDGs, they will drive global development priorities for the next 15 years.

In the meantime, Dickinson and other forward thinking colleges and universities around the world are busy educating and inspiring the generation on whose watch the SDGs will either succeed or fail.

The MDGs are the most important global development goals in the UN's history according to Columbia University Professor Jeffrey D. Sachs who also serves as Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General. He credits the MDGs with helping galvanize efforts to cut extreme poverty worldwide by more than half. Sachs sees the SDGs as continuing what the MDGs began, but with more emphasis on equitable economic growth and environmental sustainability, including curbing climate change.

Dickinson's launch of its environmental studies program set the college on a trajectory towards total institutional commitment more than a decade before the Brundtland Commission coined the term "sustainable development." Today the college's website declares its dedication to making sustainability a defining characteristic of a Dickinson education.

For more than a few years now, the college and its Center for Sustainability Education has been steadily building a living laboratory for faculty and students striving to identify and define problems, understand their causes, develop solutions and test ideas through direct experience.

The college's Alliance for Aquatic Resources Monitoring (ALLARM) is a prime example of grassroots action at its best. ALLARM has trained and supported a state-wide network of volunteer water quality monitors since 1986. It's also a remarkable story of young people working across generational boundaries and into the hearts of communities to boost local participation in a program that provides early detection of the effects of Marcellus Shale gas extraction in Pennsylvania. ALLARM's work is validating the notion that hands-on engagement creates communities with a vested interest in finding sustainable solutions across the coal and gas fields of Pennsylvania.

Among the recommendations Sachs urged in a Project Syndicate column last August was a call for creating expert groups around the key challenges of sustainable development. Professor Sachs led a similar independent advisory body known as the UN Millennium Project which synthesized the counsel of roughly 250 global experts. They presented their final recommendations, Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals to the Secretary-General in 2005.

This time, pulling together the experts should be more than just rounding up the usual suspects. Experts should be drawn from the more than a few medium-to-small sized learning institutions scattered around the globe who work without fanfare to do the right thing for our planet and the people who inhabit it.

More institutions like Dickinson need to be identified worldwide and recognized as veteran centers of sustainability theory and innovation. They are valuable repositories of knowledge about what works locally, who more than qualify for the support of policymakers and donors. These institutions should band together to form collaborative networks to share knowledge and good practices about what works on the ground with their more research-oriented counterparts. A good start would be to actively recruit more medium-to-small institutions for membership in the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

Learning institutions with strong local ties are trusted as exceptionally well placed leaders to transfer skills, commitment and innovative practices in their communities and through their networks that often extend across the country and around the globe. Dickinson knows this works, which might explain why several years ago the college took up the motto, "Think Globally, Act Locally."

Carlisle, PA, is less than two hundred miles from the UN's headquarters in New York City and a little over one hundred miles from Washington, D.C. Leaders in both cities will decide to what degree medium-to-small learning institutions are tapped to apply their talent and expertise to implement global development goals. At least a generation will pass through Dickinson's doors before the 2030 SDGs deadline -- all of those minds and the millions of others in similar institutions around the world would be a terrible thing to waste.