As I am for the most part an optimist, it seems only right to kick off 2009 with an upbeat column and, as an educator, one area I believe offers great promise is education.

Of course, everything has a downside, and one reason the field has so much promise is that most school systems and universities have yet to prioritize support for positive societal change. That means there’s almost unlimited room for growth.

Change is coming, but faster in some places than others.

Last September, The Boston Globe newspaper published an article by Peter Schworm headlined, “2 out of 3 colleges improve on eco-friendly grades.” Schworm interviewed Mark Orlowski, director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute (SEI) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who told the Globe that more U.S. and Canadian schools are adopting environmentally sound policies due to rising energy costs and increasing student activism on environmental issues.

The eco-friendly grades mentioned in the headline refer to SEI’s College Sustainability Report Card that is used to evaluate colleges and universities in the United States and Canada.

“The Report Card is designed to identify colleges and universities that are leaders in sustainability. The aim is to provide accessible information for schools to learn from each other’s experiences and establish more effective sustainability practices,” the SEI Web site explains.

Orlowski notes that American students are increasingly going green when choosing colleges and universities. In a recent survey of more than 10,000 U.S. college applicants, “63 percent said colleges’ commitment to the environment could affect their decision,” writes Schworm.

Considering the degraded state of our planet, and widespread recognition that fundamental change is needed, it’s amazing that environmental education is not yet a required subject in primary and secondary schools.

In Japan, where it has taken decades to introduce English education in primary schools, it could take another decade for the education ministry to recognize that environmental education is as much a part of long-term national security as English education is a part of international commercial competitiveness.

However, for those institutions looking for a reason to act, here’s one: 2009 is the fifth year of the United Nations’ Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005-14).

The term “sustainable development” continues to spur debate among environmentalists, economists and scientists, but it is now widely accepted as a useful concept for institutional forecasting and backcasting. For universities, it may soon mean the difference between whether they thrive or simply survive.

” ‘Sustainability’ implies that the critical activities of a higher-education institution are ecologically sound, socially just and economically viable, and that they will continue to be so for future generations,” explains the Web site of the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future (ULSF). It continues, “A truly sustainable college or university would emphasize these concepts in its curriculum and research, preparing students to contribute as working citizens to an environmentally healthy and equitable society. The institution would function as a sustainable community, embodying responsible consumption of energy, water, and food, and supporting sustainable development in its local community and region.”

ULSF supports the adoption of sustainability as a focus for teaching, research, operations and outreach at colleges and universities worldwide. It is also the Secretariat for signatories to the Talloires Declaration (1990), which has been signed by over 370 educational institutions (in more than 40 nations) that are “concerned about the unprecedented scale and speed of environmental pollution and degradation, and the depletion of natural resources” and “believe that urgent actions are needed to address these fundamental problems and reverse the trends.”

A big step in the right direction, but who’s on board? The ULSF Web site lists 13 Australian universities that have signed the Talloires Declaration, 52 in Brazil, 29 in Canada, 30 in Columbia, two in China, three in Hong Kong, nine in India, 11 in the United Kingdom and 144 in the U.S.

In Japan? Well, there are just three: Meijo University in Nagoya, Tokai University in Tokyo and the Tokai University Educational System.

Not very encouraging for a nation with more than 700 four-year universities.

But Japanese institutions don’t like signing agreements — even aspirational ones — unless they are sure they can or have complied.

To check out Japan from another angle, I visited the Japan For Sustainability Web site, a great source for all things environmental in Japan.

My search didn’t turn up any national university-assessment programs, but it did reveal, to my surprise, that last year my own university was selected by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism as having one of 10 model programs for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. Apparently, Tokyo-based Chuo University is making dramatic improvements in its airconditioning system that will reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and energy costs.

Except for all the noise in the basement, I have not heard mention of this on campus or seen anything about it on the university’s Web site — which reminded me: Not only do Japanese avoid agreements unless they can comply, they also are not very good at bragging.

In the U.S. it’s a different story. American universities eagerly tout their successes, however small they might be, with alumni magazines and Web sites carrying numerous congratulatory announcements of institutional, faculty and student achievements.

SEI has harnessed this enthusiasm and got 289 of the 300 colleges and universities in the U.S. and Canada with the largest endowments to respond to surveys.

Based on these surveys and independent research, SEI creates sustainability profiles for hundreds of schools and grades their sustainability performance from A to F. In turn, the schools — prodded by students, alumni and board members — have begun making efforts to improve their grades.

SEI wants universities to improve all aspects of sustainability performance, from the school’s physical plant to its curriculum and investments. As the Web site notes: “Universities are substantial investors, with combined endowment assets of more than $400 billion. As such, they can be influential in improving corporate policies.”

Innovation often blooms in academia, but in terms of institutional sustainability the seeds are just taking root. Instead, academia should be in the vanguard.

“Since colleges and universities are an integral part of the global economy, and since they prepare most of the professionals . . . in society’s public, private and nongovernmental institutions, they are uniquely positioned to influence the direction we choose to take as a society. As major contributors to the values, health and well-being of society, higher education has a fundamental responsibility to teach, train and do research for sustainability,” explains the USLF Web site.

As I was writing this column last weekend, I read a book review by Jeff Kingston in The Japan Times — and something clicked.

Kingston was discussing Japan’s efforts to develop “soft power,” which he explained as “the ability of a nation to achieve its objectives by attracting or seducing other nations to do its bidding or emulate its policies without resorting to coercion.”

He also noted that the “instruments of soft power are not, in many cases, under the control of government, and to the extent that the government hones in or tries to use such soft-power resources, it undermines their legitimacy and influence.”

What clicked was the idea that environmental and sustainability education might be a global soft-power niche for Japanese universities to fill. A long shot, no doubt, but with Japan’s birth rate declining, schools need foreign students, and foreigners already look to Japan for unique technologies and culture.

Universities such as Chuo are renovating to make their bricks and mortar more eco-friendly. But the bigger challenge, the one that will determine their survival, and perhaps ours, is whether they can embrace and implement new educational philosophies of institutional and societal sustainability.

Our planet Earth depends on it.

Stephen Hesse can be reached at: stevehesse@hotmail.com

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