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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.

Sustainability's not a subject
January 31, 2012 - 9:01pm

As a signatory to the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, Greenback recently filed an update to its public Climate Action Plan. But, title aside, the plan isn't just about climate, nor is the update.

Greenback's CAP incorporates actions to minimize the university's contribution to global warming (arguably, down to zero). But it also incorporates actions to foster social sustainability (read "social justice") and economic sustainability (read "the system meets everybody's needs"). And it includes steps to insert all three forms of sustainability into every student's educational experience.

Like many other ACUPCC signatories, Greenback has tried to do this last bit by fostering new courses, new concentrations, new degree programs. Since signing the PCC, we've created dozens and dozens of new courses around sustainability-related themes. Some of the courses are multidisciplinary, but few are really interdisciplinary (existing in the interstices between disciplines) and even fewer trans-disciplinary. Because Greenback's academic departments are organized around disciplines, each faculty member who wants to create a "sustainability course" tends to address sustainability within the bounds of her department's assigned expertise. So most of what we've created are courses that try to address one leg of the sustainability elephant, or the trunk or the tail. But no course addresses sustainability on anything like a profound level; Greenback wouldn't even know how to catalogue such a course.  All tolled, the new courses constitute a small fraction of one percent of Greenback's curriculum.

More significant, while we've created dozens and dozens of new courses, we haven't done much to change the courses the already existed. The vast majority of what we teach (and Greenback is hardly alone in this) is material that still tacitly assumes all the old social, economic and resource paradigms that created our current sustainability issues. 

More of our engineering students focus on improving highways and road systems than dream of creating sustainable public transit. More of our business majors are motivated by driving costs down and selling people cheap plastic crap than concentrate on circular resource flows where disused products become/provide the raw materials for their own replacements.  Virtually all our graduating economists think that GDP is the measure of economic health. And the list goes on.

As an institution, we're treating sustainability as some sort of magic nutritional supplement that, if we only add it in sufficient quantities to what we've always eaten, will keep us from getting obesity, diabetes and heart disease. The thought that maybe we should try to cut down eating industrially refined foodstuffs (or teaching our students to apply short-term market-based linear-model approaches to the problems of the world) is still anathema to us.


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