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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.

Another way not to sustain ourselves
November 21, 2008 - 3:27pm

As a campus sustainability wonk, much of my work has to do with carbon dioxide equivalent. How much did Greenback emit last year? What can we do to reduce emissions from heating our buildings? From driving on (or to) campus? How much did we save with this innovation, that initiative, or the latest competition? How long will it take us to get down to (supply your own target level here)?

My first response if someone seems to think that reducing CO2 (or even greenhouse gas in general) emissions defines the entirety of my job is to point out that sustainability is a three-legged stool -- if any leg (ecological, economic or social) is missing, you fall on your kiester. Sustainability takes more than just counting CO2 molecules.

Or, it takes less than that. I mean, CO2 is kind of light and airy, which means a metric tonne of it is pretty large (figure about 22,000 cubic feet). And Greenback puts out many tens of thousands of those, every year. But climate disruption due to the greenhouse effect isn't the only way what we are (and have been) doing is unsustainable. Civilization (that's you and me, at least for the moment) is running out of a lot of critical resources, all at the same time.

This isn't the first time a civilization has destroyed itself by depleting the very things it depends on to survive. My understanding of the Anasazi is that their civilization died when all the available firewood (used for heating and cooking) within walking distance had been consumed. (If you're an expert on that subject, and I'm off base here, feel free to correct me.) Whatever ended civilization on Easter Island, end it certainly did; resource depletion of some sort was almost certainly at the root of the problem.

So, a culture failing to sustain itself would hardly be a first. (And, if we survive this one, will probably happen again in future.) But every resource on which we depend -- since none of them is, in truth, inexhaustible -- constitutes another opportunity to fail. Climate is one of those resources. So is breathable air. So is topsoil (or other fertile medium for growing food). So is potable water.

And it's the imminent water crisis which has my attention, at the moment. According to the World Health Organization, over a billion people don't currently have access to clean water. The IPCC predicts that this shortage (which climate disruption will aggravate, but didn't create) will affect twice as many people by 2050, and three times as many by 2080. If nations (and "illegal combatants") are willing to go to war to protect their access to oil, what will they do to protect their access to water? Doesn't sound like a good time to me.

On campus, we're used to thinking about water issues in terms of refillable versus disposable bottles. (For an interesting take on this, see a recent column by Wendy Williamsof the Prairie Writers Circle.) But our patterns of water utilization go far beyond what we drink, and how we carry it around before we drink it. The technologists (and part of what I do is to try to get campus planners and architects to pay attention to appropriate technologists) are finally beginning to realize that the 4-6 gallons each of us flushes every day has a bigger impact than the 1-2 gallons we each drink daily. (Including coffee. And soda. And beer.) Time magazine had an interesting write-up on just how far over the top flush toilets have gotten (no physical imagery here, please!), and what steps are being taken to address the problem. (Aren't you glad I didn't say "get to the bottom of it"?)

See, anything we're doing that our descendents aren't going to be physically (or sociologically, or economically) do forever, that activity is inherently unsustainable. If we think about it, we realize it. Of course, we prefer not to think about it. (Kind of like we don't think about what happens after we flush.)

Of course, a metric tonne of water (or effluent) takes up only about 35 cubic feet. A lot less than 22,000. See what I mean about it being a smaller problem?



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