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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Campus sustainability’s finest hour?

 Crisis measures people. We need to measure up big.

By Dave Newport

After the second plane hit the World Trade Center I adjourned the county commission’s public meeting and became, for a few moments, the chief law enforcement official in Alachua County, Florida. As county commission chair, state law put that power in my hands after Florida Governor Jeb Bush declared a state of emergency.

Our nation was being attacked by an unknown enemy across an array of high-profile targets in incredibly violent and dramatic ways. Nobody who was alive that day will ever forget it.

It was a crushingly awful time.

I ran to the county emergency center, signed the document delegating emergency powers to the Sheriff and Fire Chief, and began getting the facts and understanding our response.

The first thing we did was dispatch extra police to the synagogues and mosques to protect against whatever might come. Then I started talking with the press and community leaders. It was all about transparency and reaching out to people.

In the dark days and weeks that followed, my community showed its heart. There were no incidents of retaliation against Arab Americans in a community that included many Arab American students, faculty and staff on the massive University of Florida campus.  On the contrary, we worked to reach out to all cultural groups, bring them together for dialogue and many times prayer, wept together a little, and joined hands in unity, not infighting.

Crisis measures people. And we measured up huge.

It became our finest hour.

Today's challenges

While hopefully we will never again be presented with singular challenges the likes of 9/11, anybody reading this column is also aware of the daunting environmental, societal, and economic challenges facing humanity.  We grapple with those every day. That’s what sustainability is all about.

Yet campus sustainability itself faces challenges that may be dividing its proponents, not unifying us. By no means are these challenges as daunting 9/11, but the unifying lessons of 9/11 perhaps can remind us how to respond to what we face as a team. So it’s time to take stock of our collective challenges and reverse the course towards division.  United we stand. And divided we will all be less able to wrestle with systemic challenges facing us all such as:
  • Increased belt tightening across higher education. The specter of reduced funding for sustainability means activities will increasingly be focused on cost-savings areas like resource conservation—and less focused on engagement, curriculum, policy, and many other areas where sustainability principles and practices are beneficial but don’t directly create revenues or save money.
  • Lack of diversity among sustainability practitioners. At last count, we were 92% white. A monoculture is something we criticize and seek to change in other arenas, yet it plagues our own ranks and informs an institutional racism we unwittingly perpetuate. It limits us from understanding a broader, culturally expanded worldview and makes it harder for us to partner with more diverse stakeholders.
  • Eco-centrism. As expressed last year in “Death of Campus Sustainability,” eco-centrism limits our breadth, growth and impact in potentially fatal ways. If what we espouse doesn’t bring together disparate stakeholders, sustainability’s efficacy as a unifying theme must be questioned. Make it about people, not just bunnies, trees or money.
  • Increasing criticism of sustainability’s efficacy as a unifying theme. Hard to imagine that anyone could be confused or uninspired by a doctrine with a squishy definition or heady vision—but here we are. The resilience and permaculture forces are rightfully offering their own frameworks for a better future and getting traction. This year’s AASHE conference is themed around these issues for a reason: we need to create linkages or risk further fracture and dissonance. Sustainability used to be The Next Big Thing, but frankly, it does not occupy that space alone anymore.
  • Campus sustainability factions. Increasingly we are seeing the emergence of regional groups or clumps of sustainability professionals aligned along campus type, athletic conference, etc. While this is a natural and desirable trend that helps build a community of practice, these groups cannot be islands unto themselves. We need cross pollination, coordination, compilations of resources, and national legitimacy and leadership. In short, we need AASHE.

Yes, AASHE has stumbled of late and I have already copped to my role in the faux pas. Last month, I opined that among other forces, one of the factors in AASHE’s situation is the mismatched overlay of a higher education governance model on a NGO. True that. AASHE is a NGO, not a campus. And we can fix this.

However, it would be a mistake to blame all AASHE’s woes on governance and leadership. The reality is that the financial strain AASHE is feeling is partly the result of the cumulative challenges to campus sustainability cited above. For instance, AASHE did not create nationwide budget contractions that pinch campuses’ ability to meet membership dues. It’s just our collective new normal.

Sure, we did not foresee or adapt to those exigencies well as AASHE's recent personnel actions exemplify. No argument. But missteps and governance issues notwithstanding, many pressures AASHE now faces flow from the same systemic challenges to campus sustainability that we all face.

In other words: we’re all in this together—and we need to respond as such.

On one hand, it is heartening that so many folks care enough about AASHE to publically express their concerns and criticisms. The many letters, emails, and phone calls are inspiring because people care, and thank God for that. However, the degree to which public expressions of concern or criticism discourages folks from supporting AASHE with their membership dues, well, frankly that undercuts the opportunity to rebuild in a more responsive, unified, and progressive manner.

As you know, it takes money to make money—or break even.

Just as we need AASHE, the organization needs us. Send your criticisms and comments—AASHE really needs to hear them—and send your check too.

Today's answers

We face challenges globally as daunting as 9/11—and perhaps more difficult to solve. We face challenges to campus sustainability that are systemic and profound. If some need to throw rocks, I will take some blame; I could have done more/differently. Apologized for that. Ding me again if need be. But at some point it’s time to unify and move forward.

That time is now.

Lots of answers need to be found. We need to adapt and focus our collective value proposition to the new normal of no money or be imprisoned in cost-savings hell. We need to engage under-represented people and groups in sincere conversations and activities thereby expanding our worldview, our support base and diversifying our ranks. We need to evolve an enhanced sustainability doctrine that more vividly embraces complementary themes in the contemporary issues of adaptation, resilience, etc—and is hopefully easier for lay folks to grasp. And yes, we need to help AASHE evolve as a true sustainability leader in every way.

More than anything, we need to stand tall as a team.

This isn’t 9/11, thank God. But we can reach out to each other, hold hands, and work together just as my community did in the wake of those horrible attacks twelve years ago. We can do this.

Crisis measures people. We need to measure up big.

It’s time to show our heart—and get on with it. Now.

Indeed, if we seize the opportunity to build consensus around a new approach to unifying campus sustainability against the challenges before us, we can propel sustainability into its finest hour.

The clock’s ticking.

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