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  • Getting to Green

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

AASHE2008 - Monday, November 10
November 10, 2008 - 9:52pm

It doesn't make sense. Fourteen hours of mostly sitting around shouldn't leave me more tired (and certainly more stiff) than fourteen hours of farmwork, but it does. Or it has. Because I am.

Still, it was a day generally well spent. Bookends of problem perception surrounding useful insights into solutions.

The opening bookend was Van Jones. Inspirational and celebratory, but with a hands-on, pragmatic perspective. Three underlying problems:

  • a long-dominant economic theory based on lots of nature, and very few people,
  • a mid-term neoliberal paradigm leading to an economy based on consumption rather than production, debt rather than thrift, and destruction rather than conservation, and
  • a somewhat more recent politics of distration and division, intended to elicit irrational choices from the electorate.

Balanced with three necessary achievements for the new administration:

  • putting a price on carbon,
  • retrofitting America to move toward energy efficiency, and
  • repowering America with a new (smart) energy grid fed from renewable sources.

Jones is a master of getting people to look at a picture one step bigger than the one they're used to and, as a result, seeing things in a different light. His opposite number was Peter Senge, whose perspective is perhaps three steps bigger yet, whose point is not that we're getting the wrong solutions but that we're totally failing to ask the right questions. Immediately preceding dinner, his presentation drew linkages between industrial organization, lack of community in modern Western society, the stultifying effects of K-12 (really, K-6) education, and resource utilization as if the natural world were infinite. Perhaps his most striking story told of W. Edwards Deming telling the assembled state secretaries of education that the thrust towards standardized testing and "accountability" was designed in imitation of a management approach (management by objectives) which had proven itself a miserable failure. In a letter to Senge, Deming wrote that "our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people", and that the prevailing system of management started in grade one.

Both Jones and Senge depicted the current sustainability crisis as having origins dating back to the 19th century, and both indicated that the solution lies in a return to the basic human values which all religions teach, but which modern social paradigms have perverted. In Senge's terminology, there is a disconnect between who we really are and how we're currently living; we need to remember how we want to live, and ask ourselves how we should educate our children in order to live that way. Both speakers were clear that the real problem we face is based in the fact that we haven't been living, or educating, that way.

Between the opening and pre-prandial plenaries, however, the message got less philosophical and more directly encouraging. Reports from the front -- from colleges and universities which have found ways to encourage faculty members to incorporate sustainability principles and examples into their curricula, from schools who have taken significant strides towards decreasing transportation demand, and from universities which have had remarkable success in facilitating and supporting active student leadership towards various forms of sustainability.

(This last struck me as ironic, in that many of the folk working to enable the current generation of activist student leaders work in one or another department of Student Affairs, a field which came into its own as universities took steps to minimize and control a previous generation of student activism. I guess what goes around really does come around.)

Still, ironic observations notwithstanding, it was a good day. Just too long. Fourteen hour conference sessions may be less globally destructive than GHG emissions, but from my point of view they're no more sustainable in the long term. Or, for that matter, the short one.



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