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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.

June 2, 2008 - 1:49pm

My position at Greenback U. was created as a direct result of our president's signature on the Presidents Climate Commitment. My primary duties in the past year or so have been (1) making sure we took the requisite two immediate actions to mitigate emissions, and (2) completing our campus greenhouse gas inventory. What caused me to apply for this position was my conviction that human activity is a significant driver (whether or not it's the only driver) of global warming.

As a result, my initial take on matters of sustainability has focused on climate-related ecological sustainability. I've made nodding acknowledgement of the need for social and economic sustainability, more economic than social. But my nod towards economic sustainability was in terms of the need to avoid sacrificing economic wellbeing, and my feelings toward social sustainabilty categorized it as "nice to have, but not an absolute necessity".

Some of my reading introduced me to the thought that socio-economic sustainability was a useful focus for getting people to buy into the effort, since climate is seen as large and intractable, and the direst impacts of climate change are so far off. As a strategem, that struck me as potentially useful. (Indirect approach. Sun Tsu. Liddell Hart. All that.)

What is in the process of becoming clear to me is just how wrong I've been.

Climate change isn't the root problem. Global warming is a symptom which is too painful to ignore, but it's not the disease.

"Peak oil" and its younger cousin, "peak water", are similarly symptoms.

Income inequality is a symptom. Expanding militarism is a symptom. Jerry Springer is a symptom.

The disease, methinks, is that we've grown blind to our own best interests, both individually and as a culture. We've become focused almost exclusively on chasing more and more stuff we don't need (or even want), and the money to buy it. Our consensus measure of good-and-bad is some combination of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Gross Domestic Product. We've bought into the idea that the purpose of the society is to support the economy, and the purpose of the economy is to grow. Period.

I've heard climate change described as the outcome of a Faustian bargain, but that makes sense only if you believe Satan to have been created by humanity (and I refuse to discuss theological matters in the absence of good rye whiskey). A better metaphor, although hardly an original one, is that we're Dr. Frankenstein.

As mentioned earlier, part of the problem is scale. Our society is deeply imbued with the idea that bigger is better, at least in the sense that it's more efficient. Since the world is flat and competition is global, efficiency is the necessary requisite of economic growth. Society succeeds only by increasing GDP. We, as individuals, succeed only by increasing GDP. Or so we believe.

If the lie had been expressed in slogans about service to the glorious revolution and drawn in the heroic style of Socialist Realism, we might have caught on sooner. But the vocabulary used spoke of individuality, freedom of choice, the free market, the rising tide which lifts all boats. It was all so seductive.

One of the things that's finally dawning on me is that I don't own a boat. Most of the folks who work, teach, or study on campus don't own boats. The majority of Americans don't own boats, either literally or metaphorically. We might not be in this mess, if we did.

Look, the problem isn't capitalism. There's nothing wrong with capitalism, in the terms (and at the scale) at which it was originally conceived. Adam Smith used the example of a pin factory to demonstrate the benefits of specialization of labor -- a pin factory that employed fewer than a dozen people, all working by hand. Smith can't be blamed for not considering the steam engine or the modern corporation -- neither of them had been invented yet. If we can reshape our society so that a majority of economic activity is generated by firms of a scale Smith could comprehend (much less recognize), a lot of our sustainability problems would be solved. Local firms. Local markets. Local sources of supply. Long-distance trade only when absolutely necessary or virtually emissions-free (like trade in information). Sustainable communities (emphasis on "community"). Human scale.

Maybe I've drunk the Kool-Aid, but I don't think so. We've totally subordinated all other social priorities to the false god of economic growth. I've seen what happens over time when all other priorities are subordinated to one. Ask any farmer. Concentrate only on the goal of maximizing each cow's dairy production, or each hog's weight-gain efficiency -- you end up with animals who can't walk, much less stay healthy. Economic growth isn't necessarily bad, but it's not the only good, either.

And most economic growth doesn't benefit you or me (unless you inherited a lot more wealth than I ever will). According to Commerce Dept. figures, the economy (GDP) has grown about 74% over the past twenty years (in real dollar terms), while median individual earnings have only gone up about 26%. Almost two-thirds of the benefit from growing the American economy isn't benefiting typical Americans! Economic growth could (in theory) slow by two-thirds, and it needn't hurt you or me one iota!

OK, that's fine in theory, but who cares? How does this recent insight affect me as a campus sustainability coordinator?

Well, I don't know the full answer to that, yet. But I do know that, while I've spent a lot of this past year working with science and engineering faculty and students, I'm going to spend a lot more time in future talking to social science types. Maybe even humanities folks. The topic of conversation just got a lot wider.


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