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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.

States and schools and sustainability
January 20, 2010 - 1:03pm

As I drove to campus this morning, my local NPR station was talking about only three subjects -- Haiti, the senatorial election in Massachusetts, and state governments. Some of the coverage of state governments was local, some was from the opposite coast (California). But all of it was related to fiscal crises, and efforts to relieve fiscal crises, and political problems standing in the way of efforts to relieve fiscal crises.

Now the good news about working to achieve sustainability on an institutional, local or societal level means that pretty much everything you hear, everything you learn reminds you -- in some way -- of your job. (Actually, I could be wrong. Maybe that's the bad news.) What reminded me most of sustainability efforts in the state government coverage was the way the supposed leaders were doing everything they could to avoid addressing the real issues facing them. It reminded me of my job because of how hard some (not all) of Greenback's decision-makers do everything they can to avoid addressing the real issues of sustainability on campus and in society. (They're glad to have Backboro become more sustainable. Most of our students, most of our alumni, and most of our donors don't live in Backboro. So making the local community sustainable doesn't require anything from the constituencies most important in Greenback's decision-making.)

The most typical state government response to fiscal crisis these days is a flat percentage spending cut across the board. The advantage of this is that it doesn't require explanation and it doesn't require thought. You're 15% short on cash, you cut expenditures at all agencies by 15%, everything's back in balance, right?

Of course, the balance achieved is only financial, and only on paper. If you cut expenditures on programs which are saving you money in other areas (like arbitration which reduces court costs or prenatal services which reduces health costs), the savings are more illusory than real. And if you cut social welfare expenditures, crime rates may go up, policing costs may go up, incarceration costs may go up, up, up. The politically simple tends to be the pragmatically stupid.

The next most typical state approach seems to be to target education and healthcare. The "reasoning" here is based on the fact that these costs have escalated significantly in recent years. Since this is where the cost increase disproportionately is coming from, this is where the cuts must happen. Note the implicit assumption that expenditures which have remained relatively flat for a while are not the problem, regardless of the nature of those expenditures. If you've been pouring the same amount of state money into the statewide inter-county machine screw thread coordinating corporation (a public entity) for the past hundred years, that can't be where the financial problem is. And -- just to emphasize the importance of that expenditure -- it can readily be pointed out that (due, I'm sure, to the efforts of this glorious corporation) bolts purchased in County A and nuts purchased in County B fit together just perfectly! What could be better? Indeed, in a society increasingly aware of the need to create jobs, what could be more fundamentally important?

Look, this approach (which the media seem to swallow whole, by the way), makes as much sense as saying that food, clothing and shelter prices are rising fast but the cost of dollar lottery tickets has been stable for years, so in the current downturn it only makes sense to buy less food. Or clothing. Or shelter.

What resonated with me was the fact that "leaders" of so many state governments were spending so much time, so much effort, so much political capital and never once asking the question of how the existing structure and operation of their organizations was resulting in problematic expenditure levels. They never managed to get to the question of what existing expenditures were unnecessary, or of low priority. They never asked what sorts of efforts more than paid their own way on a net-net basis, or which ones were basically pouring money down a hole.

That's the same sort of assumptions which are implicit in many administrative decisions that get made at Greenback -- we're willing to become sustainable, so long as it means that we don't really have to change anything. We don't really want to be affected. We don't want to think too hard or too long about the predictable results of what we're doing and what we continue to do.

If universities, which ostensibly specialize in thinking, aren't willing to ask the hard questions and figure out how what we've been doing has gotten us to where we are, how can social and political leaders be expected to? (I was told by a national political figure, once, that he was running for President, not genius. On campus, I like to think that there are at least a few folks running for genius. But I could be overly optimistic.)

Greenback, like any other organization, won't become sustainable without a thorough-going analysis of what it wants to do, what it's currently doing, how it's currently structured, why it's structured that way, how it could operate and structure itself more sustainably. Incremental changes -- increasing energy efficiency a bit here, switching to a cleaner-burning fuel there -- will get the ball rolling, but they won't get us where we say we want to go.

I've heard the saying attributed both to Thomas Edison and to G.K. Chesterton. There is almost no length to which a [wo]man won't go, to avoid the real work of thinking. But not thinking -- or at least, not thinking enough about the right things -- is what got us into this mess. Continuing to not think seems highly unlikely to lead us out of it.


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