• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


Why I hate Augusts . . .

. . . and, as it turns out, this August more than most.

August 22, 2013

Right up front . . . no, I'm not done wrestling with the question of how to teach sustainability to 21st century students.  Rather, I've gotten to the point where my initial back-of-an-envelope analysis of my answer to that question is starting to show its flaws.  I need to take a step back, look again at the whole picture, rethink what the pieces are and how they fit together.  The bits that I've already posted are in no danger -- the relative clarity which induced me to address them early on makes that fair to say.  But the bits that remain don't separate quite as cleanly from one another as I'd originally thought, which means that I probably haven't picked the right scheme for teasing them apart.  More, a bit later.

Because August isn't a month in which I'm likely to find the mental wherewithal to rethink any big pictures.  August is, more often than not, the month from hell.  And I'm not talking about the weather.

For starts, August is the end of summer campus project season.  Campus operations loom large in the topic of campus sustainability, and campus operations can't be changed in any major way without changing campus infrastructure.  How energy is used (directly and indirectly), how energy is distributed, how energy is generated -- for each of these the existing infrastructure, at Greenback as on virtually every other campus, was designed in an effort to optimize the old way of doing things.  And to provide only the level of information (and, thereby, control) that the old way of doing things thought necessary.  And the old way of doing things wasn't particularly focused on energy efficiency.  Energy efficiency isn't the be-all and end-all of sustainability, but it's one of those early, relatively clear pieces of the puzzle that we can all implement while we're still figuring out what the big picture looks like.

Of course, if you're making significant changes to campus infrastructure (buildings, the local electrical grid, steam lines, roadways, etc.), it's far easier to do that when there aren't thousands of students constantly demanding services from that infrastructure.  Which means that big changes get made over the summer.  August means that the summer (at least, summer vacation) is coming to an end.  And, predictably, not all of those infrastructure projects are progressing quite as planned.  Which means it's crunch time.

But that's not the whole challenge.  At the same time that we're pushing construction crews and others to get their projects finished, we're also preparing to implement a number of sustainability-related student engagement projects over the coming academic year.  Getting students to engage hands-on with sustainability concepts -- first in some almost frivolous way and then, over time, with increasing seriousness -- has proven a useful means of helping them understand why sustainability's important, if not every aspect of what sustainability demands.  But enticing students who live in the moment (and, increasingly, in the "virtual" moment, not the "meatspace" one) is an exercise that has to be rethought almost constantly.  Keeping co-curricular events new and fresh and effective takes effort, and a good portion of that effort has to occur not too far in advance of showtime.  It has to occur in August.

And that's not the worst of it.  August, it turns out, is also the month during which professors finalize the syllabi for any new courses (or newly redesigned courses) they'll be teaching in the Fall.  New and redesigned courses, of course, are the ones most likely to incorporate sustainability-related concepts and information.  For years, my office has reached out to faculty members with an offer to contribute, to collaborate, to co-present material that addresses sustainability through almost any lens.  A lot of profs are inclined to favor sustainability in the abstract, but they often have an unclear or incomplete view of what it entails in the real world ("meatspace", again).  And they generally haven't integrated any profound understanding of sustainability into the thought patterns they were internalizing as they were being indoctrinated into the conventional wisdoms of their respective disciplines.  The good news is that, increasingly, faculty members are contacting my office with requests to suggest material, to vet material, to present material or to participate on in-class panels discussing material relating to various aspects of sustainability.  

The somewhat bad news is that, in many cases, they want to discuss sustainability as part of a course which focuses through a lens with which my folks and I aren't immediately familiar.  That doesn't mean that we can't understand it, can't get familiar with it, can't figure out how to engage sustainability concerns while looking through it.  It does mean, however, that it takes us a bit of time and effort to do those things.  When a professor asks, we don't want to say "no" -- as I said, we've been working for years to encourage profs to invite us into the conversation.  And we don't want to do a half-assed job of it -- respond ineptly to an early invitation and we're not likely to be asked back again next year.  But resources (time, attention, energy) are available only in finite supply.  And the worse news is that these invitations tend to pop up (usually, without warning) in August.

So the month during which the nation of France (I'm told) goes on holiday is the month during which, increasingly, I compound my personal need for a holiday.  My need for peace and quiet.  To get away from it all for a bit.  And the month during which I'm most dependent for my short-term survival on occasional doses of sanity, clear thought and gentle humor.  What's making this August worse than the ones that went before is that two of the voices I've become dependent on for sanity, clarity and humor have abandoned me.  (Well, not me in any individual sense.  They've abandoned their whole audiences of which I'm only one more-or-less regular member.)

I knew about John Fugelsang's departure, of course.  The whole disappearance of Current TV was hardly a surprise.  I have high hopes for Al Jazeera America as a full-time old-school professional news organization similar, at least in aspiration, to the ones of my youth.  But I wonder how much one healthy dose of unseasoned global information can address the cultural problems of a society hooked on jingoistic, high-sodium, high-fat, high-fructose government-subsidized corn syrup.  Lots of garbage in, most of the garbage passes out, but enough of it is retained to create a sort of social informational diabesity.  Fugelsang was (and, I hope, will be again) one of the gentler and more effective voices reminding us that fruits and veg actually taste better than Twinkies.  And that you can't have informed consent of the governed when the citizenry isn't allowed to know what the government's doing.  I already miss his voice.

What caught me by surprise was David Roberts's recently announced (if still upcoming) hiatus from Grist.  I don't always agree with Roberts's analyses of sustainability-related issues, but I read him pretty regularly and I generally enrich my understanding of some subject by doing so.  A cogent voice can be comforting, and Roberts only rarely lacks cogency.  Unlike Current TV, Roberts (so he says) isn't going away forever -- he claims to be taking a year off to recharge.  To get away from it all.  To find a bit of that peace and quiet thing.  (Roberts says he's not only taking a year off from work, he's taking time away from email, the web, pretty much all that "virtual" stuff.)  I can hardly begrudge him some well-earned rest; I can only envy him the flexibility and resources to be able to take it. 

So I'm happy for Roberts.  I'm just unhappy that he decided to make his announcement in August.  This August, particularly.  (Although next August will probably be worse.  Sigh.)


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