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Monday, January 21, 2013

Fear of flying

Inner turmoil is useful if I let it drive me.
Not sure where that drive is going right now but at least the motor is running. 

by Dave Newport, LEED AP

Among my many neuroses is an inner angst about air travel. Definitely conflicted. Love to fly but have a fear of flying. 

It goes like this: I am platinum on Frontier out of Denver—because you have to fly to get anywhere from Denver. The train, while beautiful especially going west through the Rockies, is expensive and takes days. So occasionally I offset my airline GHG emissions through the Colorado Carbon Fund, and while CCF does good work, I feel little satisfaction. 

My neighbor, a noted environmentalist, is on a plane to somewhere on the planet every day. She’s platinum on 3 airlines, at least. She offsets her flights—and her Porsche Boxster...

Even though I buy them, I can’t help feeling that offsets are a little like paying somebody else to stop smoking for you.  Compared to doing nothing, I suppose they are worthwhile. And we buy a lot of them for my campus from CCF and Native Energy. We opt for so-called "local offsets" that have social equity and local economic development benefits as well as tons of carbon. We have bought projects like small wind for schools, solar thermal for low income homes, landfill gas to brick kiln production, coal bed methane on Native American lands, etc. Proud of all of these projects. Still conflicted.

It's also a little troubling that our focus on carbon offsets perpetuates the eco-centricity of our work. For instance, I am still looking for offsets that neutralize social injustice. 

Looking around Chicago O'Hare airport a few years ago, I had a brilliant idea. Like most places, the janitorial crews I observed were all people of color. Not a white person in the bunch, er, except the manager. What if we developed a "trading places" social justice offset that exchanged the white guy with one of the front line custodians? Let the white guy empty trashcans for a while. Boost one of the custodians to manager--with a raise. People could pay the salary offset and claim the 'social justice' offset credit. OK, probably no market for that; like most of my brilliant business ideas. 

Anyway, my point is carbon offsets fixate our gaze--and wallets--on mitigating environmental damages to the exclusion of social and fiscal impacts of unsustainable behavior. Likewise, they don't change peoples' behavior, they just neutralize it. Sometimes. Even our best efforts sometimes have unintended consequences or at least complications.

 For instance, part of my job is managing our bus service contract for 32,000 students. A most popular bus route is the one to the airport. Students can just flash their ID and ride for free the 50 min trip to the airport, not have to own or park a car, and enjoy front door service. So, ironically, our sustainable transportation program is lowering flying's price point--if you believe in elasticity of demand--and making it cheaper to emit carbon.

Along the way, we put more diesel busses on already polluted diesel corridors along which low income people live and experience COPD, respiratory ailments, and learning disabilities from all the diesel soot. Yes, if all the students drove a car to the airport it would be even more carbon released, but... we're talking damage control here (see the "Resilience" blog).

Not inspiring.

The ideas that air travel emissions are inconsequential or that biofuels are going to fix everything are nonsense. While airline GHG emissions are "only" three percent of global emissions, plenty of literature notes the significantly increased efficacy of GHG emissions when released at altitude. And, oh by the way, who suffers most from first-world GHG emissions? Answer: developing nations and the under-resourced people of color who live there. Check the mortality rate from climate change in Africa vs. developed nations. Wow. We are killing millions of Africans with carbon. And biofuels, if they are ever widespread, present the “food vs. fuel” dilemma among many other issues. Even energy efficiency feels insufficient too. I love the spoof bumper sticker on a few Boulder Priuses “My car is killing the planet slower than your car.” More damage control. Anyway...

The human race as been racing though history chewing up resources, breeding, depleting more resources, and continuing to breed and grow. Seemed like a plan. Nobody mentioned the planet was booby-trapped. Wasn't in the owners manual. Only recently have we learned that >380 or 450 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere may be irreversible for all practical purposes. The climate disruption triggered by the excess CO2 is beginning to unfold--and we may literally burn ourselves off the planet. Where was the warning label for that 200 years ago, or 100 years ago, or even when I was an undergrad 40 years ago?


