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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.

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January 28, 2013 - 5:18pm

In my last post, I talked about how having to account for greenhouse gas emissions from off-campus behaviors started me on the path to realizing that you can't build a sustainable campus in an unsustainable city (or town, or countryside).  Thus, while my official charge is to change the Greenback campus, my thought process focuses more and more on changing the Backboro metropolitan area.

And it's not only about greenhouse gases.  Truth be told, greenhouse gases are only one of a class of sustainability problems -- the fact that our society is generating wastes faster than the natural environment can convert/dispose/reuse them.  The fact that these wastes (gases) go into a global sink (the atmosphere) that renders them place-independent has caused us to think of sustainability as a whole as a global problem rather than a local or regional one. 

Some sustainability problems (like GHG levels) are, if they exist at all, inherently global.  Others (like disposal of electronic wastes or salinization of croplands) are global only because we've chosen to operate our economy on that scale.  And some sustainability problems (lack of potable water) are inherently local -- we can look for patterns at a global scale, but if there's a problem of no potable water, that problem exists in a specific place, at a specific time, and to a specific set of individuals.  The initial focus of the campus sustainability movement on greenhouse gases (and almost only on greenhouse gases) has not only meant that issues of environmental sustainability have taken precedence over issues of economic and social sustainability, it's also led us to thinking largely (this is now mitigating somewhat) about sustainability as a global set of problems.

Unfortunately, when you try to tackle any set of issues at a global scale, life gets difficult.  Too many people, with too many different sets of assumptions and priorities and cultural preferences -- all of them totally valid, I would add -- get involved in the decision-making process.  And the decision-implementing process.  And the decision-implementing-monitoring process.  And, predictably, the why-it-didn't-work-excuse-making process.  Divide-and-conquer strategies aren't applicable only to political constituencies and opposing armies; they work well on overwhelmingly large problems, too.

But it's not just a question of getting the challenge down to a manageable scale.  If we want to achieve sustainability, we don't need just to reduce GHG emissions, nor stop topsoil loss, nor eliminate endocrine disrupters in our streams and rivers.  We also need to set up operational processes to fulfill society's needs while staying at the new, less disruptive, level of unintended consequences.  And, since society's needs will continue to change -- continue to expand, for quite some time -- we need to set up control/management processes to assure that our new and improved operational processes stay within safety limits.

Given that we'll need to redesign a large portion of how society conducts its business, the redesigned control processes will also have to be societal.  And societies have proven, time and again, that "out of sight is out of mind".  Societies respond moderately well to what they see when they see it, and not at all to what they don't see.  Concerns with greenhouse gas emissions aside, the looming problems of resource depletion and waste accumulation wouldn't have gotten nearly so bad except for the fact that we now get all our stuff from "somewhere else" and eventually throw it all "away".  

That sort of thinking can work, even in the short term, only if supply lines are long.  Only if the tragedy of resources is visited on folks who live in places we'd never want to travel to.  Only if the tragedy of toxic wastes in inflicted on people to weak -- read "too poor" -- to fight back.  Only if those bad things happen to people who aren't us.

If our objective is not just to get to a sustainable society for some instant, but rather to create and then continually operate a society that lives within its naturally available means, then most of the resources have to come from -- and most of the wastes have to go to -- places we know, places we see, places we visit, places populated with people who fall within the realm of "us".  Maybe it's the metropolitan area.  Maybe it's a larger region.  Here in the Northeast, maybe it's as large as a state (especially given our geographically small states).  But it has to be small enough for a sense of community, of identity, to obtain.  That way, our own sense of self-preservation and well-being can become a key component of the new control system.  And our newly-created "sustainable" society can actually have a chance to sustain itself for the long run.


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