Students, faculty and staff listen to the United Nations assistant secretary general Elliot Harris’ lecture, "Achieving Sustainability: A Universal Challenge" on Thursday, April 6, 2017, at Linderman Library. The lecture was sponsored by the Lehigh University/U.N. Partnership. (Aminat Ologunebi/B&W Staff)

The universal challenge of sustainability: UN assistant secretary general visits Lehigh


Elliott Harris sat down with The Brown and White for a brief question and answer session, which can be found here.

When the United Nations was founded in 1945, electric cars and cellular phones still remained out of reach.

Had Elliott Harris given his vision of sustainability to the founders of the U.N., they might have called him a dreamer. But for the assistant secretary general of the United Nations Environmental Programme, sustainability is not an unattainable dream — it’s a goal that’s within reach.

Harris spoke in Linderman Library on Thursday about the necessity of establishing a sustainable world, emphasizing the economic importance of sustainability. The event was held as part of the Lehigh-U.N. partnership, and drew students, faculty and staff from across the university’s four colleges.

A trained economist, Harris said recognizing how sustainability can benefit the world financially and environmentally was a major turning point for him.

“We live in a world that is dominated by externalities,” Harris said. “You can pollute as you produce for profit, but you don’t have to pay for that pollution.”

Harris said UNEP is still working to increase its sustainability education and awareness. However, he cited two major events as catalysts for sustainable practices.

He said the financial crash of 2008 and the growing attention to climate change were critical in helping the nations within UNEP become interested in sustainability.

“The recent push was triggered by a financial reason and an environmental reason,” Harris said. “Two of the pillars of sustainability. So you see, the two are so deeply dependent on one another for the principle to survive.”

Harris’ multi-disciplinary approach to sustainability was reflected in his audience. Following his lecture, students were given the opportunity to ask Harris questions about sustainability. The students asking the questions first stated their name and major. Among these students were members of the environmental engineering program, Integrated Business and Engineering program, economics department, political science department and others.

For Bill Hunter, the director of fellowship advising and UN programs at Lehigh, the diversity of majors in attendance was no coincidence.

“UNEP’s mission is so broad it could entice students of all majors to attend,” Hunter said. “You saw it more as each question came along.”

Harris talked about the importance of having young people, regardless of their education, continue to question the current state of the world and constantly move toward sustainable practices, however small in scale. He said his generation was unable to do so but that the current generation understands sustainability a lot more.

Hunter said bringing in a speaker from UNEP was ideal for the Lehigh-U.N. partnership, as it is an agency of the U.N. that has immediate relevance within the Lehigh community. The university also maintains a strong relationship with the U.N. through the Youth Representative program, something that is exclusive to Lehigh.

“We’re the only university in the world to have this,” Hunter said. “For us, that’s a home run.”

Hunter said this long-term undertaking can be a great asset for the university, especially as the administration looks to the future with the Path to Prominence. He said intertwining the mission of this program with Lehigh’s planned College of Health would be a major accomplishment for the university.

Stephen Ryan is a recently admitted student who was staying in the area for the upcoming Lehigh Life Day on Friday. The high school senior said his tour guide had mentioned the event and recommended he attend.

“(Harris) is talking about stuff that I want to major in, and from maybe the highest office you can come from,” Ryan said. “It’s crazy. I just wish maybe I had dressed up more.”

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