We crawled out of the primordial broth and eventually became upright bi-pedal hunter/gatherers all the while thinking we could put a few bucks in our 401Ks, get the kids through college, and pass on the family china to the next generation. Turns out we may have stepped on the planet's carbon booby trap long before we even knew it was there. And even if we had seen the trap, where in human history is there any indication that we as a species had the capacity to band together and step back from the abyss?


The game has been rigged from the start.

So, what has this got to do about my fear of flying? Not much. I still fly. I struggle with my inner angst and neuroses (like they are going to go away). I feel conflicted and hypocritical. I am ticked off the deck is stacked. I hate how we forget about social impacts and fixate on saving bunnies and trees. And I have round trip Denver to Boston tickets on JetBlue for $178. How to deal with that? 

I try not to forget.

Inner turmoil is useful if I let it drive me. Not sure where that drive is going right now but at least the motor is running. Just don't want to get all gauzy happy. Don't want to forget about stuff that should be pissing me off.

Like my fear of flying.


Thursday, January 3, 2013

2013: Resilience vs. campus sustainability?

Has “sustainability” run its course? Is it time for the Next Big Thing?  

By Dave Newport

The transition from an exploitive business plan for the planet to a sustainable one has gone through a few iterations—and we are definitely not there yet—but we keep trying.

In the 1950s public health concerns on the heels of the Donora, PA et al air pollution incidents aroused enough angst to pass the first federal laws protective of air quality. The 1960s were marked by Rachel Carson-induced endangered species protections. The 1970s spawned “past sins” Superfund legislation to begin cleaning up/preventing the Love Canals of the world. In the 1980s we fixed the ozone hole. And in the 1990s, “sustainability” began creeping into our lexicon.

Along the way we chased trends and words like Kyoto, Agenda 21, Corporate Social Responsibility, Triple Bottom Line, Eco Efficiency, Socially Responsible Investing, Biomimicry, Industrial Ecology, Renewable Portfolio Standards, Transition, Permaculture, Adaptation, etcetera… and lately: Resilience.

The history lesson is meant to remind us that it is normal to morph our approaches as we get smarter. So the idea of moving past sustainability isn’t radical or anti-environment. On the contrary, we have a need for “new and improved.”

So now what? Is it time for the Next Big Thing?  Has “sustainability” run its course? Before we think about that, what has sustainability accomplished?

Well, on campuses at least, there are more courses, majors, schools, colleges and certificates in sustainability than ever; fairly rapid growth because many students want to learn about it. More campuses are offering sustainability curricula. More students are signing up for these classes. This is no small feat and a very hopeful sign.

Likewise, campus carbon emissions are moderating or even going down. Green buildings are going up. Zero waste efforts are also on the rise. Local food programs/campus gardens are taking root. Renewable energy is up. And we are getting better at measuring all these impacts (STARS!). Great environmental improvements.

Yet missing from the list of sustainability’s accomplishments are two important categories: fiscal equity and social justice.

In terms of finance, sustainability programs are still woefully underinvested. More importantly, campuses are still investing in exploitive enterprises. The recent fossil fuel divestment campaign makes this point very clear. While Unity College is leading the divestment effort, they are a lone voice so far. Indeed, the Chronicle last year reported socially responsible investing on campuses was decreasing despite a growth in that industry and demonstrably more favorable returns on investment.

As for social justice, only a little progress targeting sustainability’s benefits towards those in the most need is reported. And while I don’t have any data, I am going to bet that even the rapid expansion of sustainability curriculum nationwide has disproportionately targeted richer, white students. For instance, despite a couple notable exceptions, there has been disappointing growth of sustainability coursework in the HBCUs. There is a reason: sustainability’s unifying theme and beneficial impacts don’t default to the breadth of society—only the privileged classes.

Sustainability has yet to put Humpty Dumpty back together again...

I published The Death of Campus Sustainability about a year ago. Re-reading it the other day, one change from last year is that public concern has turned up a notch or two on the heels of Hurricane Sandy and the warmest, driest, most flammable year ever. Also, unlike previous conferences, last fall’s AASHE conference in LA saw record numbers of social equity presentations; truly a heart warming sign that our colleagues get that we need to be more effective in that arena. Otherwise, the ideas and facts offered in the ‘Death’ blog are still pretty much intact.

