Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of one the seminal studies of the modern environmental movement, The Limits to Growth. The book reported the findings of a computer simulation of the five factors that ultimately limit the earth’s capacity to support continued economic growth – increasing population, agricultural production, the depletion of non-renewable resources, industrial output and pollution.
It’s lead author, Donella Meadows, a biophysicist and educator from MIT, went on to become a leading systems thinker and founded the Sustainability Institute (now known as the Academy for Systems Change) with the mission of fostering transitions to sustainable systems at all levels of society from local to global.
The Alliance for Sustainable Schools (TASS) shares this mission of fostering systems change, with a focus on five areas of sustainability challenge that all schools share – school food, school uniforms, school buses, school buildings, and education for sustainability.
Systems thinking recognizes that complex problems like sustainability and climate change, can only be solved with an holistic approach that seeks to understand the inter-relationships between all the elements of and all the actors in a system and how they interact in ways that support the maintenance of the status quo. A common feature of many systems is that they tend to resist change, so change is only possible when all the actors in the system work together in a joined-up collaborative way or when the system is influenced in key places (leverage points).
In her 1997 paper “Leverage points: places to intervene in a system,” Meadows identified 12 categories of leverage points for systems change ranging from things like subsidies and taxes, to material and information flows, the rules of the system and the distribution of power. Top of her list in terms of effectiveness was the “mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises”. This is why, at TASS, we believe schools have such an important role to play in changing our unsustainable system of living: schools are a place where sustainable mindsets can be formed.
The five sustainability areas that TASS has adopted for its advocacy work are examples of complex systems-level problems – food (shifting our diet to more sustainable alternatives), buses (decarbonizing our commute to school), uniforms (developing sustainable materials and supply chains and reducing the school uniform waste) and buildings (designing energy efficient and net-zero school campuses). They manifest every day in thousands of schools around the region and, if we allow business to continue as usual, they amount to a major environmental impact. Every individual school recognizes them, some attempt to grapple with them, yet no single school has the answer, because by definition no single school can single-handedly solve a systemic problem. But by coming together as an Alliance, leveraging our collective strength and understanding, and collaborating with all the other actors in the system, change is possible.
Among other things, The Alliance aims to provide the resources and support to address these challenges together on a systems level, to create more sustainable options for school food, school buses, school uniforms and school buildings.
We work with schools students and sustainable chefs to lobby the food service companies to provide more sustainable options on the canteen menus. We are partnering with Retykle to pilot an online trading platform to increase the sales and extend the life of second hand uniforms. We collaborate with clothing companies that are leading the way in sustainable school uniforms. We are working with the biodiesel industry and the school bus companies to champion low-carbon fuel in school buses. We also work with architects and school building committees to promote more sustainable and energy efficient designs for new school buildings and building retrofits.
We believe that schools have a vital role to play in the transition to a sustainable future and we look forward to working with you to help accelerate it. Contact us to learn more.