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The Earth Commons

Yesterday saw an announcement that scores of faculty, staff, and students across the university have been desiring for several years – the Earth Commons: the Georgetown Environment and Sustainability Institute has officially been launched.

The roots of the institute might be traced to the establishment of the Science, Technology, and International Affairs group within the School of Foreign Service, about thirty years ago. Around 2011, the work was labeled the Georgetown Environment Initiative (GEI), funded by an anonymous donor, which greatly expanded the number of faculty across many schools involved. GEI became a hub of a network of natural scientists, social scientists, and humanists who shared interest in environmental issues. This paralleled the growth of student groups very active in sustainability activities on campus.

A faculty steering committee guided the evolution of GEI. The committee designed seed grants and supported new collaborations among Georgetown researchers. An external advisory committee provided insight into how to shape a unique niche for Georgetown environmental research and education, given its Jesuit animating spirit and its Washington, DC, location. Later, the search for a permanent director began in earnest, and a faculty search committee recommended that Dr. Peter Marra be appointed the director of GEI. Professor Marra joined Georgetown in 2019.

Professor Marra holds a new chair, the Laudato Si’ Professor of Biology and the Environment, as well as Professor in the McCourt School of Public Policy. The reference to Laudato Si’ is important.  That encyclical by Pope Frances forwarded the moral reasoning why we all must take environmental degradation seriously. It notes, the earth “cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her. We have come to see ourselves as her lords and masters, entitled to plunder her at will. The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” This powerful language has magnified the sense of urgency at Georgetown, leading to the development of the Earth Commons.

The full initiative is a marriage of education and research, on one hand, and action towards environmental sustainability of Georgetown as an institution, on the other. Professor Marra partners with Meghan Chapple, the new Vice President for Sustainability, who will mobilize student and administrative support for circular-economy thinking at Georgetown.

Through a strategic planning process with faculty, staff, and students throughout the university, the blueprint of the environment institute and the sustainability initiative is being developed. The theme of the developments is the strengthening of all schools by building the institute with new faculty associated with existing schools and existing faculty who want to contribute to the institute. The first degree program is an example of this, a MS in Environment and Sustainability Management, joint with faculty in the McDonough School of Business, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and the Earth Commons. Other degree programs of the Earth Commons are envisioned and will profit from the input from faculty and students across the university. The long-term vision includes undergraduate majors, other MA/MS students, and PhD students.

A collection of faculty, staff, and students, throughout the university made yesterday possible, through their collaboration and perseverance over several years. We are now ready at Georgetown for the next era of impact on education, research, and service on the existential problem of our time. There is much work to do.

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