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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.

Focusing on Sustainability
January 31, 2008 - 9:39pm

Thursday was the date for the national sustainability teach-in event called “Focus the Nation” (, a national “day of focused discussion about global warming solutions for America.” National publicity and coordination. Some informative and inspirational webcasts. A big push towards the “2% solution” (long-term decrease of emissions at an annual amount equal to 2% of baseline). Primary emphasis, at least this year, was on colleges and universities, but there was outreach to K-12 education, faith organizations, civic organizations, and businesses as well.

My campus put on a number of talks, discussions, and other learning and social opportunities. Your campus probably did, too. (If not, why not?)

Big events like FtN are a useful opportunity to take benchmarks. We can compare participation (faculty, student, community) with the previous year or the previous event, to see how much progress we’re making in terms of raising awareness and interest. And we can compare our participation rates with those at other schools — always a useful indicator of reach vs. grasp. Are the limits we see on what can be achieved real or illusory? Are we trying to solve humanity’s greatest problem to date while retaining the same mindset in which we created it? If we keep doing what we’ve been doing, ...

My conversations with students around the topic of global warming and environmental sustainability lead me to believe that a good number of them see the problem (and the necessary solution) as systemic. It’s not the car you drive as much as it is the fact that you live in a situation which requires you to drive your car a lot (just one simple example). And the students who see the problem care about solving it, even if they don’t have a specific solution in mind. (It’s like they expect to still be around in 2050, or something!)

Some faculty “get it,” as well. Not all, by any means, but probably more than the Deans and other academic administrators realize. Systemic solutions will require an increased emphasis on science, on engineering, on ethics, on societal evolution, on communication of all forms. Sustainability offers a real “hero opportunity” for educators and the educated — kind of like new and emerging technologies offer major profit opportunities for businesses not wedded to fossil fuel extraction and processing. Nothing promotes unity like a common challenge — a common enemy — and global warming is the enemy of all people in all nations and all walks of life (even those in deep denial).

So, a couple of thoughts to get this conversational ball rolling:

1. Schools need to empower students and faculty to increase emphasis (curricular, co-curricular, whatever) on sustainability concerns and solutions. That might mean discontinuing some existing course/program offerings, to free up time and other resources. Think about what you want to add. But think, as well, about what you’re willing to give up (the traditional flavor of an orientation program? an undersubscribed course? parking for all students? all employees? “the way we do things here"?).

2. We need to translate the awareness and understanding of global warming (after all, awareness and understanding is about as far as teach-ins like FtN are going to get us) into positive change. Talk is good, but actions speak louder.

Tray me! (actually, don’t)

One simple answer to the second question might lie in the use (or absence) of that old stand-by, the dining hall “cafeteria tray.” As reported here Wednesday, some schools are eliminating them, or at least flirting with the idea. Those who do are seeing a decrease in food wasted (taken, but not eaten) and water usage (fewer dishes — and no trays — to wash).

Trays encourage diners to take as much food as they can carry, rather than as much as they can (or need to, or want to) eat. Decreasing the amount of food taken (and eaten) saves money, reduces waste, cuts into the “freshman fifteen", and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Everybody wins.

Students will complain, of course. But at every campus I’ve ever visited, dining services have been the #1 area of student complaint. What’s one more gripe? Over time, the trayless dining hall will become the norm, and trays just a distant memory associated with high school days. Of course, students in the frozen northlands will have to find something else to slide down hills on during the winter, but some sacrifices just have to be made!


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