Welcome to Greening the Campus: Inside the World of the Campus Sustainability Professional

Posted on June 9, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , |

As I begin typing this post, our world population sits ever so temporarily at an estimated 6,673,085,292. Here in the United States, at the exact same moment, our population is 304,293,472, and thanks to a webcam trained on the National Debt Clock near Times Square in New York City, I know that this U.S. population at this precise moment in time carries with it a national debt of $9,206,663,047,891.

As I continue to sneak peeks at the U.S. Census Bureau’s population clocks, I’m observing that the US population increases by one person about every 10 seconds, while the world population increases by about 25-30 persons in that time. And how fast is our U.S. national debt rising? The rate of increase is almost $1,000 per second.

Now try Googling the phrase “environmental debt clock”. As of this writing, you will find no results for this search, yet we know that somewhere around 1980, the world population’s hunger for natural resources pushed our ecological footprint beyond 1 earth. We are no longer living off the “interest” of the land; we are in fact drawing down our natural capital. We are now living in an era of environmental debt. Despite the fact that we Americans account for only 4.5% of the world’s population, this world environmental debt has a distinctly American flavor, as our country consumes about 25-30% of the world’s resources. These are credit card times, and the rest of the world aspires to live like us. Who can blame them?

I spent most of the 1990s in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of Thomas Jefferson, and attended graduate school at the University of Virginia, the school that he founded and designed. People in Charlottesville speak of Mr. Jefferson in the present tense, like he’s a local celebrity that you might spot holding forth with friends in a corner booth at a café, or quietly thumbing through the back stacks of an antiquarian bookshop, despite the fact that he died almost 200 years ago (July 4, 1826 to be exact). Like many in Charlottesville, I was (and am) deeply influenced by Jefferson. An interdisciplinary thinker and prolific writer, Jefferson’s ideas are better documented than perhaps any other historic figure before the age of television. In my view, one of Jefferson’s letters is of such importance to our present thinking about sustainability that it should be considered as nothing less than canonical. In 1789, Jefferson expressed the following thoughts on debt and our obligations to future generations in a letter to James Madison:

“…no man can, by natural right, oblige the lands he occupied, or the persons who succeed him in that occupation, to the payment of debts contracted by him. For if he could, he might during his own life, eat up the usufruct of the lands for several generations to come; and then the lands would belong to the dead, and not to the living.”

The word usufruct is a legal term describing one’s right to use property belonging to another provided that that property is not damaged in any way. Without using the term sustainability, that’s exactly what Jefferson has described. Jefferson’s position is that no generation has the right to burden future generations with economic or environmental debts, or to use land in a manner that incurs such debt. Imagine if you could assign your student loans or your home mortgage to your unborn grandchildren. The very idea sounds absurd, but that’s exactly what we’re doing from an environmental perspective. I should note however that Jefferson had his own complex relationship with the concept of debt. He was a man of many talents, but money management was not one of them, and he died deeply in debt.

Campus sustainability professionals occupy a unique space. We are charged with helping to change our institutions in ways that end the placement of additional environmental burdens on future generations, and to even begin lifting some of those existing burdens through acts of restoration. We are also asked to be partners in reorienting the curriculum and in shaping student life so that the graduates of our schools understand the concepts of sustainability and possess a sense of responsibility for the future. Our potential reach is quite broad. My intent in establishing this blog is to provide a view into the day-to-day issues and activities of this emerging profession, to offer observations, to share lessons, and to hopefully promote knowledge-sharing and dialogue in this exhilarating race against time.

Speaking of time, in the 45 minutes that I have spent putting my thoughts into words, the world’s population has increased by another 10,000 – which is twice the size of the student body at my workplace, Rice University. In that same time, we’ve added another 414 persons to the U.S. population, and they will consume resources in a manner disproportionate to the rest of the world. Our country has slid another $2.8 million further into debt, and globally we have sunk by some unmeasured amount deeper into environmental debt, thus impoverishing our future generations. This is a world that belongs to the dead. But yet, I’m energized by the notion that at this moment in our history, we now understand and have the know-how to implement many of the dramatic changes that are necessary to produce a lasting positive impact for many generations to come. The campus sustainability professional is one of many professions on the frontlines of delivering this change. What is our goal? Nothing short of a future world that belongs to the living. Jefferson would be pleased.


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One Response to “Welcome to Greening the Campus: Inside the World of the Campus Sustainability Professional”

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I really enjoyed your blog. I never actually thought of the idea of “environmental debt” itself. I attend SUNY Oswego and we have and are meeting attempts to shift toward more green inspired products and services. I find that every little bit counts on an individual effort. For the most part it appears that most people current don’t look into the future for what the circumstances will be like then, but rather everyone lives in the present as if there is no tomorrow. But there is in fact a tomorrow with or without people already in existence. I guess the fact of the matter would be to grasp did you help or harm the current state of affairs in the world whether you be living or dead? Even though it may not effect you what about everyone else?


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    Insights and observations on the campus greening movement, from the perspective of a campus sustainability professional


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