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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.

Loops and learning
February 7, 2013 - 2:30pm

One of the key reasons that North American society has become so unsustainable in so many ways is that we don't see the results of our own decision-making processes.  When I say that to folks who work to promote sustainability on campuses, the most common reaction is "right - greenhouse gases are invisible."  The second most frequent response has to do with time lags.  Both reactions are based in fact and both are important, but what I'm really talking about is that, for almost all North American consumers, the largest environmental and social impacts of their purchase decisions occur half-way around the world. (Or, at least, closer to half-way around the world than to home.)

Think about it -- whatever the environmental impacts of using (powering) a piece of electronic equipment in the United States, they pale beside the impacts of mining the raw materials, refining the metals, creating the plastics, making the processor chips, and finally disposing of the discarded product.  Most -- virtually all -- of that activity happens "somewhere else".

Whatever the local environmental impacts of food consumption, they're nothing compared to the effects of plowing, fertilization, pesticide application, irrigation, forced feeding, antibiotic treatment, waste runoff and offal disposal, virtually all of which happen hundreds or thousands of miles from the point of consumption.

Wearing the latest fashion item creates virtually no local environmental or social impact -- those impacts are experienced on another continent, where the fibers are grown or extruded, the fabrics are woven and cut, the assembly takes place, the air and water are polluted, and the workers from time to time burn to death.

None of us wish for those bad things to happen on people and environments "somewhere else", but we're not really aware of them and so we don't moderate our behaviors as a result.  With the exception of the occasional documentary film broadcast on some channel up around number 400, most of us have no way of becoming aware even if we wanted to, and a televised documentary viewed in the relative comfort of one's own home has nowhere near the emotional impact that directly and personally experiencing the unintended outcomes of one's purchasing decisions might have.

Many of us already understand that for the current globalized goods economy to continue to function, what's out of sight has to be kept out of the consumer's mind.  For better or for worse, so long as that continues to be true it will be an uphill battle trying to get North Americans to make responsible consumption decisions -- the informational feedback loops are just too long, the information bandwidth from the points of production and disposal just too narrow.

If colleges and universities are to graduate responsible consumers (a far lower threshold of success than graduating responsible citizens, by the way), we need to find ways to shorten and broaden those feedback loops, at least for demonstration purposes.  We need to be able to show -- not just tell -- students what happens as a result of purchases they make without thinking over-much.  We need to be able to show them the results of thoughtless disposal of goods used only briefly, often only once, sometimes not at all.  We need to be able to model (since we probably can't fully demonstrate) both environmental and social impacts created by disadvantaged economic circumstances in peripheral (oops, I mean "developing") nations.  We need to create "living laboratories" to simulate not just the futuristic technologies we'd all like to be able to look forward to, but also the realistic technologies and systems and impacts that already exist.  And we need to be able to do all this not too far from campus, so that students can observe operations and impacts over a significant span of time.

Such an undertaking -- the creation of a regional set of micro-environments, each bringing some aspects of "somewhere else" close enough to see and understand -- is beyond the means of all but the largest research institutions.  But there's no reason that each college or university should need its own set of "living laboratories"; a moderately comprehensive set could well be created and shared by a consortium of schools.  Indeed, because different universities would bring differing strengths to bear, such a collaborative product would probably be of better quality than the set of labs that any single institution could create on its own.

The initial justification for creating such a set of demonstration environments might be to facilitate learning and increase awareness, but the long-term benefits to both the school and the surrounding region could go far beyond the purely educational.  Right now, the products that are created "somewhere else" are created th


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