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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.

Reflecting pools and think tanks
January 22, 2009 - 6:56pm

As any good student, the more I study this sustainability thing, the less I think I know. There's so much pragmatic certainty to the problem, yet so much technical uncertainty about the specific mechanisms, measurements and models. And the social/political/economic dimensions are Gordian.

The good news is that, at least in the early stages, we know what we have to do.

We (and by "we", I refer specifically to North Americans) may not like doing it (even when it saves us money), because it represents change -- not just in our discretionary activities but at our hearts as (let's be honest here) over-consuming voluptuaries. We've enjoyed too much, and too many, and too rich, and too cheap for too long, so we're spoiled. The Obama inauguration may have featured a John Williams quartet on the theme "Simple Gifts", but we still like our gifts complex and our fats fully saturated. The political (small "p") challenge, on campuses as in society at large, is to wean ourselves away from our prodigality in small steps, so that the demonstrable benefits (lower energy costs, better health, an absence of guilt when we look at our kids and our grandkids) outweigh the perceived costs not just overall (avoiding the end of civilization as we know it at some undetermined time in the future), but each step of the way.

The bad news, then, is that it's almost impossible to construct that story arc, arrange that gradient, manage that long-term process of change in such a manner that at no point along the curve does marginal discomfort exceed marginal gain. At some point, it's going to hurt. At some point (probably multiple such), we're simply going to have to grit our teeth and do it, regardless.

To my mind, hope lies in the fact that seriously smart people are invested in serious efforts to reduce the mechanical and measurement uncertainties, and to invent technologies with all of the flavor and none of the carbs. Just in the past year, major think-tanks have been created at Stanford and at MIT, focusing specifically on the nature, mechanisms, and possible mitigation of climate disruption. And, unlike the so-called think-tanks within earshot of that presidential inauguration (the American Enterprise Institute springs immediately to mind), these think-tanks are places where real thought occurs, not just (in the words of William James) rearranging of prejudices.

For major research universities like Stanford and MIT, there are a lot of big questions out there, and a lot of potential value in useful answers. For smaller schools or colleges with emphases on humanities or social sciences, there's a raft of sociological and political and economic challenges that can only be overcome by an enlightened (read "educated", as opposed to "well trained") society. For the two-year schools and the smaller polytechnics, there's a lot of work to be done, a lot of skilled positions to be filled, a whole new continental infrastructure to be created.

And for we few, we melancholy few, we band of sustainability administrators, there's a long future of target-rich environments, leading to an enviable level of job security. Just so long as we never present the Vice Chancellor with a high level of short-term discomfort.

(God, I hate overcast winter days!)


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