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

Think globally, AASHE regionally
November 17, 2008 - 12:48pm

OK, just one more post emanating from AASHE 2008, and then I won't mention it again. I promise. Unless I'm provoked.

Anyway, if I evaluate last week's AASHE conference, I have to say that the folks who organized it did a marvelous job. Sure, there were some minor logistical glitches -- last minute meeting room changes, meal mis-estimations, that sort of thing. But, on the whole, they had good speakers, good topics, lots of options, a really decent set of vendors (got to pay the freight somehow), and a maximum of information in a minimum of time. So, on the basis of conference qua conference, things were pretty good.

However, a campus sustainability conference isn't just a conference. It's also an opportunity to model sustainability to the campus community and the world. On that basis, AASHE 2008 was less successful. AASHE 2010 needs to do better.

This is not to take a shot at the AASHE staff. Rather, it's to recognize just how successful their organizational efforts have been. AASHE has grown faster, and its biennial conference has gotten bigger, than anyone would have guessed a few years back. However, since that's what's happened, that's what needs to be dealt with.

The fact of the matter is that AASHE as an organization is now big enough that it needs to stop being a one-level hierarchy. Flat structures are good up to a point, but the time comes when we have to salute Max Weber and get organized. AASHE needs to establish regions.

Having a regional structure would facilitate AASHE member institutions' communication and coordination with other IHEs which share the same basic climatic conditions, and so the same basic efficiency problems. Universities in the same region are more likely to share similar socio-economic conditions, and so similar social justice and economic sustainability problems. While a school in New England and a school in Arizona do have some things in common, the schools in New England (or in the desert Southwest) collectively share far more in terms of conditions, concerns, problems, practical solutions. This is hardly unique to issues of sustainability -- most membership organizations, once they reach a certain size, find a regional organization is worthwhile. AASHE is (or should be) no exception.

And, once AASHE has a structure with smaller than continental granularity, its convention schedule should be modified accordingly. AASHE 2008 was in Raleigh, and drew people from as far away (at least) as British Columbia. Sure, there was some emissions offsetting going on, but offsets are the least satisfactory way to manage emissions. Pulling lots of people together in a single location -- any single location -- is one of those habits we've formed as a society. Doesn't mean it makes sense, going forward.

What might make sense, going forward, is a set of regional conferences. If AASHE wants to get some truly big-name speakers (as it did this year), the regional conferences could be scheduled simultaneously, so that plenary sessions could convene electronically and in real time. For breakout (concurrent) sessions, different regions could have different offerings -- but the offerings would be locally (+/-) applicable. Some attendees might find their selections more limited, but the vast majority of conference-goers would certainly be able to find what they were looking for.

More to the point, total air miles -- read "total travel emissions" -- would go down precipitously. Figure the average AASHE 2008 attendee traveled 1200 miles, one way. (That's just a guess, but it's probably not too far off.) With regional conferences, intelligently located, the average AASHE 2010 attendee might only travel 300 miles, one way. At 1200 miles, it's tough not to fly. At 300 miles, it's easy. So air miles would be decreased by an even bigger percentage that total travel miles. And for a 300 mile trip, lots of schools would send a van or a bus, which makes it easier to send massive quantities of students. AASHE 2008 had a good showing of students, but AASHE 2010 attendees could (if things get regional) be mostly students.

And wouldn't that be a step in the right direction?


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