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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Resuscitating campus sustainability. Part Two: Restoring respiration

 By Dave Newport

We can easily be seen as the white people from a white-privileged campus assuaging our guilt by giving away hand me downs to the needy, using them to feel better about ourselves.

Following The Death of Campus Sustainability published here in February, a couple months ago I covered a hierarchy of sustainability evolution on campus in order to better understand how and with whom to work on sustainability activities. Reaction was generally positive and encouraged more dialogue amongst us all.

Both previous blogs highlighted how the lack of social justice outcomes as principal elements in campus sustainability are threatening the viability of this movement.

This short blog is about a technique to revitalize sustainability efforts by adding social benefits to conservation programs. The technique goes like this:

By definition, conservation programs (recycling, energy efficiency, etc) conserve something, thereby creating an asset. That asset can be money, material, human resources, information, etc.

An approach we have tried—and sometimes works-- is to look for ways to channel those conserved assets into social benefits for worthy under-resourced populations.


Once upon a time, we just recycled computers. We collected them and shipped them to a recycler who dismantled them into their recyclable components and sold those materials to market. We made sure they weren’t shipped to nefarious vendors in developing nations where they were dismantled inappropriately. We envisioned the materials safely coming back to life as new computers. Life was simple.

Then one day our recycling guru Jack DeBell had another idea. Let’s go through this vast pile of stuff, mix and match the good parts, fix them up to working computers again, and put them into the hands of worthy under-resourced people. Classic reuse.

Now we have a sophisticated program where numerous computers are restored to state of the art, put into the hands of worthy under-resourced middle and high school students who have earned them, and together with college student mentors, they can use them to enhance their knowledge and academic achievement.

We conserved materials, created an asset, then redistributed those assets in a socially beneficial way. All three legs of the sustainability stool are well represented. The Computers to Youth Program is a screaming success.

This is probably not a new idea or particularly innovative--but it highlights a connection we needed to make with people that had gone under developed. Wish I had fifty examples like CTY.

We have added benefits to a vehicle offset program that funded bus passes for the needy, a compost program that helps grow food for the hungry, a weatherization program that tried to bundle social services together with CFLs.  Results for all: mixed.


We struggled at first until we confronted a reality:
unearned benefits are under-appreciated.

So that this blog doesn’t sound like a brag sheet (my resume) here’s where this approach has failed:

Some fraternities were helped with energy conservation upgrades and outreach on condition that they would donate a portion of the saved dollars to the community philanthropy of their choice. They chose rape awareness and alcohol abuse programs. So far so good. Likewise, the philanthropic motivation worked; they turned off lights and saved money. I bragged how we had put a face on sustainability. However, the frats donated a little bit of the money once, then forgot about it…and energy consumption went back up. Not sustainable.

Likewise, even with Computer to Youth, we struggled at first until we confronted a reality: unearned benefits are under-appreciated. When CTY first started, there was an air of Christmas about it. Freebies. We noted that some students receiving the computers were happy but, dare I say it, perhaps a little resentful.

Indeed, with all these "adding benefits" efforts we can easily be seen as the white people from white-privileged Boulder assuaging our guilt by giving away hand me downs to the needy. Some of those students may have felt like we are using them to feel better about ourselves. It can be seen as a condescending noblesse oblige feel-good instead of an opportunity for all to benefit.

And maybe they are right.

We have to fix that.

What we have come to appreciate is that adding benefits can work so long as both parties receive value in a dignified way. It has to be a social transaction in which the dignity of all parties is preserved, even enhanced. We have to value their role in helping us, say, meet our recycling goals, diversity goals, student engagement goals—and our goals of growing the movement into diverse stakeholder groups. We learn valuable intel from these encounters. We have to earn the right to be told, candidly, things we don’t know or we overlook.  

For instance, I will not soon forget the ass-chewing I got from a young African-American student that told me point blank: “Don’t come round to my neighborhood talking about your hippie vegetarian diet and expect us to quit eating hot dogs. We haven’t been working to pull ourselves out of poverty so we can afford a steak just to be told by rich white people that’s a bad idea.”



Human beings seem to default to the “every man for himself”
mode when stressed. And we are stressed.

Attitude and human dignity are key to effectively integrating social benefits in sustainability programs. They are more important than the tactical elements of the program itself.

I am reminded of the famous statement attributed to Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Note: Watson has said of this quote that she was “not comfortable being credited for something that had been born of a collective process” and prefers that it be credited to “Aboriginal activists group, Queensland, 1970s.”

Talk about selfless…. But that’s what socializing sustainability requires: selflessness—and if you are reading this you probably are way selfless.

Now we try to focus programs on people first, conservation second. This is difficult. We are not programmed to think this way. Environmental professionals are trained to think about preserving the environment. Human beings seem to default to the “every man for himself” mode when stressed. And we are stressed.

In the formidable recent book, “Understanding the Social Dimension of Sustainability,” the authors posit that the single greatest conclusion of their research into this issue “is the central role of people as social, economic, political actors to demand and create environments and institutions that support human well-being.”

And few people are in more influential social, economic and political stations to be creating these systems than sustainability leaders. Campus and community sustainability forces can converge and create profound impetus for socially just, environmentally beneficial and economically equitable systems.

Bottom line: we can restore respiration to an ailing campus sustainability movement by joining forces with the community; focus outcomes on people and justice—and sustainability will back out from that. Want to build the health of campus sustainability? Work in the community, create partnerships, show up on the front lines of people-facing issues, bring assets conserved from the campus--and an attitude informed by the fact that we are all in this together. These campus-community partnerships can enhance dignity and create positive attitudes and outcomes—and, most importantly, hope.

If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

I am trying to learn to be optimistic, while I still have a pulse.


* Graphic courtesy of the Chronicle of Higher Education.


  1. Thank you for your blog Dave, much appreciated. I'm tempted to belive you are more optimistic than you are letting on. If you haven't yet seen the video "A Convenient Truth" I highly suggest you check it out ( It touches on a lot of what you are talking about here, integration of sustainability movements with social justice initiatives. In Curitiba Brazil they have implemented some really innovative programs which tackle both objectives with simple planning and minimal costs. The video always gives me a boost of optimism, as do the students I work alongside each day.