Indeed, sustainability has yet to put Humpty Dumpty back together again because, as you recall, “all the Kings horses and all the King’s men…” So now the proponents of “resilience” are increasingly making the case for a new approach that concedes that our eggs are broken.

Writing in the New York Times last fall, author Andrew Zolli presents “resilience” as an alternative to the sustainability agenda. “Where sustainability aims to put the world back into balance, resilience looks for ways to manage in an imbalanced world,” he writes.

“For example, “resilience thinking” is starting to shape how urban planners in big cities think about updating antiquated infrastructure, much of which is robust in the face of normal threats like equipment failures but — as was just demonstrated in the New York region — fragile in the face of unanticipated shocks like flooding, pandemics, terrorism or energy shortages,” Zolli continues.

Zolli’s piece goes on the offer numerous approaches for dealing with the impacts of climate disruption in a people-first holistic approach—everything from building flood dikes to counseling services. He uses Hurricane Sandy as an example of the need to prepare tangible on-the-ground responses that help “a vulnerable community contend with the shocks that, especially at the margins of a society, can be devastating. In lieu of master plans, these approaches offer diverse tools and platforms that enable greater self-reliance, cooperation and creativity before, during and after a crisis” [underlining added].

So far, so good...

Nobody gets out of bed inspired by "damage control." We dream of Camelot.

Remembering the first rule of campus sustainability—listen to the students—I recall Scott Carlson’s coverage in the Chronicle of the emerging student demand for skills-based training that complements their academic learning.  As I reported in the ‘Death’ blog, Carlson wrote of “hands-on people-oriented education experiences ranging from beekeeping to shop to gardening to carpentry to cooking.”

“At the soul of this renaissance of interest in life skills is a sense that today’s students want to build self-reliance and self-determination capacity because the road ahead looks steep—and they know it. Resilience and practical skills are becoming critical attributes to live well and prosper going forward. Integration of people-facing education with community-centered initiatives underpin this trend—and are expositive of sustainability’s finest tradition: the nexus of people-primacy, eco-resiliency, and local economic focus.”

Once again, the students have signaled the Next Big Thing. It is not—as Zolli writes in the close of his article—an either/or proposition. In the end, Zolli sees sustainability as a “holy war against boogeymen [that] hasn’t worked and isn’t likely to anytime soon. In its place, we need approaches that are both more pragmatic and more politically inclusive.”

Ah, disagree. Resilience is not the successor of sustainability; it is a sustainability synergizer. It can make sustainability work better.

How? First, resilience is people-facing. Perfect. That is sustainability’s soft spot. Allying with people-focused efforts heals sustainability’s historic hurt: a paucity of explicit social justice mechanisms. Thus by folding in resilience techniques we make sustainability better. By focusing our campuses on adapting to the new climate realities, we make our campuses better. This means we work on adaptation plans that include disaster planning not just low flow toilets. It means we talk to our leadership about investments in durable assets like renewables that are immune from impending resource shortages—and pay better anyway. It means integrating skills-based content into sustainability curriculum such as learning to weatherize low-income homes in local neighborhoods to build resilience-- and sustainability--in our communities.

Resilience is not the antidote to sustainability; it’s an additive. Instead of Zolli’s existential, damage-control approach to life on Earth, sustainability has the advantage of casting an inspiring “I have a dream” vision. Human beings are dreamers—that’s who we are. That’s why we discover things. Nobody gets out of bed inspired by damage control; we dream of Camelot.

"Some men see things as they are and say why. 
I dream things that never were and say why not."

So, one year later I am more hopeful that campus sustainability can right its wrongs, learn from experience, and integrate new strategies and tactics so as to dodge the capital punishment foreseen in “The Death of Campus Sustainability.” We haven’t done that yet; however, let’s not get sidetracked by a fake fight with resilience proponents. Instead, let’s synergize their valuable lessons into our ongoing efforts.

Let’s resolve to make 2013 the year of a more mature and resilient “sustainability-plus” approach.

Happy New Year.