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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.

It's really not all about efficiency
March 20, 2011 - 10:00pm

Bill McKibben has an excellent piece in today's Guardian. His main point is that climate change is decreasing (has decreased) the margin of safety that was factored into a whole slew of major societal design decisions. It's well worth a read.

McKibben's point has implications for sustainability on campuses, as much as in society at large. Not only are our global food supply lines long and vulnerable. Not only are our "just in time" manufacturing systems readily brought down by relatively minor transportation problems. Not only are we dependent on distant and (politically, socially, economically) unreliable sources of supply. In a significant portion of our efforts to make campuses more sustainable, we actually run a risk of making things worse.

See, a majority of early efforts to "green" campuses revolve around the theme of efficiency. And efficiency, all other things being equal, is generally a good thing. But there's a risk in selling efficiency in a time of financial stress (and when are campuses ever NOT experiencing financial stress?). Easy efficiency improvements are addressed early on because they're "low hanging fruit". Low hanging, because they're technically simple and predictable. Fruit, because they sweeten energy savings with financial savings. The key element of the sales pitch, most often, is the financial savings. Indeed, the net income stream generated over time by these savings ("a penny saved is a penny earned") is often used to fund further -- less financially beneficial -- efficiency improvements.

But the risk is that the bright, shiny object that is financial savings can distract from the primary objective -- decreasing unsustainable behaviors. Efficiency often consists in doing absolutely no more of some activity than is entirely necessary. Taken to its logical (and financially attractive) end, worship at the altar of efficiency can result in systems which are minimally adequate under normal/nominal/optimal conditions, but which aren't robust enough to handle adverse circumstances.

Some of those circumstances (and McKibben emphasizes these) can be expected to get more adverse as climate changes. But some of them (extended and exposed lines of supply, for instance) may get more adverse for a whole raft of other reasons.

So with all our getting of efficiency, we need to get a little robustness. We need to balance what we depend on against what we can predict. And, in an uncertain world, what we can predict may not extend far beyond what we control.

The diametric opposite of a world organized around global efficiency is a world organized as a collection of autarkies. Globalization can bring benefits (especially for those who live and eat high on the food chain), but it's inherently brittle. (Note recent discussions about the economic impacts of supply chain disruption due to the earthquake in Japan.) Autarky is inherently inefficient, but potentially very robust. (And self-sufficiency can even bring efficiencies -- locally generated electricity, for example, doesn't experience line losses.)

No, I'm not preaching against improving the energy performance of buildings or campus transportation systems. All I'm saying is that if nominal efficiency is all we measure, nominal efficiency is all we're going to get. And taken too far, that can turn into a fool's bargain.

 

 

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