• Getting to Green

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

Title

Events as self-greenwashing

OK, so it's Earth Day, and Greenback had some events, and the community of Backboro is having some events, and tonight we can all go to sleep feeling like we've accomplished something. But have we?

April 22, 2009
 

OK, so it's Earth Day, and Greenback had some events, and the community of Backboro is having some events, and tonight we can all go to sleep feeling like we've accomplished something. But have we?

I'm beginning to get the feeling that events are the things we do on campus from time to time, to make us feel good about ourselves despite how poorly we perform most of the time. Kind of like donating food to the homeless at Thanksgiving without wondering how a single meal (no matter how super-sized) is supposed to last them an entire year. Kind of like going to church on Sundays (or temple on Saturdays, or mosque on Fridays) to make up for all the sinning we do the rest of the week.

That last simile is probably pretty close to the mark, in terms of describing my concern. People have been going to religious services more or less weekly for centuries, yet I see no evidence that the total amount of misbehavior in the world has gone down any. People attend religious services (and claim religious affiliation) more in the USA than in any other country, yet I see little evidence that -- on balance -- we're really any more virtuous than the global average.

And if periodic events over long spans of time don't really change behavior -- if the reason we sit through a service isn't to sin less but to feel less bad about it afterwards -- what's the likelihood that a few sporadic events (no matter how well produced and delivered) are going to achieve significant behavioral change in only a few years?

You see, events are kind of add-ons to what we do in our real lives. Most campus events aren't even the icing on the cake -- they're the gel-writing on top of the icing on the cake -- they make it feel more personal, but it's neither more nutritious nor better-tasting as a result. Campus events are what Greenback can promote, and publicize, and take pictures of, and claim credit for, without really ever having to change what we do on campus or how we manage what we do.

Our president has signed the PCC, so it's clear that -- at some level -- we want the university to become sustainable. The question is: at what level?

Like most things in an advanced society, it's not an issue of whether we want to become sustainable. It's not even an issue of how much we want it, or whether we've committed to it in public. In the final analysis, it all boils down to what we're willing to give up to achieve it. What are we willing to change? What are we willing to do? To not do? To pay?

At Greenback, the biggest behavioral change our administration has been willing to ask for is increased recycling. (Not a bad thing, but hardly earth-shaking.) The biggest policy change I've heard considered is the possibility of a shorter work week for non-essential staff, but only so long as the hours of service availability to students aren't decreased at all. We're willing to invest in energy efficiency, but only if we can calculate a short payback period. We're even willing to invest some of the U's significantly shrunken endowment, but only if we can show a better-than-market real dollar return.

In a nutshell, we're kind of willing to see marginal change on campus, but we're not enthusiastic about anything changing at the center of who we are, or how we think, or what we do. And while we're willing to see change, as an institution we're less willing to make change.

We do, however, make pretty good events.

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