The Sustainability Officer’s Dilemma (Thoughts from AASHE 2011)

Posted on October 11, 2011. Filed under: sustainability | Tags: , , , , , |

Earlier today, as I stood on the balcony of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, the first LEED-certified convention center in North America, I was struck by an irony.  Immediately to my left was the Rachel Carson Bridge, a span named for the famed biologist and author of Silent Spring, the book widely credited as sparking the modern environmental movement. Passing beneath the bridge, on the smooth waters of the Allegheny River, navigating upstream against the current, was a coal barge.  I had spent the past 36 hours at the AASHE 2011 conference inside the convention center learning how heroes and heroines (David Orr’s words, not mine) at institutions of higher education across North America and in cities like Pittsburgh are battling to preserve what’s left of our natural resources and chart our schools, communities, countries, and world on a new sustainable course, and yet there was a floating reminder – a sort of industrialist’s drive-by – of what we’re up against.  The world is full of people with clever ideas to remove carbon from the ground and put it up into the atmosphere, accelerating our demise as a civilization.  And they’re still winning.

As I’ve talked with colleagues about the biggest challenges that they face in their jobs, two central themes have emerged, and these two themes get to the heart of the sustainability officer’s dilemma.  The first is perhaps best told through an anecdote.  A sustainability officer at a major university discovered that his university was spending $5,000 on c-fold paper towels (you know, the kind that when you grab one, five drop out) in a highly-trafficked campus restroom, so he convinced the building manager to remove the paper towels and install quick-dry energy-efficient hand dryers instead.  The project was an economic success, it eliminated a waste stream, and it avoided the environmental impact of the manufacturing of paper towels.  Only one person complained about the project, and the basis of his complaint was that he couldn’t use the electric hand dryers on the Sabbath.  The building manager reacted by putting back the paper towels.

From my perspective, this is not really a story about paper towels at all.  Rather, it is that we so often sacrifice system performance in pursuit of responding to a complaint or solving a problem, when in fact we should optimize the system and then handle anomalies as they arise.  I see this with energy management all the time.  We overcool a building to keep a single hot spot from getting too warm, when we should instead set the building at a proper temperature range and then solve the problem of the hot spot.  Or we cool a building 24/7 to keep a rogue server from overheating when that server should actually be in a data center.  In the paper towel example, perhaps the building manager could have offered a school-branded hand towel (an over-the-top act of customer service, as surely this problem must arise for the complaintant elsewhere).  Or the building manager could have just said no.  But that’s not what happened.  Instead, the performance of the system was sacrificed.  The anomaly drives the system.

If the first theme is a common syndrome of the operational and administrative side of campus, the second theme that I heard over and over again is a syndrome of the academic side of campus: our academic departmental boundaries, and the system of rewards and promotions that exist within and reinforce those boundaries, are ill-suited for the fundamentally multi-disciplinary work of sustainability.  We incentivize our academic scholars to think narrowly, to research narrowly, and to teach narrowly (to the extent that they’re incentivized to teach), and as a result we educate our students narrowly, and they graduate without a broad understanding of how the natural systems upon which their lives depend even function.  And for that, they often start their careers deeply in debt.  It’s no wonder we end up accelerating our own demise – that would be the expected outcome of our higher education system as presently designed, churning out graduates who (mostly unintentionally) will outdo each other in doing us all in.

These two syndromes that form the sustainability officer’s dilemma are both problems of systems design.  I’ve attended every AASHE annual conference since the first AASHE conference in 2006 (and several Greening of the Campus conferences as well), and in my view this seems to be the first time that so many sustainability officers have come together and talked about and framed their challenges in this way.  I believe this represents a significant leap forward in the maturation of the campus sustainability movement.  When we reassemble next year in Los Angeles, I expect to hear many lessons about how my colleagues are finding leverage points to change how these systems function, and even perhaps changing paradigms at their universities.  We will need success stories at the systems level, because for all our LEED buildings and energy and water conservation measures and recycling initiatives, we are still on the pathway to demise.  The earth is finite, and it’s high time our universities educate and act accordingly.

Advertisements
Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 3 so far )

    About

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

    RSS

    Subscribe Via RSS

    • Subscribe with Bloglines
    • Add your feed to Newsburst from CNET News.com
    • Subscribe in Google Reader
    • Add to My Yahoo!
    • Subscribe in NewsGator Online
    • The latest comments to all posts in RSS

    Meta

Liked it here?
Why not try sites on the blogroll...