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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.

Thanks be to Sam
January 19, 2010 - 9:13pm

As the new semester gets underway, there are a million things on my plate. Working with profs on curriculum revisions, with students on new projects, with student reporters new to the sustainability beat, etc., etc., etc.

So it seems odd that the announcement that stuck in my mind was the one about Walmart installing a 1MW solar array on some warehouse rooftop. California, I think. Certainly, nowhere near Backboro.

The announcement rubbed me the wrong way. First, one megawatt is significant but hardly record-breaking. The announcement trumpeted it as Walmart's biggest array ever, which only means that it's bigger than Walmart's other arrays. A personal best, if you believe in corporate personhood. It's the kind of triumphant announcement which PR people can always arrange any time anybody does anything about anything. Hardly the stuff of legend.

And, of course, there's the fact that it's Walmart. The big box retailer to end big box retailing. (Or, more truthfully, to end local small-box retailing in another town every day or two.) Today's great facilitator of suburban sprawl and rampant consumerism. The answer to a question no one should ever have been allowed to ask. Sure, they're making their distribution chain more efficient. That's hardly news. That's the way they've been doing business since Sam Walton first got a twinkle in his eye. Last year, they sold that as a virtue based on lowering consumer prices. This year they're selling it as a virtue based on reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Next year they'll be selling as a virtue based on some premise I can't even imagine at present. Same business strategy, new PR campaign. The more things change . . .

But then I got to thinking about a guy I worked for over 20 years ago. A good manager, a decent leader, a nice person, and the father of a son with a learning disability. He had a good income (a very good income, in fact), and he did a lot of volunteer work for a charity helping financially strapped families with learning disabled kids because, he said, he was so grateful for their work. See, he was sophisticated enough to know that the market for the services his son needed was increased tremendously by the financial help this outfit gave to families, and that the facilities to provide those services in our area probably wouldn't even exist if they had to depend only on clientele who could pay their own way. He knew that he benefited from the work of the charity, even though he didn't receive any funding from them. He got something more important, so he helped out any way he could.

Maybe it's rationalization. Maybe I have to find a way to justify Walmart's continued existence. After all, they've taken over pretty much all retail where I live, too. If I can't get it at Walmart, I probably have to drive 25+ miles. But my rationalization de jour is that maybe, by supporting and expanding the market for solar arrays, Walmart is in some way supporting the costs of technological and facilities development, making solar power more available in the market for all of us.

I'm not sure I really believe it. But if I try hard enough . . . maybe . . .


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