Chancellor's Blog

Long-term thinking is golden

Monday, April 16, 2018 | Dean Van Galen

One of the best email messages I received last month informed me that the university earned aSTARS gold rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in recognition of our sustainability achievements. This, after receiving a silver rating in each of the past six years. STARS, which stands for AASHE’s Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System, measures and encourages many aspects of sustainability, not just environmental, but also in the economic, and social realms. For example, UW-River Falls scored well in terms of public engagement thanks to programs like our KinniConsortium which supports sustainable economic development through coordination of research and conservation initiatives that benefit our local watershed. Our progress is a testament to the work of many faculty, staff and students on campus – although I want to specifically recognize our Sustainability and Custodial Supervisor Mark Klapatch for his leadership in this area.

Over 890 universities in nearly 40 countries have submitted information for the STARS rating system to assess their progress with respect to sustainability. Of those, around 100 received the gold rating this year – an important global benchmark that UWRF can be proud of attaining. While this achievement gives us a key moment to celebrate, we must also remember one of the most important aspects of all sustainability efforts: long-term thinking. Having a perspective which takes into account the impacts of our decisions on future generations seems to be less common in much of American society compared to in other parts of the world. In fact, this is not just my opinion, rather there is research to support this view. 

Last fall I taught an Honors Seminar course which includes themes of global engagement and sustainability to a group of primarily freshmen. In preparing to teach the course, a fellow Honors Seminar instructor, Kelsey McLean, pointed me to research by Dutch psychologist and former IBM employee Geert Hofstede. Hofstede’s research led to a comparison of some key cultural characteristics, including a 0-100 ranking for various countries based on their culture’s degree of “short-term orientation” vs. “long-term orientation.”  That is, in general, do people in a certain culture think more short-term or long-term? 

Let’s try a quiz related to the work of Hofstede. On a scale of 0-100, how would you score short-term vs. long-term orientation in the cultures of the following countries, where 0 = very short-term orientation and 100= very long-term orientation (give each country a score from 0-100):

  • Germany       _______
  • South Korea  _______
  • China             _______
  • United States _______

The country with the most long-term orientation, with a score of 100 is…South Korea.  There, people think about multi-generational impacts much more than short-term outcomes. China comes in at 87, Germany at 83, and the U.S. at 26. While there is certainly a range of thinking by individuals in all of these countries, these numbers suggest that “U.S. culture” tends to focus on the short-term, with less regard for future consequences. 

Circling back to the university and sustainability, there is much good that comes from our campus’ sustainability efforts, and we are proud of our gold rating. However, the most important aspect of this may be in the way it helps our students think more critically, and carefully, about the impact of individual and collective decisions we make today on future generations.