• Getting to Green

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

Title

It's not about the deadline

You know, it's kind of fun blogging about higher education and sustainability. Fun in that it gives me an opportunity to play against some of the basic assumptions and contradictions of society. Elizabeth Redden's recent article wasn't at all about that (Elizabeth is smarter and more conscientious than I'll ever be), but a comment on her article kind of put it into focus for me.

May 28, 2009
 
 

You know, it's kind of fun blogging about higher education and sustainability. Fun in that it gives me an opportunity to play against some of the basic assumptions and contradictions of society. Elizabeth Redden's recent article wasn't at all about that (Elizabeth is smarter and more conscientious than I'll ever be), but a comment on her article kind of put it into focus for me.

Elizabeth's original item described the performace (kind of a C+) that signatories to the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment have demonstrated to date, and noted that a major deadline (submission of climate action plans for charter signatories) is fast approaching. It seemed pretty balanced, in terms of who's succeeding, who's not, and some of the factors that contribute to both. To be comprehensive, it had to be moderately long. The comment asked why an approaching deadline was worth 2500 words.

First, let me point out that the article really wasn't about the deadline. The deadline provided a "hook" (a current or near-current event) on which the article could be hung. When you've got 100 things to say, sometimes the one you go forward with is the one you can hang on an item of current (potential) interest. Broad topics need to be narrowed, as any freshman writing teacher or thesis advisor will agree. Once you've got your hook, the necessary information either presents itself or becomes easier to assemble; marginally relevant information can be reserved for future use.

Elizabeth's point was that on a totally voluntary assignment which turned out to be lengthier and more demanding than most had expected, and brings little in the way of personal (institutional) glory, colleges and universities are still following through about three-quarters of the time. Based on my experience with volunteer organizations, that sort of performance rate is something to trumpet.

Will the three-out-of-four proportion hold up when it comes to filing climate action plans? Probably not. As I've noted before, the earlier major milestone (greenhouse gas inventory) required largely a technical effort to fulfill. Creating a climate action plan involves executive decision-makers, faculty, academic administrators, facility administrators, students, sometimes even alumni and general community members. Doing a good GHG inventory is moderately difficult; doing a good climate action plan is a task for Solomon.

Meanwhile, the unreported story IMHO is the fact that the Climate Commitment is going forward at all. Why? Why higher education? What's in it for us?

Let's face it, while US higher education has a good reputation in general, lots of Americans have a negative impression of the recent performance of colleges and universities. Costs are going up. Quality is (according to some) going down. Graduates are having trouble getting jobs, and the ones who do either go over to the dark side (working for Wall Street investment bankers or Washington lobbyists) or embark on careers less profitable than their father's factory job was. Cars get more expensive, the highway system is falling apart, the economy's in deep $#!+, and my neighbor's kid just completed a degree in art history, or transgender studies, or something else that I have trouble seeing the value in. And now the college president wants to spend money measuring how much invisible gas the grass on the quad is putting out?

See, it's kind of like health care. We've been taught to value our health system based on how much choice we have in who our personal physician is. (Like the average citizen is qualified to judge medical credentials!) We've been taught to think of health care as a private good (I want the doctor who can keep me alive the longest, no matter what), when it's better understood and managed as a public good (maximize the average or median level of healthiness whilst keeping the cost to society as a whole to a relative minimum). (Tangential corroboration -- according to a study mentioned on NPR this morning, if your family has health insurance, you're paying about $1000 a year out of pocket for care of families that don't. Still think your health care is only a private good?) The real advances in medical outcomes over the past 100 years have come in the public health arena, and the benefits redound to all of us.

Similarly, we've been maneuvered into thinking of education as a private good. How good a job can my kid get? What sort of degree does (s)he need to get it? What school's name on the diploma makes the maximum contribution to lifetime earnings? But widely available education in a democratic society was initially created as a public good. If we're going to trust citizens to make major collective decisions, then maybe we need to foment understanding.

More than anything else, the Presidents Climate Commitment is a demonstration of education as a public good. It's an effort to foment understanding by modeling informed behavior. It's an effort which higher education is well positioned to undertake, while most other economic sectors are not. It's an initiative which should make every alum proud, even when their school's individual performance falls short of its aspirations.

The PCC has introduced the topic of sustainability (or, at least, environmental sustainability) into a whole range of conversations where it otherwise wouldn't be present. Redden's article gives those conversations some meat to chew on. If what triggered her to write it was the approach of a major deadline, then what we need is more deadlines. So that we can hang more informed, balanced discussions on them.

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