• Getting to Green

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


Sustainability Commandment #8

To be forgiven, we must confess our sins. That means we need to pay attention to them.

January 8, 2015

Be honest about your impact on the environment and on other people.

None of us can confess all our transgressions and unsustainable behaviors, for the simple reason that none of us knows what (and to what extent) they all are.  Most of us have been raised in a society which, almost by design, discourages us from even thinking about such things.  Convenience is encouraged, even when what we trade for our one-time reduction in effort is the destruction of some amount of a resource which can never (Never, NEVER) be replaced.  Reduction of risk is encouraged, even when the risk is already mathematically negligible and the reduction has significant resource or opportunity costs.  Consumption is encouraged as a form of competition which is supposed to result in some sort of self-validation, even though the joy of consuming is short-lived at best while the destruction of resources (and the creation of waste) is quite permanent.

We can't quantify our transgressions because much of the really transgressive behavior is far from our sight and beyond our specific knowledge.  If we purchase a food item, we don't see (and generally don't know much about) the application of poisons to the earth, the water and the soil that were involved in its production.  If the item in question is fresh produce, we often don't know where it was produced, nor how many miles it traveled to get to our local supermarket.  If we wrap that item in plastic (often, by the time it leaves the stores, several layers thereof), we don't see the oil well that provided the petroleum from which that plastic was made.  All of that ignorance is accumulated in the simple act of putting dinner on the table, and it's further compounded if we don't do the purchasing and the cooking ourselves.

Greenback U tries to be more informed than the average consumer.  We pay attention to the transgressions that physically occur on campus -- things like burning fossil fuels and consuming electrical power.   We pay attention to the energy that we consume second-hand through such means as university-paid air travel and university-required (for all intents and purposes) student and employee commuting.  We try to keep commuting behavior minimally transgressive by providing what mass transit options we reasonably can.  We try to buy food items that were produced locally and responsibly.  But for all our effort and our good intentions, we probably overlook more sustainability impacts than we acknowledge.  We fail to consider the impacts embodied by the furnishings and the equipment we put in our buildings, the portable electronics without (multiples of which) it seems our students and employees can't function, the books and papers and supplies that facilitate our day-to-day activities, the behaviors of alumni and surrounding community members when we invite them (at a very nice price) to attend sporting and pop-cultural events on campus.

So if a deep-pockets (at least, compared to your pockets and mine) institution with a professed commitment to sustainability doesn't -- really, can't -- consider the full lifecycle sustainability transgressions inherent in its day to day behaviors, then what's a single individual to do?

The simple answer is to try to be aware, and to try to learn more.  To me, that feels not just simple, but simplistic.  Virtue should consist of more than just aspiration -- a pavement of good intentions doesn't guarantee a virtuous journey (or should that be a virtuous destination?).  So the slightly more meaningful answer is to change our underlying assumptions.  Recognize that everything we -- you and I -- do every day has costs and implications, which may or may not be sustainable.  Given that many of our (commercially based, financially driven, economically motivated) societal norms are almost diametrically opposed to any reasonable expectation of sustainability -- that externalizing (ignoring, obscuring) as many costs and impacts as possible is modal behavior on all fronts -- perhaps the best operating assumption is that all our default behaviors are unsustainable.  Better to simply not do (not consume) as many of them as practical, consciously look for less unsustainable alternatives to the rest, and then trouble ourselves on a continuing basis with the knowledge that we have sinned and need to sin less in future.


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