• Getting to Green

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


How we'll know when we're serious

As a campus sustainability wonk, let me say that the vast majority of the campus sustainability movement isn't serious. Which is not to say that most campus sustainability coordinators (or directors, or whatever) aren't serious about their jobs, or dedicated to the abstract idea of sustainability.  But that idea is often stated -- and so, understood -- only in vague terms.

March 11, 2012

As a campus sustainability wonk, let me say that the vast majority of the campus sustainability movement isn't serious. Which is not to say that most campus sustainability coordinators (or directors, or whatever) aren't serious about their jobs, or dedicated to the abstract idea of sustainability.  But that idea is often stated -- and so, understood -- only in vague terms. And the cultural environment, the system in which the campus sustainability movement operates, isn't conducive to addressing even that vague definition literally.

This is perhaps, I think, the biggest reason that the sustainability movement (like "the left" more generally) hasn't put forth a compelling, attractive, internally consistent world view. We haven't been able to express such a view because our dirty little secret is that we don't really have one. The slogan a couple of years back was that "a different world is possible." Talk about non-compelling, not inherently attractive, and not demonstrably internally consistent! We've got (got!) to be able to do better than that.  But, so far, we really haven't.

Take the definition of sustainability most commonly used on campuses: meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The negotiating history of that phrasing aside (it was a political compromise, a kicking of the can down the road), it's a goal which gets lip service only. If those words have any meaning at all, it's that what we do in the present cannot reduce the options available to future generations.  After all, if the options available to any future generation are reduced, their ability to meet their needs is compromised.  Maybe not eliminated, maybe not destroyed, but surely compromised. The definition doesn't say "eliminated." It doesn't even have soft wording like "seriously compromised".  It says "compromised", pure and simple. And every time we extract a barrel of oil or any other mineral resource from the ground, every time we pollute water or air in ways that aren't readily reversed, every time we facilitate the evolution of drug-resistant bacteria or spray poisons on another acre of cropland, we're compromising the resources future generations will have available.  Hence, we're compromising their ability to meet their eventual needs.

There's a much harder-nosed definition of sustainability available to us, but it gets scant attention on most campuses.  Behavior can be described as sustainable if, to the best of anyone's knowledge, there's no reason it can't be continued forever.  Not just for the foreseeable future.  Not just for seven (or any other finite number of) generations.  Forever.  Which isn't to say, of course, that future advances in knowledge won't teach us that behaviors we thought to be sustainable actually aren't.  But it is to say that we stop doing things we know can't be sustained.  Behaviors which fly in the face of obvious physical limits.

I summarize sustainable behavior in three simple rules:

  1. Don't use up any resource faster than it can be regenerated.  For instance, don't burn more wood annually than your woodlot produces in a typical year.  Don't try to get 15 gallons per minute out of a 12 gpm water well.  Don't try to graze more cattle than your pasture can support.  Of course, if we're talking mineral resources and fossil fuels, this translates into don't use them at all, because (in human terms) they simply don't regenerate.
  2. Don't utilize any sink faster than it can regenerate.  For instance, don't generate animal manure faster than you can utilize or sell it.  Don't have ten people using a septic sanitary system that was sized for five.  Don't create higher levels of agricultural runoff than the riparian system can handle.  And don't generate nuclear waste when you have no real plan for handling it.
  3. Don't poison the environment.  Not the streams, not the oceans, not the air, not the soil.  Think about herbicides, pesticides, fungicides.  Think about arsenic and other heavy metals resulting from mining operations.  Think about the salinization of agricultural land that results from deep-well irrigation.  (The Romans knew that if you sowed salt into the fields, crops would never grow again.  Somehow, in the 2000 intervening years, we seem to have forgotten that fact.)

An internally-consistent vision of a sustainable society will have to honor these three constraints.  Which, of course, will make any such society far different from the one we see every day on every campus I know.  That level of difference, and the degree of challenge it implies, scares people.  And it scares institutions even worse.  So we satisfice with something less.  We focus on energy efficiency, and thermostat set-points, and recycling, and fuel mileage.

Now, there's nothing wrong with improving energy efficiency and recycling rates.  I don't mean at all that campus sustainability offices should abandon those efforts.  But it's important that we see those efforts for what they are -- initial, tentative steps toward a long-term goal which really, at present, isn't clearly defined.  And expecting initial, tentative steps to evolve into something more concrete and significant in the absence of a clear long-term goal is just unrealistic.  We've got to come up with a clear vision of the world we're trying to achieve.  It won't be fully detailed.  It won't be entirely prescient.  It will change over time.  But we're reaching the point where we need a working vision right about now.  We need to come up with a picture that's both realistic and non-scary.  (That's one of the things in the Sustainia effort that cheers me, and that I cheer.)

I'll be tossing out some of my personal thoughts on what parts of an attractive sustainable society might look like over the next month or so.  Some of my thinking is probably wrong, but getting even misguided ideas out in the open can further thinking.  And discussion.  And better ideas.

For the short term, let me just point to a slogan evident on a lot of campuses and which, to my mind, demonstrates the syndrome that results from vague, if well-intentioned, sustainability thinking.

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

In terms of environmental effect (and probably social effect as well), the sequence of the three terms is significant.  Recycling is better than throwing stuff into the trash.  But reuse is better than recycling.  And reduction is better than reuse.  Recycling, by definition, assumes that some sort of waste has already been generated.  Reuse postpones (often for quite a long time) the generation of waste.  And reduction eliminates the generation of that portion of waste entirely.  So why are more campus sustainability efforts focused on recycling than on reduction and reuse?  And why do we tend to measure recycling programs based on their diversion rates?  Why don't we focus at least as much on the substitution (purchase) of already recycled products instead of newly manufactured goods?  The first step toward demonstrable seriousness of intent might be increased emphasis on reduction, reuse and purchase of already-recycled goods beyond copier paper.

Most of what most of us in the campus sustainability movement have been doing over the past few years is well-intentioned, and generally helpful.  We haven't really addressed what it means to be sustainable (and I'm not just talking about staff here, faculty are equally guilty), but we've done a bit to make behaviors on our campuses a tad less unsustainable.

The problem, of course, is that it's not enough and -- the way things are progressing -- it's not likely to evolve into anything that's enough.  We need a clearer course.  Seriously.


Back to Top