Taking Stock of Campus Sustainability

By Dylan Walsh, New York Times

Solar panel installations across the Arizona State University campus will lead to a 7% reduction in ASU's energy bill--and a 7% reduction in carbon footprint related to energy. Image source: cc license/Flicker/kevin dooley

Colleges and universities across the country have quickly taken to measuring their environmental footprint: energy efficiency, consumption levels, renewable energy targets, number of green buildings, recycling rates, water use and even the prevalence of sustainability curriculums. But in this rush to go green, two of the three sustainability pillars have remained largely in shadow.

“In the U.S., unlike much of the world, the organizing paradigm of sustainability [began] with an environmental orientation and then added on environmental justice and ecological economics,” said Paul Rowland, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), in a recent e-mail exchange. “This is a historical root that has been difficulty to shake.”

The recent profusion of university sustainability offices is perhaps best reflected in the rise in membership to AASHE, which has grown by more than 2,200 percent in the past five years, with more than three-quarters of campus sustainability positions created since 2007.

David Orr, a self-described “loving critic of higher education” and professor and special assistant to the president at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, takes a more critical view of the situation. “Colleges and universities haven’t rigorously and energetically challenged their role in planetary deterioration,” said Dr. Orr. “They have been under-performers relative to the challenges humans are going to face and are already facing.”

Under Dr. Orr’s guidance, the Oberlin Project was launched in the summer of 2009 to implement a vision of what he calls full-spectrum sustainability. “In essence, we set a compass on the campus center and drew an eight-mile radius, then asked what it would take to build up this whole region.”

The project focuses on five goals, including the creation of a 20,000-acre agricultural green belt and an educational partnership among four local schools. Oberlin College is directly invested in the redevelopment of a 13-acre green arts district and hotel downtown, which Dr. Orr used to exemplify the integration of sustainability goals. The hotel restaurant will feature food and produce from 35 local farms; local teenagers will be able to find jobs on these farms and at the hotel, which will host a culinary school; and local banks will lend capital to new businesses opening around the hotel.

Ultimately, said Dr. Orr, through the alliance between Oberlin and the larger community, “we want to change the DNA of the college and the city to create a model of full-spectrum sustainability.”

Julian Agyeman, professor of urban environmental policy and planning atTufts University, also challenges colleges to “broaden and redefine sustainability and then measure what matters within that definition.” Students enrolled in one of his courses recently devised a measure of campus sustainability that includes tenure and earnings by ethnicity, average income disparity between the highest and lowest paid Tufts community members, and the number and frequency of hate crimes on campus or involving the outside community.

“These are a part of what makes a community sustainable as much as the number of wildflower meadows or the amount that’s being recycled,” said Dr. Agyeman, who also emphasized the importance of building coalitions within the campus and between colleges and the larger community.

“The integration of social justice has been difficult in part because there is a tendency on campus to think that existing diversity efforts have covered that issue,” said Dr. Rowland. And yet an AASHE survey in 2010 of staffing in college sustainability offices found that 92 percent of employees who responded were white.

“We ultimately need to inspire conversations that include a lot of people across a lot of boundaries,” said Dr. Orr. University initiatives, to be truly sustainable, “must be embedded in a much bigger vision.”

In the case of the Oberlin Project, their local work is propagating through a national network of organizations, including 15 military bases. “We want to bring together all of these ideas,” said Dr. Orr. “I see the Oberlin Project as a lab, as the point of the spear in this movement. If we’re successful at developing a robust network, then we have something: a bottom-up conversation that is incredibly powerful.”

Article originated at Green Blogs: NY Times.