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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.

Eyes front
July 15, 2011 - 4:15pm

One of the challenges that campuses will face if they seriously try to become models for future -- sustainable -- society is that nobody really knows what a sustainable developed society might look like. Oh, we know what it won't look like. And we, each of us, can call out characteristics we think it will exhibit, but there's certainly no consensus -- even among sustainability wonks --around a practicable vision of sustainable society.

To my knowledge, nobody's put forth a credible vision for a sustainable future, at least not in positive terminology. Lots of authors (Bill McKibben, Carl Stager, Lester Brown, Gus Speth and others) have made broad suggestions, but nobody's got a working model yet. Not even on paper. And with good reason.

See, if a nationally-published author were to try to put forth a readily-understandable vision for a sustainable future, that vision would have to (at very least) be applicable in all parts of the country. And that's simply not possible. Behaviors, technologies, possibly even economies which are necessary in the southwestern USA (lots of sunlight, very little water), will be totally impracticable here in the northeast (plenty of water, far less sunlight). Indeed, one of the aspects of our current society which has gotten us into the mess we're in is that -- to a large extent -- we've tried to behave as if one size, one "American Dream", fit all. It doesn't. It can't. And no technological advance is likely to change that.

But the fact that no single national (much less worldwide) consensus vision of a sustainable future exists doesn't eliminate the need for vision. We can't plan, execute, manage the journey to a sustainable future if we have no idea where we're headed. Most campus sustainability efforts, to date, have been attempts to journey "from", not "to". In a real sense, we've been driving while looking in the rear view mirror. The lack of a nationwide consensus model just means that the vision will need to be formed and applied regionally. But most institutions exist in (if not altogether for) a single region, anyway. So that shouldn't be a problem.

In fact, my experience trying to herd cats at Greenback has indicated that the job is a lot easier (not easy, just easier) if what we're trying to accomplish is perceived as being invented locally. Ownership of the vision decreases the passive resistance for which Greenback (like some other campuses) is notorious. We don't have anything approaching a comprehensive local vision of how a sustainable institution/society would operate but, to be fair, part of the reason for that is that we haven't asked ourselves to develop such a vision.


We need to.

We need to ask the questions, challenge the community, have an open and honest and hard-nosed discussion about how a sustainable Greenback in a sustainable Backboro might look, and operate. We need to focus on sustainability problems that exist (or can be anticipated to exist) in our own part of the world. We need to give ourselves permission to posit technological solutions which don't yet exist, but which are likely attainable (according to the best expertise on campus). And we need to give ourselves permission to be wrong -- which we certainly will -- on major aspects of our vision.

But by framing a vision, and trying to work toward it, and identifying those elements which don't yet exist so that our "right people" can work together with the right people at other institutions (universities, corporations) to create them, we can prototype the institution and the community we imagine. We can test the vision. We can adjust course as necessary. We can revise what we get wrong. We can start driving while looking through the windshield. Even if we still operate in a significant amount of fog.


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