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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.

Getting humble
September 24, 2010 - 5:30am

Greenback's campus has been abuzz for the past few days. In conjunction with the opening of the UN General Assembly and the attendant visits from world leaders of all persuasions, there has also been a three-day summit around the UN's Millennium Development Goals. Various classes, faculty members and student groups on campus have been discussing the MDGs,

As the local "sustainability guy" (or one of them, at least), I got invited to participate in a number of the discussions. I get invited to speak to a lot of groups (or it might be fairer to say that I manage to get myself invited), and -- since one of the goals explicitly addresses environmental sustainability -- I didn't expect these discussions to be a whole lot different.

But a whole lot different they were. As a farmer, I'm used to living closer to -- and more dependent on -- the weather, the climate, the environment than do most of the folks on campus. But this week's discussions, as they addressed environmental sustainability, have been causing me to rethink the whole subject. There are a lot of folks living far closer to, and far more dependent on, the environment than me.

Around Backboro, a lot of the farmland is pretty much played out. Folks have been farming around here for centuries (and I don't just mean folks of European descent). Much of the dirt is pretty shallow to rock, and a fair amount of it is well sloped -- good for run-off, not so good for row crops. To the west of us, things flatten out and the soil gets dark; farmers there seem to make a real good living.

The good news around Backboro, though, is that there are other things to do beside farming. I'm far from the only one who both tends a farm and "works off". It's a choice I'm glad to have.

And participating in the discussions on campus this week has made me even gladder. Because I got a totally different perspective on the matter of environmental sustainability, indeed, on sustainability in general. Here in the USA, we discuss it in terms of long-term trends, long-term impacts, relatively minor behavioral/technological changes and multiple levels of denial. To much of the world, sustainability -- environmental, but also social and economic -- aren't problems in some semi-distant future, they're urgent problems in the here and now. The conceptual definition of sustainability is the same as I've been preaching on campus, but the reality on the ground differs by orders of magnitude.

The wording of the UN goal starts out innocuous enough (at least to American ears). The first target speaks of integrating sustainable development into plans and programs and reversing environmental decline. Not easy things to do (at least not if you take the word "sustainable" at all literally), but not much different from what every college and university that's signed the Presidents Climate Commitment has promised to do on a more local scale.

And its second target -- protecting biodiversity -- is a logical follow-on. No campus can do much to protect biodiversity, at least not in the way it conducts its operations. But faculty members, through research and publishing can enable and facilitate government and private efforts in this arena. In fact, scholarly research is a major contributor to our understanding of what biodiversity is and how much (or how little) of it we have left.

But it's targets three and four that, as my grandmother used to say, make the cheese more binding. The third target is to halve (by 2015) the number of people without access to safe drinking water. And the fourth is, by 2020, to achieve significant improvement in the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers. Nothing even conceptually similar to either of these targets has ever, to the best of my knowledge, been discussed amongst the North American college/university sustainability community. We tend to focus more on getting people off of bottled water and on to tap water. We think more about operating buildings more efficiently, rather than about what to do because millions have no homes (or at least nothing that you or I would recognize as a home). And millions of families farming land less fertile than mine have absolutely no other employment opportunities open to them.

Around campuses, we tend to speak of sustainability in what's sometimes called the "Third World" in terms of rain forest preservation, or minimizing the ecological damage created by new dams and power plants, or slowing the growth in consumption because the world can only support so much. What our discussions have tended to overlook is that a lot of the human race is still facing problems of sheer survival, and that for them "sustainability" is an immediate and continuing problem. Some of the specific problems are of long standing. Others are more recent, more incidental, more likely to be related to the climate change that's at the heart of our typical use of the term. But sustainability-meaning-sustenance is a large part of the problem, and it's not going to go away. In fact, it's going to get bigger.

One other thing that struck me during the various MDG discussions on campus is that, while the UN has done a reasonable job of setting goals, typical UN high-dollar high-bureaucracy projects and programs probably aren't an effective way to achieve them. Still, even a malformed effort is (at least arguably) better than no effort at all. And "no effort at all" is what most of us in the campus sustainability community are doing (and thinking, and teaching, and preaching) about Third World sustainability issues.

It's been a humbling week.


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