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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.

Creature comforts; dealing with dinosaurs
November 26, 2008 - 2:29pm

Last summer, executives at three of Japan's largest banks decreed that all their offices would be cooled only to 82 degrees Fahrenheit. It's part of a nationwide initiative called "Cool Biz", whereby businesses compete for customer loyalty by demonstrating leadership in greenhouse gas reduction. Salarymen have reportedly made a significant sacrifice of social status by going to work tie-less as a result.

What caught my eye was a comment attributed to an unnamed professor of physiology: “82 degrees can be comfortable only if you’re thin, naked and stay still.”

What BS! I'm not particularly thin, I rarely (if ever) work outside naked, I never stay still while I'm working outside, and it's often over 82. Hell, over the years it's often been over 92. Sometimes, it's been over 102! Sure, the higher the temperature and the humidity get, the lower my activity level and the shorter its uninterrupted duration, but let's get real here -- bank employees working indoors don't typically do a lot of heavy physical labor. Pushing pencils (or computer keys) at 82 degrees F isn't going to make you sweat unless you're morbidly obese or otherwise extremely ill. If it does, see your doctor, not your building operator.

I reacted pretty strongly to that little quote, I admit. When I first read of the joint executive decision, I thought how impressed I was by a culture where businesses work together to address (in whatever small part) a social problem, and where consumers actually consider demonstrated social responsibility levels in determining which firms to patronize. What a concept!

But the physiologist's inane little comment made its way into virtually every US news article on the subject that I could find. Don't know whether it was featured as prominently in the Japanese press (I don't read Japanese), but the US media clearly loved it.

That professor, and the reporters who so consistently quoted him, reminded me of just how much social inertia the sustainability movement still has to overcome. I shouldn't have needed reminding -- some of the key decision-makers at Greenback are still in the Pleistocene when it comes to acknowledging anthropogenic climate disruption. Moving a campus towards sustainable practices and a sustainability-imbued curriculum is an extended exercise in managing organizational change. Dinosaur decision-makers don't like change very much. Sometimes they go along with high-toned pronouncements in public fora but, when push comes to shove, passive resistance is a favored technique.

I try not to use the term "dinosaur" in open discussion on such matters (or such people). And I make a conscious effort never to use the phrase "brain the size of a walnut". Ever. Even in the abstract. It doesn't help me get the policy, and other high-level, organizational decisions that I (and Greenback) need.

And I understand that dinosaurs were hardly evolutionary failures -- failures don't stay at the top of the food chain for hundreds of millions of years. Dinosaurs were supremely well adapted to their environment, and only became unable to compete when that environment changed drastically around them. Similarly, the folks who have made it to the top of the food chain at Greenback (as, I'm sure, at many other institutions) aren't stupid. They're merely superbly conditioned, and so still reactive, to an environment -- a paradigm -- which has been overtaken by events.

Since they're not stupid, they can be reasoned with. As opportunities arise, their fears (and it's usually fear which is driving that resistance, passive or otherwise) can be addressed and a useful compromise reached. But each policy-level change decision is slowed and made more difficult (and less certain) by the fact that the people who have to buy into it are, by conscious selection, the ones most thoroughly adapted to the status quo ante.

One of the patterns I noted at the recent AASHE convention was that the schools which have had the most success in addressing sustainability issues are typically ones where the required chain of decision-makers is short. Either the sustainability office(r) reports high in the organizational structure, or there's a dual-reporting relationship which allows a similar amount of political sway. Several successful sustainability folk described their role -- at least in part -- as serving as a bridge between faculty and staff. Getting the sustainability message out at a high organizational level can lead to success, and getting it out at multiple points in the org chart (even if lower down) can also be successful.

But stimulating change in a large, super-stable organization requires a large enough lever and a place to stand. And it helps if that place isn't directly beneath a dinosaur.


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