• Getting to Green

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


AASHE 2008 - Tuesday, Nov. 11

So if the title is "Tuesday", why am I posting this on a Thursday? Simple -- when the conference ended late Tuesday afternoon, I rode/drove back to Backboro, arriving in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. As a result, I was wiped out yesterday. And when I'm wiped out, I can hardly read, much less write.

November 13, 2008

So if the title is "Tuesday", why am I posting this on a Thursday? Simple -- when the conference ended late Tuesday afternoon, I rode/drove back to Backboro, arriving in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. As a result, I was wiped out yesterday. And when I'm wiped out, I can hardly read, much less write.

Still, the second day of AASHE 2008 was pretty useful. Not as long a schedule as Monday (thank you!), but still lots of stuff. The morning opened with a plenary address by Vananda Shiva, with the theme of "food as a solution to climate change". Now, my response to anyone who thinks they've got a silver bullet which is going to solve global climate disruption is that (s)he's playing with at most 51 cards, but if there is a single central issue at the root of the problem, food might well be it. Modern agriculture, informed by the "Green Revolution" which started at major US land grant institutions, has greatly increased farming productivity per unit labor -- virtually the only measure of efficiency at the macro level. However, what I remember from my managerial economics courses is that the important efficiency measure is the one per unit of your most constrained resource, and for agriculture that's not labor. In the US and other developed and developing countries, willing farmers are going broke for lack of a market price which reflects both the production costs and inherent risks of their product. In undeveloped countries, willing farmers are starving for lack of water, or topsoil, or the simple security to be able to plant a crop and stick around until it's time to harvest.

Most of us have heard that the processes by which the world raises, processes and distributes meat create more climate disruption than all the transportation on the planet. If you look at meat production efficiency in terms of any input other than labor, it's tremendously inefficient. Ten times as many calories go into creating a pound of beef than you or I can derive from eating it -- how can anyone consider a process with a 90% wastage rate to be efficient? But, the powers that be say that raising beef the old-fashioned way (cattle walking around, eating grass, that sort of thing) takes a lot more time and effort. Well, the farm families around me need places to profitably invest their time and effort. And they could make a decent profit on beef production if they weren't competing with the government-subsidized factory agriculture that's responsible for most GHGs from food production. Why doesn't the necessary change happen? In a nutshell, the old fashioned way of raising beef puts money in the pockets of farmers, both directly and through their regional agricultural cooperatives. Factory farming puts money in the pockets of agribusinesses -- grain processors, chemical firms and the like. Notice the $upport in both partie$ for dunderheaded product$ like ethanol, which was $old as a way to $ave the factory farm but is in fact ruining farmers a the $ame time it $tarves people around the world. Do the political math. If you're not cynical, you're not paying attention.

Shifting gears, the first breakout session I attended shared perceptions of "next steps" from Harvard, Yale and Johns Hopkins -- some of the campuses which are ahead of most of us in their sustainability efforts. The major emphasis was on how to institutionalize sustainability initiatives, kind of like moving from the entrepreneurial to the professionally managed phase in the life of a business undertaking. Lots of good info, which I'll try to mold into a future post. One of the bits that I'll share right now is that it really takes about three years (even in a best case scenario) to get out of start-up mode. Makes me feel better that, at Greenback, it's still very much an uphill battle.

Next I sat in on a presentation about retrofitting existing buildings to meet LEED standards. The delivered text was that it's a lot cheaper to build energy efficiency into the building during original construction, or at least major rehab. The subtext, for those paying attention, was that even as a stand-alone project, building retrofit can make a lot of business sense. The specific example presented involved a 180,000 sq ft building erected in 2003 (not normally, I hope, yet a candidate for major rework). Cost to achieve LEED Silver was about a dollar a square foot. Resulting energy savings were estimated (hard numbers not yet available) at $192K per year. Even if the energy savings estimates are grossly optimistic, we're talking payback in less that two years. At Greenback, we'll take as much of that as we can get -- even in the current financial market situation.

My day (and my conference) ended with a set of presentations on how to incorporate sustainability considerations into all levels of institutional planning -- not just campus (facility) planning, but curriculum planning, enrollment planning, development planning. Some good ideas here (several of which I want to do some research on before writing about), but the overarching theme was that most constituencies on campus feel ill-informed about what everybody else is doing. Communication, shared information, shared goals and objectives and values are the lifeblood of successful integrated planning -- the sessions made it clear that, major efforts and some significant successes notwithstanding, we're not there yet.

All in all, a useful (if exhausting) conference. One final macro-level observation, though. Attendee demographics were significantly bimodal -- lots of folks over 45, and a good number of people under 25. It looked to me like the generation (+/-) in the middle was significantly under-represented. I guess that's consistent with my observation that the students at Greenback are more sustainability-aware with each entering class, but I hope we're not headed for a significant inter-generational struggle.


Back to Top