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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.

Reality testing
November 13, 2009 - 2:24pm

I wasn't listening to music on the way to Greenback this morning, but I should have been. I should have been listening to Tanglefoot's tale of "When Dad and Uncle Archie Lost the Farm" (lyrics here, about two-thirds of the way down the page). It tells of what happens when a long-time-successful small operation gets seduced by the prospect of easy money through financial leverage. Kind of like Wall Street, but on a much more human scale.

The reason I should have been listening to that particular song is that it would have captured the (il)logic of a conversation I was having with a couple of faculty members. As part of an on-campus debate centering on a proposal to cut operating costs, these professors (goaded on by their students, but I don't blame the students) were pontificating (a privilege I usually try to reserve to myself) about how much they would be inconvenienced, how much their scholarly productivity would be reduced, how any change from the status quo would be a disservice to students and a threat to the institution's reputation, and how unfair it was to cut costs given the (sector-typical) magnitude of Greenback's tuition charges.

What got me involved was the attempt by one professor (I believe that (s)he teaches some subject in the humanities) who insisted that the proposal (which involves sharing use of an existing facility some miles from campus) would increase Greenback's greenhouse gas emissions and harm our ability to achieve carbon neutrality. The alternative proposed was to build a new, dedicated facility on campus, thereby eliminating the need for all those automotive emissions.

Clearly, this humanities prof had absolutely no concept of the relative scale of emissions from public transportation (no single-occupant vehicle travel would have been required) vs. those from operating an additional building in the northeast USA. Even without considering the massive one-time emissions involved in the construction process, the energy required to heat and light a large enclosed space would far exceed the amount needed to move people and objects back and forth in an orderly manner. Not to mention the cost savings (on the order of 60-70%).

I guess I shouldn't have been surprised. I'm sure that I'm at least as ignorant on a wide range of humanities-related topics as this professor was on the subject of GHG emissions. What absolutely dumbfounded me, though, was the prof's blithe assurances that a new building wouldn't cost all that much (it would), and that Greenback has plenty of money (it doesn't).

Like any other university (or well-run family farm), Greenback has a lot of assets and a considerable net worth, but the vast majority of those assets are tremendously illiquid. To access the value in its (real-estate-laden) portfolio, the university would have had to borrow. Borrowing can be a good strategy when it makes possible an investment which will more than repay the principal and interest, but borrowing just so you can do something inefficient (both financially and in terms of energy utilization/GHG emissions) is never a good idea.

Perhaps I should have recommended that Tanglefoot song to the professor. It would probably have been more age-appropriate than the Journey tune that seemed to have been going through his/her head -- "any way you want it, that's the way you need it, any way you want it." And besides, acoustic music is always more energy-efficient than any iteration of "wall of sound".


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