My inbox, yesterday, contained the weekly digest of announcements from AASHE . As always, the subject line highlighted one or two specific achievements -- yesterday, it said "MIT Signs International Sustainability Charter."
That was enough to grab my attention. After all, some of the best interdisciplinary climate science and policy research comes out of MIT. The phrase "international sustainability charter" brought all that to the front of my mind.
I was somewhat disappointed, then, when I found out a bit more. What MIT has signed  on to is the Sustainable Campus Charter of the International Sustainable Campus Network, formed in conjunction with the Global University Leaders Forum, a convention of the World Economic Forum. Learning that, of course, made visions of neoliberal market ideology dance in my head. It's hard to make a case that neoliberal ideology comprehends long-term sustainability. Indeed, it's hard to make a case that it even includes immediate-term sustainability for any but the privileged few.
My concerns doubled when I read the specific content of the Charter. It commits members to report regularly, but what they report against is entirely up to them. The three principles included in the ISCN template  boil down to
- Consider sustainability in campus planning, renovation, construction and operations.
- Include environmental and social goals in campus-wide master planning and goal-setting.
- Link facilities, research and education to create a 'living laboratory' for sustainability.
Each of those goals is certainly pointed in the right direction, but none of them seems to point very far. As reporting requirements go, these seem designed to make it pretty easy to state, without fear of contradiction, "yeah, we're doing that". And to state it again a year later. And for nothing much to have changed.
My concern about potential for campus greenwashing is amplified by the fact that ISCN lists promotion at meetings of the Global Economic Forum as one of the benefits of membership. Indeed, that seems likely to be worth the 2000 euro annual membership fee all by itself. (Discounts are available for smaller institutions and ones in developing countries.)
Now I can't deny the possibility that the ISCN could turn out to be really effective. After all, such institutions as MIT, Harvard, Brown, Carnegie Mellon, Oxford, Cambridge, the LSE, Stanford, Yale and Penn have signed on. Maybe, like signatories to the Presidents Climate Commitment , they intend and expect to demonstrate leadership by achieving zero net GHG emissions. Maybe they plan to expose each and every student to concepts and principles of sustainability. Because of their high international visibility, maybe they're just not willing to promise what's currently difficult or impossible. Maybe they think they're being risk-averse.
But sustainability isn't going to happen without innovation (technical, social, cultural). And innovation doesn't happen without risk -- indeed, without a willingness to try and fail. And being risk-averse is not the same as being successful.
It's hard to bet against any organization which lists as its members schools of such caliber. But I'm not going to bet with them, either. Some of these schools do an exemplary job of greening their campus operations, and some don't. It will be interesting to see if ISCN membership has any measurable impacts, as well as how those compare to long-term impacts of signing the PCC.