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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.

Campus conservation conundrum
March 18, 2008 - 6:39pm

As I write this, I’ve just finished reading an online article from Scientific American, about how the oldest, toughest, thickest ice in the Arctic is melting — to the tune of 1.5 times the surface area of Alaska in a single year! It’s enough to get a guy down.

Trying to keep up with the latest in environmental sustainability — the latest data on the problem, and the latest info on technologies which can contribute to solutions — I read a lot. Probably too much. Ignorance is starting to look blissful.

But then, I read some other articles, and my hopes rebound a little. SciAm has another recent piece about the energy savings which can be achieved at economically attractive costs by retrofitting older buildings. McKinsey & Co. has estimated that increased use of state-of-the-practice building techniques in developed countries can cut the rate of emissions growth in half, and that widespread use of best existing technologies can cut overall emissions levels by 28%. Development of new technologies — an area of special interest to universities — holds far greater promise.

When I climb out of my reading material and return to the real world, though, the reality that faces me isn’t about state-of-the-practice, and it’s not about technology development. Reality is informed by dozens of buildings erected during the 1960’s, when energy was dirt cheap. These range from under-insulated all the way to totally uninsulated, and retrofitting them isn’t going to be easy.

Almost 80% of the CO2 emissions from Greenback U result from building operations — we’re not far off the national average. We’ve signed the ACUPCC, so we’re committed (at least in theory) to eliminating those emissions. But building rehab projects are a lot like work, even when they can be shown to be self-financing. There’s a long backlog of construction projects already justified, but not yet begun. And there’s a culture here (as at so many schools) which goes kind of like, “this president has made this commitment, but the next president will have other priorities, so let’s not go out on a limb.” Getting conservation rehab projects to the top of the list is a real challenge.

Greenback, like any large university, is a like super-tanker — it takes about 20 miles (or 20 years) to change direction. Small colleges have two natural advantages. The obvious one (and really the defining feature of the small college) is that the community is of a human scale — there aren’t six degrees of separation between any two individuals, there’s (at most) two. Getting consensus is easier, and moving — once consensus has been achieved — is readily accomplished.

The second advantage small colleges have is that, due to their size, they take on relatively few initiatives at a time. The schools who have made the greatest strides toward sustainability have, as a rule, defined sustainability as their highest — almost their only — priority for change. Universities are ungainly, headless, beasts. They try to change in many directions simultaneously, and most of the attempts fail as a result of attention and political backing. I read once (there I go, again, reading!) about a theory of higher ed leadership which used a trash can as a metaphor. It may be apropos, but it’s a trifle scary in the present situation. If we, as a society, don’t get greenhouse emissions under control, that trash can is going to look positively attractive compared to the environment which surrounds it.

I guess my point, if I have one, is that a higher ed sustainability program needs a direct line to the local leadership, if it’s going to succeed. Greening can’t be just one of myriad simultaneous initiatives. It can’t just be one of a bunch of desired changes, all of which are somehow #1. Sustainability isn’t about the welfare of the institution, it’s about the welfare of the civilization which supports the institution. At the same time, it runs counter to the prevailing culture at Greenback and, I’m sure, at other schools. An institutional advancement initiative gets the culture as a tailwind. A recruitment effort to raise the test scores of the incoming class gets a boost from the dominant paradigm. But energy conservation rehab is seen as proactive maintenance, which runs counter to the “deferred maintenance” culture at most universities. It won’t happen unless it’s at least the (only) first priority, and at best the (first?) only priority.


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