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Debra Rowe at Growing a Greener Campus May 12, 2008

Posted by ficial in conference, environment, green.
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Last Tuesday I had the opportunity to attend a Growing a Greener Campus mini-conference sponsored by IP Logic. Essentially, this was a few presentations about the IT aspects of sustainability from a higher education perspective. For all that it was small, it was a good and useful event.

The first speaker was Debra Rowe and she gave a nice presentation that covered a lot of basics and background about sustainability. One of the very good things she did was to establish some common vocabulary and general context for later discussion. She also tried to do some myth debunking, but ever since reading an interesting article about the persistence of myths I’ve become a bit dubious about the effectiveness of that particular approach.

She talked a bit about the idea of the triple bottom line, an accounting system that takes into consideration social and environmental impacts as well as economic ones. She generalizes it from a business concept to a societal one – that is, a sustainable society is one with a “flourishing environment”, “social well-being”, and “strong economy”. While that sounds good and precise, on further reflection I find that the fuzziness of the terms involved actually makes it less useful than the general definition of sustainability: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs“. The latter actually suggests ways one might go about creating some metrics (looking at stability / longevity, and at create and consume rates of resources), while the former leads to debates on semantics. On the other hand, TBL invokes some positive goals rather than being just avoidance based. On the gripping hand, it doesn’t really matter how it’s sliced as long as we get done what needs to be done.

She then went on to discuss the role of education in this context. There are two main ways educational institutions are tied to sustainability. First, they educate. That is, the provide knowledge, skills, and, unavoidably, values. She proposes (or perhaps propagates from the US Partnership for the Decade of Education for Sustainable Development?) that “Education for a sustainable society: ‘enables people to develop the knowledge, values and skills to participate in decisions, that will improve the quality of life now without damaging the planet for the future.'”. Second, education is a significant economic sector in its own right and the choices it makes on operational and investment fronts can have a huge impact.

One scary and depressing tidbit – she did a quick show-of-hands poll at one point and only about 25% of the people attending believed we were experiencing human-impacted climate change. This in a group of (in theory) smart, well educated professionals. In the scientific community it’s about as well accepted as evolution – that is, barring extremely unlikely coincidence and the beliefs of some fringe individuals, it’s true.

She covered a whole bunch of organizations and groups that were involved in sustainability efforts, either directly as a primary mission or by participation in some other group. I won’t list them all here, but if you want a jumping off point try the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium. Another good one is the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. (Williams has not signed the latter, as far as I know because it feels that the goals are unachievable in the given timeline by anything other than massive purchase of carbon offsets, and that the offset market as it stands in the US is… suspect at best. On the other hand, I’m not convinced it would have been signed even without the climate neutrality clauses.) Another is the Disciplinary Associations Network for Sustainability. A final one is Play A Greater Part, which is focused on particular projects.

She closed with a series of suggestions for things institutions and individuals could do. They’re pretty much the same thing I hear everywhere, but they bear repeating (taken mostly directly from her powerpoint slides, my few edits added context words (e.g. “hot water” in front of “tank”):

  • Reduce energy, and thereby reduce tons of pollution and save money in the millions.
  • Buy and invest in renewable energies systems (e.g. Carleton)
  • Impact the manufacturing sector
  • Take it to your local and national politicians – this is CRUCIAL
  • Take it to your local schools, business community, government, non-profits and other higher education institutions
  • Environmentally and socially responsible purchasing – http://www.coopamerica.org, http://www.newdream.org, http://www.heasc.net – resources page
  • Environmentally and socially responsible investments – http://www.socialinvest.org
  • Caulk and weatherstrip
  • Get rid of parasitic power consumption – unplug the TV, computer, etc. when not in use!
  • Fill the freezer and clean the coils
  • Carpool or use bikes and buses
  • Turn down the hot water tank to 120 and use water conserving showerheads.
  • Permaculture instead of grass
  • Eat lower and local on the food chain
  • Buy renewable energy locally and offsets (www.nativeenergy.org is a good one)
  • Be an “energy waste detective”
  • Reduce, reuse and recyce
  • Prefer products made out of sustainably harvested materials and sustainable processes
  • Utilize the media to publicize the positive steps all can take to both teach and model sustainable development.
  • All of us engaged as effective change agents in our sustainability challenges
  • Caring involvement instead of despairing apathy
  • Know that our daily decisions affect the quality of life of people around the globe.
  • Help create policies that support stronger economies via the building of healthier ecosystems and social systems

She also makes a very good point that the community / government has to be involved at local and national levels. Try to get your community to do an energy audit and sustainability plan. If you’re looking for a starting (and possibly final) framework, the Climate Protection Agreement (signed by over 600 mayors) may be a good place to start. At the federal level, take it (ideally in person or by hand written letter) to your Senators and Representatives. Two good starting actions to request of them are 1. Undo the uneven subsidies, and 2. Pass a carbon tax (Tax pollution instead of income.) or a Cap and Trade system with AUCTIONED CREDITS.

She closed with a really long list of resources. most of which I won’t bother repeating (the mess of links above is already more than anyone will get to). However, There were a few specific to IT which bear repeating:

Green Computing Guide from Michigan State (c. 2004 but still has a lot of juicy stats and ideas) http://www.ecofoot.msu.edu/documents/green.computing.guide.pdf

Computers and lighting in a library analysis at Auburn http://www.auburn.edu/projects/sustainability/storage_public/AU%20Library%20Lighting%20and%20Computer%20Energy%20Report.pdf

EPEAT is a system to help purchasers in the public and private sectors evaluate, compare and select desktop computers, notebooks and monitors based on their environmental attributes. http://www.epeat.net/

Electronics Reuse Initiative started by a university in collaboration with others http://www.wincycle.org/

Greener Computing site http://www.greenercomputing.com/

Cornell University’s Facilities Services Computer & Network Support office guide and accompanying website to promote sustainable computing http://computing.fs.cornell.edu/fsit/Sustainable/FSSustainableComputingGuide.pdf http://computing.fs.cornell.edu/fsit/sustainable/fsit_sustainability.cfm

All in all, a long and interesting presentation. She covered a lot of things I’ve heard before, buit I almost always find it useful to hear other’s perspectives on ideas. She also did a really good job of presenting pro-active steps that one could take in this area – I came away feeling a little less overwhelmed than I usually do when it comes to sustainability issues.

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