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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.

It's (not) only money
November 14, 2012 - 3:57pm

Sometimes, when I try to get my mind around what it will take to make Greenback (or, indeed, any college or university) an exemplar of sustainability, I gets overwhelmed.  It's still necessary, because if we don't know what we're trying to achieve then we can't tell whether we're making progress or not.  And simplistic, one-dimensional goals can be worse than no goal at all.

On this campus (as on many others), one of the necessary dimensions is financial.  To my mind, it's only one of many but -- in the mind of my boss and my boss's boss -- it's a long way ahead of whatever's in second place.  It kind of reminds me of a line from K-PAX, an oldish Kevin Spacey movie.  "Everybody wants money.  That's why they call it money!"  Circular in its logic (if, indeed, it contains any logic at all), but emphatically delivered.

Which is why I'm encouraged to note two efforts now going on at a campus or community near you.

The first, of course, is's Do the Math! initiative and tour.  Based on an effort that started with a prank at Middlebury College, Bill McKibben and friends are encouraging colleges and universities to divest their portfolios of investments in fossil fuel companies and related entities.  The core message is that it's illogical for institutions who purport to prepare young people to thrive in the future to simultaneously enable (invest in) organizations whose business plan consists in destroying that future.  At a basic, intuitive level, it's kind of hard to argue with.

The second effort comes out of the Occupy movement.  It's called the Rolling Jubilee, taking its title from a practice of debt forgiveness described in Leviticus 25.  The project aims to raise money, use it to by non-performing debt in the financial markets (a long-established, if not particularly widely-known, practice), and then simply forgive the debt.  A lot of loans in default can be purchased for a nickel on the dollar -- frequently even less than that.  Because of the way the student loan markets have been rigged (in favor of lenders and against students), student loan debt prices never get that low, but for things like credit card debt or medical bills (major contributors to consumer bankruptcies), an investment of $500 can result in a debt forgiveness of $10,000-15,000.

What I like about both these efforts is that they undercut the cultural assumption that "everybody wants money".  They attack the premise that the purpose -- pretty much the sole purpose -- of accumulated capital is to accumulate more capital.  Like unto the concept that war is too important a matter to be left in the hands of the military, they present a concept that money is too important a matter to be left entirely to the financial professionals. 

I have reservations about each of these undertakings being fully effective in its present form, but I'm confident that each of them has potential (indeed, the intent) to morph into something larger and more comprehensive.  And to the extent that either (or both) of them can cause us to call into question things about money that we know without thinking, I'm encouraged.


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