The Future of Sustainability Globally and Locally

Looking Ahead: This article is part of an occasional series of bicentennial stories in which GW experts share their thoughts on what we can expect on a variety of topics as the George Washington University moves into its third century.



Tara Scully

Tara A. Scully is the director of the sustainability minor program and an assistant professor of biology in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences


By Meghan Chapple & Tara Scully

The future of global sustainability is full of hope.

Global disruptions, such as the pandemic or climate change, provide opportunities for transformation. We have learned that the planet is resilient, and that we as humans are vulnerable. We believe—we must believe—that all people in the global community can survive and thrive on planet Earth, if we focus on positive changes together.

Inclusive sustainability is key to our future. With the renewed focus on racial justice in our country, we can address the UN Sustainable Development Goals only if our process for designing solutions includes those who are most vulnerable to its impacts. It is well known that environmental issues disproportionately affect disadvantaged communities—whether microplastics in fish or flooding from climate change.

Like many other organizations that address sustainability, we have work to do to make George Washington University’s sustainability efforts and programs more inclusive and representative, as well as to ensure that GW’s own footprint addresses social justice as well as environmental issues. Sustainable GW is committed to including a diversity of voices in our work. We are partnering with the university’s Diversity & Inclusion Team to train up and to bring #InclusiveSustainability to our programming.

Perhaps even more significant are the endless efforts of GW faculty, students and staff to create a thriving future for global sustainability. Just a few examples of their contributions that are inspiring a ripple effect across the community are: 

  • The GW Eco-Equity Challenge project led by students in the Environmental Justice Action Network (EJAN) is assessing the water quality of the many neglected and unnamed woodland streams in Ward 8 Woods Conservancy in far Southeast Washington, D.C.
  • Professors from across the sciences are developing analytical tools to identify and trace microplastics in oceans to determine how to locate sources and address the problem.
  • A team of researchers in the School of Engineering and Applied Science are using GW’s campus to develop a model for district energy in an urban setting that includes storage and renewables.
  • A multidisciplinary coalition of researchers is collaborating with community groups to develop a metric for measuring energy justice in the District of Columbia.
  • Faculty in the Milken Institute School of Public Health are studying the health implications of air pollution and climate change from local to global scales.
  • Innovators from the GW Climathon team Zuulun have launched a start-up to transform textile waste into weighted blankets that are used to enhance sleep and improve mental health.

Beyond the campus, countless GW alumni are shaping the future of global sustainability using the foundations they gained in GW’s classrooms. They are making decisions in their lives and careers that impact global sustainable development from Nate Morris, B.A. ‘03, reinventing the waste and recycling industry, to Lubna Ahmed, M.P.H. ’13, helping to protect urban waterways, Ridhima Kapur, M.A. ’11, leveraging biotech for sustainability solutions and Landon Van Dyke, M.A. ’05, working to implement international environmental projects. As another shining example, Michael S. Regan, M.P.A. ’04, recently has been appointed to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

As an institution committed to creating a more sustainable future for all, GW has adopted new standard practices such as green buildings, zero waste and sustainable food. Most noteworthy have been divestment of the endowment from fossil fuels, a policy to eliminate single-use plastics on campus, the establishment of the student led GroW Garden, the groundbreaking Capital Partners Solar Project, the Sustainability Minor for undergraduates in all the GW schools, and the popular Planet Forward storytelling project that inspires us all. Looking ahead, the university will accelerate its efforts to be carbon neutral by 2030 and will explore how best to remove historical carbon emissions from the atmosphere.  

Here at GW we are seeing youth leaders, academic researchers, esteemed alumni and this institution create a better future for the greater world. Our actions are demonstrating what is possible if we focus on solutions and include all voices in the process. This gives us all hope for global sustainability.