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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.

Stuck in the mud?
August 23, 2011 - 9:00pm

An old friend gave me an old book. Not old by the standards of literature, or even of the publishing industry. But old by comparison to most of the work-related books I read. Copyright 1990, it's a series of interviews conducted by Farley Mowat, titled Rescue the Earth!

What first caught my attention was the last real chapter in the book (epilogues aren't real chapters), the only chapter not written by Mowat (albeit written at his invitation), and the only chapter not consisting of an interview. Titled "Gaia Women", it was written by long-time environmental activist Elizabeth May. And it runs perilously close to ascribing an essential environmental awareness to half the human race.

That risk aside, I was struck by the stories May tells of North American women who have played a major (if often subordinated) role in the environmental movement. One passage particularly haunted me. Writing of Janice Harvey, May says:

In 1983 Janice became executive director of the Conservation Council of New Brunswick. The Council had existed for thirteen years before Janice took it over and it had been politically very conservative. It had been slow to oppose such threats as budworm spraying, preferring to focus on safer issues like pointing out the energy savings from proper insulation.

So as of 1970, an emphasis on saving energy by insulating properly was being characterized not just as conservative, but very conservative. Yet, as of 2011, a lot of campus sustainability initiatives really haven't progressed much beyond that point. Oh, the definition of "proper insulation" has changed, and we've extended our concern with saving energy to such things as light bulbs and fuel economy. And we're recycling more. But are those really other than "very conservative"?

Concerns with fuel economy are hardly radical. The first US Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency (CAFE) standards were implemented in 1975. Gerald Ford was president.

Recycling isn't new. The now-ubiquitous triangular Mobius strip was first displayed by the Container Corporation of America in 1970. Richard Nixon was in the White House.

In objective terms, most campus sustainability efforts -- and I don't exclude Greenback U's initiatives from this -- resemble the sustainability undertakings of corporations which MIT's Sloan Management Review, in combination with the Boston Consulting Group, has characterized as 'cautious adopters' (clarified in the preface to mean 'laggards'). Hardly the stuff of leadership.

The Sloan report is typical of high-level management studies -- the specifics put numbers on stuff most of us already knew. The highlighted "seven practices" of corporate sustainability leaders include things like "move early, even if information is incomplete'. 'measure everything' and 'try to be authentic and transparent' -- good basic management practice combined with the tendency to early action which characterizes most communities of leaders.

But two of the practices, applied to institutions of higher education, pretty much point out what differentiates our leaders from our laggards.

  • Drive sustainability [both] top-down and bottom-up.
  • Aggressively de-silo sustainability, integrating it throughout [all] company operations.

Applied in a higher ed context, these translate into an awareness that if sustainability is the responsibility of the sustainability group/department/coordinator, the school isn't serious. And if sustainability is being addressed more in terms of campus operations than in the curriculum (the heart of the core institutional mission), then the school isn't serious. On most of the campuses of which I'm aware, including those which have signed on to the Presidents Climate Commitment, both of those conditions still apply.

Which isn't to say that there aren't colleges, even universities, which have marbled their curricular offerings with understandings of sustainability. There are. But not many. Most of them are SLACs or similar.

As an experiment, I started Googling strings like "most sustainable curriculum" and "environmental curriculum". Not much. (I had to shift to "environmental" because "sustainable curriculum" returned no real hits at all.)

Although one link returned for "environmental curriculum" brings us back to energy efficiency and and a recent column by Jim Hightower (my favorite populist) brings it back to light bulbs. And to a 21st-century (Heartland Institute, AFP, ALEC) spin on "politically very conservative."

Maybe if we just ignore the whole issue of sustainable curricula, it will go away.

Kind of like teeth.


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