• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.


The cadence of American history (?)

There are just too many ideas swirling around in my mind for me to be succinct. Or, probably, even clear.

First, there's the whole "sustainability as the opposite of flow/enjoyment" thing.

July 8, 2011

There are just too many ideas swirling around in my mind for me to be succinct. Or, probably, even clear.

First, there's the whole "sustainability as the opposite of flow/enjoyment" thing.

Then, there's the thought that maybe we need to do something about that. Engineer some sort of reversal. Frame sustainability as the predictable outcome of life in a society characterized by a lot of those future technologies we've been waiting for since the days of George Jetson. (Or maybe Fritz Lang.)

But, of course, many -- perhaps most -- universities (Greenback included) don't present themselves as temples to the future. If anything, they're temples to the past. Long-established engines of cultural reproduction housed on campuses notable (if at all) for their antiquity and elitist architecture. So if higher education is to lead us on the path of sustainability, we really do need to engineer a sort of reversal.

Which is going to cost money. But we (most of us, institutionally speaking) don't have money. Or not much money. Certainly not enough money. Which implies that we'll need to buddy up to folks who do.

Which, of course, is what we've been doing for years. Partnering with major industries and major corporations in the creation of schools and centers which will train useful workers and advance the state of relevant -- now there's a loaded word -- scholarship. Campuses are going to need a lot of partners, but corporations will want a lot of technology demonstration. And training. And consumer expectation formation. And what better place for technology demonstration than an ancient campus? (Think of the advertising value of old buildings rendered futuristic. The sort of extreme case that makes a great 'before & after' example. After all, when was the last time you saw a diet plan 'before' pic where the person really only needed to take off 2 or 3 pounds?)

How might such a campus-as-technology-demonstration-site measure and communicate the benefits achieved? Pretty much the same way any community would. Indeed, the campus could serve to demonstrate not just individual technological successes, but also good urban planning processes. Nutritional efficiency -- a good thing. Vehicle miles per day per capita -- a bad thing. (The NRDC's Kaid Benfield has some interesting reflections on sustainability and urban design, here.)

But, of course, 'the campus as demonstration community of the future' isn't a new image. It's just a repurposed one. It's really the same image as 'Columbia, MD as demonstration community of the future'. Or even EPCOT Center. Each of those experiments succeeded in part, although neither of them lived up to its original vision. (Walt Disney's initial concept for EPCOT was pretty amazing. He explains it here. The relevant part starts about 9:15 in.)

Both Columbia and EPCOT got their starts around a half-century ago. Which may not be entirely a coincidence. The problems we face now differ from the problems society faced then, but perhaps the differences are less important than the similarities. After all, as Mark Twain noted, "history doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme". And, if Carville Earle was right (see Chapter 12, particularly) a stanza is about a half-century in length.

Maybe everything old really is new again. Including everything new, or anticipated, or required.


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