Staying the Course: Georgia Tech and Sustainability

My sailing career did not start well. On a sunny and somewhat windy day some 47 years ago I took a small boat out on the Charles River basin and promptly found myself in the water, mast down and hull up. The problem was not capsizing but surviving the battery of gamma globulin shots required because of the heavily contaminated water of the river. Around that same time, I visited Los Angeles for the first time and found myself unable to breathe without coughing after taking in the yellowish, thick smog-filled air.

We have come a long way since then, thanks to legislation such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. The Charles is practically swimmable, and you can see the sky in L.A. most days — without coughing. We can never take for granted the symbiotic effect that we have on our planet. We live because our environment sustains us; the planet’s health is preserved because we act as responsible stewards. We are the only species capable of producing planetary-scale changes in our environment in a deliberate manner.

Our problems are not over. Freshwater contamination is still an issue in many places. The seemingly infinite oceans are seeing declining fisheries and fish laden with heavy metals to the point that advisories against eating some species are common. The ecologically-important and food-chain-critical corals are dying because of increases in ocean temperature. Acidification of the oceans caused by increased carbon dioxide absorption threatens many types of marine life. The European glaciers have all but disappeared in many areas. Flying over historically ice- covered Greenland is amazing because it actually shows some green! The Mississippi Delta continues to disappear into the ocean. There is no question that the planet of our grandchildren will be less healthy.

At Georgia Tech, we are committed to reverse this trend, sustaining our environment by working locally and globally, researching issues, creating knowledge, and building a sustainable campus. That spirit of sustainability is engrained deeply at Georgia Tech. We believe that we must protect the local and global environment and approach our academic and research mission with that belief as an institutional core value. It started as far back as 1952 with the construction of the electrical grid and steam system and the conversion of the Holland Plant from coal to natural gas.

Since then, through both small and large initiatives, sustainability continues to be both a philosophy and a practice. I encourage you to go online and find out more about these initiatives and other efforts throughout our history through the Office of Campus Sustainability.

Our campus community is addressing issues of environmental justice, sustainable development and business practices, health, community engagement, and personal responsibility. There’s evidence of it everywhere you look, including more than 100 (and growing!) academic courses dealing with the sustainability of the environment.

The academic and research initiatives span all six colleges and several interdisciplinary research centers, including the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business in the Scheller College of Business, the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems, 20 student organizations, the Serve-Learn-Sustain Initiative, and the forthcoming building launch of the Living Building at Georgia Tech.

These are just a few examples! You can see more at

We are proud of a legacy of sustainability that now spans more than six decades, and we will strive to realize our mission of “progress and service” as thoughtful stewards of all of our resources. It’s the work of our faculty and researchers. It’s in the heart of our academic initiatives and in our outlook for our physical campus as we plan for the future and work for a better environment, healthy economic development, and the well-being of all.

Rafael L. Bras

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