Sustainability Must Start With the Obvious
Originally published in the Cornell Daily Sun.
It is now approximately one year since President Skorton signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, setting Cornell on the path towards climate neutrality. KyotoNOW!’s Beyond Kyoto Campaign showed that there exists widespread support for such a target on campus. Since then, the student group has been looked upon with admiration by the youth climate movement and many organizations on campus. But since then, an entire year has passed. So it is about time that we ask ourselves what we have done in the last year about this commitment and, more broadly, sustainability. Well, let’s think about it.
Shortly after the signing of the Presidents Climate Commitment, an Implementation Committee was formed to draft a comprehensive plan (due in exactly one year) to reach climate neutrality in the Ithaca, N.Y. campus. In addition, an ad-hoc faculty committee was formed voluntarily to begin looking for ideas on what to do to cut carbon dioxide emissions. Lots of ideas have been proposed, including a rapid transit system promoted by the local group Connect Ithaca, wind turbines on nearby hills (Enfield, Town of Caroline and Mt. Pleasant), increased energy efficiency, a big red bikes program, biodiesel production from dining locations,and methane biodigestors. We don’t know yet what the Implementation Committee is doing, but we’re set to find out soon when President Skorton addresses the campus today at 11:30 a.m. in the Duffield Atrium, where the first anniversary of the Presidents Climate Commitment will be celebrated.
In addition to all this administrative work, there has been a great buzz around campus about the Presidents Climate Commitment. In fact, every time a campus publication mentions sustainability, the commitment is brought up as the most aggressive move yet. It is now typical to confuse sustainability with climate neutrality, since global warming has become such a huge threat and people are getting that in their heads. Yet climate neutrality is something to be achieved over one or a few decades; it’s something that, right now, is all about words. In effect, this constant talking about Cornell’s commitment to climate neutrality has masked the obvious about sustainability.
First of all, sustainability is not just about global warming and energy. Energy is probably the biggest item on the list because of how threatening global warming is, but it certainly is just one item. And sure, reducing greenhouse gas emissions on campus will change lots of things we do and therefore make us more sustainable, but we are already forgetting to do what others have done already. For example, people love to say that they recycle, even though they’ve no clue what the real impact of their recycling is. When asked what they do to “protect the environment,” recycling and using compact fluorescent light bulbs stick out right away. Yet have students noticed that most of our buildings don’t have an adequate amount of recycling bins? Have they noticed that lots of lights are left turned on without the need during the day? Do they feel as though we are really doing something?
Now, let us be clear. There are student organizations on campus that have proposed all kinds of ideas, the little things that add up to really make a huge difference that students can see right on campus. Most recently, for example, the Sustainability Hub wrote a proposal for Farm Services to collect about 6,000 gallons of waste vegetable oil from dining locations and produce biodiesel with it right on campus. Being something Farm Services is already experimenting with, the proposal was approved. Yet how many proposals that request little changes have been rejected?
On review, we find that administrative resistance has blocked recycling bins from being in every other corner of every building, biodegradable plates, cups and silverware from replacing the conventional ones in every dining location, big red bikes from being offered to students for campus use and a clean energy fee from being charged to students even though they support it. In a majority of cases, it isn’t necessarily that the folks who make the decisions are resistant. In fact, they usually are supportive. It’s just that it seems like something they don’t want to deal with, as if it’s not important enough to take time and resources to do.
So, today, President Skorton is set to mention many of the efforts going on around the Presidents’ Climate Commitment. Rumors say this will include an announcement that every new building be LEED Silver Certified, an update on a plan to build a methane biodigestor and an overview of the new combined heat and power plant that will take campus carbon dioxide emissions 30 percent below 1990 levels within a year or so. Honestly, this is all great. The sustainability community is really impressed by what Cornell is doing. But, seriously, we need to not only do the big things that generate a buzz and look great for press. We need to do all the little things as well, including educating our students and staff about what sustainability really means! The S word is not just about being “green.” Take a course on something that really delves into it and you find that social justice is hugely attached, and that leaving a modified economics out is like ensuring it will never work.
We obviously want to compete with other schools. We want to stand out as an institution that is doing big things: Lake Source Cooling, Combined Heat and Power and the likes. But we also have to make sure that when an outsider visits us, they can see that we are for real, that we took care of the easiest and cheapest things before we moved on to the big things. And in this case, it’s not about the impact we make necessarily, but about the culture we help build right here on campus. The big things are hugely important, but they don’t build culture. They’re huge projects the community can’t get involved with. The little and easy things, though, help create a culture of just sustainability, one that has a meaning very different from “green” and “PCC.” We hope that the first anniversary of the Presidents Climate Commitment will be marked by this recognition, and that the second year of the commitment will be about both planning and doing.
Carlos Rymer, president of the Sustainability Hub and vice president of KyotoNoW!, can be contacted at email@example.com. Mollie Futterman, a member of the Sustainability Hub, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room appears periodically.