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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.

Working sustainability #1 - Moving dirt
October 3, 2008 - 3:07pm

Thanks to Stephen for offering The Natural Step's definition of sustainability. It's a good tool for focusing your (my) thinking, if a bit complex for the classic 10-second constraint. (You know -- someone asks you in an elevator or a check-out line what sustainability is, and you've got 10 seconds before losing their attention.)

What also helped me focus my thinking, though, was the repeated question "what is sustainability work (in a campus context)?" And if TNS's definition of sustainability is a bit on the long side, I have to admit my answer to this question is WAY too long! Or way too short and flip. In fact, the only 10-second answer I've got is "whatever it takes to make campus more sustainable". Which, of course, begs the question of what's sustainable, as well as the question of how anyone knows what it takes to get there from here.

So, let's take Stephen's definition as a given. It's certainly comprehensive. And, to the extent that an IHE contributes -- directly or indirectly -- to continual degradation of the ecosphere or society, what we're doing moves the Earth (figuratively, of course) in the wrong direction. Whatever it takes to decrease the amount by which Greenback U contributes to ecological or social degradation falls within my job description.

Well, not technically within my job description, because the truth of the matter is I don't have one. Don't tell Human Resources, but the written position description I nominally fall under has almost no words about what I actually do all day. Hardly a surprise, since while my high-level goal stays pretty constant, what I do to get toward that goal changes weekly, if not more often. It's kind of like being a sports coach -- what you need to do depends on what game you're playing, how good your team is, what game the opposition is playing, and how good they are. Every campus sustainability administrator I know is in a similar situation.

So, my plan here is to post a number of descriptions of various aspects of the sustainability administrator's job. Not everything I will describe is part of my job here at Greenback (after all, I can only keep a finite number of plates spinning at any point in time), but everything I describe will be something that I know some sustainability administrator is doing on some campus (usually, multiple administrators on multiple campuses). The list won't be exhaustive, but I do hope to make it pretty comprehensive. (To that end, if you're a sustainability administrator and you want to make sure I include something specific, email me.)

To start the discussion (since the intro was a bit on the long side), let me give the unexpected answer to the unexpected question: yes, doing sustainability work on campus can involve physically digging in real, live dirt.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that when I was writing the earlier post, the term "digging" was just a rif off the cliche "dig right in". I didn't really mean that I expected faculty members (or anyone else, for that matter) to do real, physical spadework.

But the truth is, a portion of campus sustainability work can involve moving dirt. Some examples:

  • Establishing a campus garden, particularly if some or all of the produce ends up feeding students (ideally, in dining halls).
  • Putting a green roof on an existing building.
  • Improving the storm-water runoff on campus (diverting rainwater from storm sewer systems to sloughs, or capturing and sequestering it for use, perhaps in that garden you just established).

As a sustainability administrator, I probably wouldn't get physically involved in building the roof or regrading the campus to divert rainwater -- I don't have the appropriate union card. I might donate some physical labor to the garden project (after all, I have directly applicable experience). But my main contribution toward achieving any of the three would be to facilitate generation of the idea; work with students and faculty who are emotionally invested in making it a reality to put some detail on it, create a proposal around it, get that proposal in front of the right decision-makers on campus, and try to get it a little priority by talking up the sustainability benefits. If it were then up to me to project-manage every individual sustainability-related effort on campus, my capacity would become a governing constraint. I try hard not to let that happen; there's just way too much work to be done.

So, once the proposal gets approved and funded, my role is generally to coach whomever is in a leadership position so that, when the job is done, the participants will say "we did this ourselves." My earlier griping about some faculty members stems from a pattern I've seen repeatedly -- a professor is strongly in favor at the idea stage, is somewhat productive at the proposal stage, pushes him/herself into nominal leadership of the implementation stage, and then goes missing in action. I'm happy coaching an enthusiastic (if inexperienced) student in a leadership role, but once a faculty member (especially a faculty member in their department) has claimed leadership, getting a student to step up and claim the mantle can be a real challenge. (And I certainly understand their reservations.)

So, "whatever it takes" is an appropriate construct. In this case, whatever it takes to encourage and facilitate Greenback's efforts to reshape its physical campus to be less demanding of resources (local and otherwise). More examples to follow. Watch this space.

 

 

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