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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.

Doing more with less
August 14, 2014 - 8:00pm

Environmental impact (in recent experience, negative environmental impact) correlates with consumption.  It's less intuitively obvious, but economic and social sustainability challenges also correlate with consumption.  Yet our students are conditioned to adjudge their happiness on the basis of how much stuff they have which, in the default instance, equates to how much they consume.  

One of the things I try to do, then, is to shift the campus experience to one that decreases aggregate consumption without decreasing the subjective happiness (is there any other kind?) of individual students.  Without being entirely blatant about it, I hope to shift student perceptions from a basis of determining success on the basis of having lots of things to one where success is determined by not needing a lot of things. There's an old saying that one's richness is measured by the number of things (s)he can do without.  There's an emotional logic there -- if you need a lot of things you're dependent on a lot of others, and dependency is rarely associated with either richness or happiness.  If you decrease the number of things you need from others, you increase your own control of your situation; that should make you feel better about yourself.

Not that I'm going to be able to turn Greenback students into self-sufficient pioneers able to survive for years with nothing more than a fishhook and a Swiss army knife.  Nor that I'd try, even if I could.  But if, for a significant number of students, I can throw a sabot into the gears of reflexive consumerism, I count that as a win.  There are a number of programs on campus which have potential to help me achieve that.  Most of them encourage one or another form of sharing.

Sharing has long been part of the on-campus student experience.  Housing is typically shared, right down to the room level.  Nobody living in a dorm room has space for a lot of stuff, so what stuff students do have is generally made available to friends and neighbors.  Meals are often shared.  Books and notes and impressions of instructors and even term papers have been shared for decades (that last not always seen as a good thing).  Cars are often shared, either by lending the vehicle out or by offering rides to other students.  If students move off campus, it's often into some sort of shared housing situation where many of the same patterns exist.  In recent difficult economic times, some of these behavior patterns have carried over into life after graduation -- demographers often remark on a recent pattern of "delayed household formation", which they generally regard as a temporary aberration.  My hope is to make these and similar behaviors less aberrant and more lasting.

So Greenback, as many campuses, has instituted a car-sharing program -- basically, short-term car rental that's available to all our students so long as they can legally drive.  And we've established an automated ride-sharing system which facilitates drivers finding passengers (and passengers, drivers) either incidentally (like a ride home for the holidays) or on a continuing basis (e.g., commuting to work).  And we're implementing a bike-share system which allows students to check out bicycles for a day or a weekend at no cost.  But expanding our sharing initiatives beyond the general area of transportation has proven challenging.  

In a sense, our campus bookstore has long encouraged serial reuse -- buying back textbooks which can be resold to other students the following semester or the following year.  But that's always been a particularly inefficient process, especially in terms of student finances.  Thus, off-campus companies have gotten into the used textbook purchase and resale business, depriving our bookstore of business by paying higher prices and then selling at lower costs.  It's remarkable what a low-overhead business can achieve.

Go beyond evergreen textbooks, however, and the market in used (even lightly-used) goods drops off sharply.  I'm convinced that part of the reason is that it's been attempted as a variant on the market for new goods -- an understandable choice of model, but not necessarily a good fit.  So I've been looking for a different model, one that might fit better.

When I ask anyone for their ideas about what might characterize a successful market in used goods, craigslist is almost always a key element of the response.  And many of our students, of course, go to craigslist to find housing, to find tools, to find furniture, to find bicycles.  I've even seen a spotty market in used textbooks on our local craigslist, although I don't get the impression that Amazon has anything to worry about anytime soon.  But to my mind, craigslist has two inherent flaws -- it's not specifically targeted to the campus community (so the proportion of listings of interest to students is pretty low), and it's based on the premise that goods are paid for with cash (you can often negotiate some form of barter with a craigslister, but it takes effort -- it's not the sort of transaction that craigslist is built to facilitate).  Barter is, in some ways, more transactionally efficient than a cash sale/purchase combination.  And barter builds community in a way that cash sales simply do not.

Greenback has been approached a number of times by start-up companies with web-based products that attempt to be campus-community-based craigslists with benefits.  To date, none of them has really seemed up to the task.  The most recent approach is from a company that's established an association with the Clinton Global Initiative.  Their product appears to offer some interesting features, and their business plan seems sound (a pleasant exception to the rule).  But it's early days, and they're at least as likely to fail as they are to succeed.  

But whatever the case with the current proposal, we're going to continue to look for ways to increase student sharing, increase product reuse, and consequently to decrease the aggregate consumption of energy and natural resources by our students while they're on campus.  After all, if they can do it once they can do it twice.  And if they can do it twice, they might make a habit of it.  And given all the subtle messages students (and all of us) receive every day encouraging consumption, I'll settle for "might".

Of course, even if we get a mechanism into place, we'll still have to find ways to sell students on the idea of using it.  Trade in used textbooks is both college-specific and highly seasonal, so any habits formed around that activity are unlikely to carry forward into adult life.  I need to find some form(s) of good that students have, want, and are willing to exchange.  I may have identified at least one such.  More next time.

 

 

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