By Xarissa Holdaway
I recently attended the annual conference hosted by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). One of the (many) buzzwords at this year’s conference was “living-learning laboratory.” The gathering, the biggest yet for sustainability work on campus, was full of representatives from colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada, and each had a story to tell about their school’s projects. Sessions on re-localizing food supplies, and the value of offsets and were particularly popular, and almost every presenter stressed the fact that the campus, which functions like a mini-metropolis, can model and test strategies that could be replicated elsewhere.
But in casual conversations with attendees, the same sentiment was expressed over and over again:
“We don’t know how to connect these projects. We’re composting, but the food came from Peru.”
“We’re buying renewable energy, but only one or two percent at a time, and our consumption goes up each year.”
“Our faculty teaches all these great classes, but the facilities department hasn’t signed on, so we can’t make any changes to the electricity grid or our buildings.”
The main frustration I overheard was the difficulty of linking every group on campus to the same goal: creating a model for sustainability. Ideally, such a model would be successful enough to be applicable to neighboring communities or other universities.
Still, departments are learning to feed off each other in a variety of ways, from the scientific to the philosophical. Several campuses, including Mount Vernon Nazarene University, are using waste oil from the cafeteria to fuel campus shuttles or generators, which requires cooperation between dining services, transit managers and facilities directors.
Other strategies get people to pay attention to their behavior by merging real-time technology with action. Emory University uses a website that shows the real-time location of shuttles, so riders feel good about catching a ride on time, and are more willing to leave cars behind. Oberlin’s real-time energy monitors in the Adam Lewis Center are legendary, and Dartmouth College leverages a popular emotional trigger with an animated polar bear that falls through cracked ice when energy usage is high.
And when it comes to reaching outside the campus borders, hundreds of thousands of students are involved in advocacy work, there’s plenty of evidence that university-utility partnerships are on the rise, and a growing sense that environmental justice matters just as much as the environment itself.
So while everyone acknowledged that it can be difficult to break out of disciplinary and departmental blinders, the determination in the air was palpable. Shiva put it simply: “Campuses are supposed to be about seeking knowledge, about learning…Some of the problems we are dealing with were created at universities, and they must be part of the solution.”
Xarissa Holdaway blogs for National Wildlife Federation’s Campus Ecology Program and edits ClimateEdu, an email newsletter for colleges and universities. She has not yet picked a side on the “cats vs. dogs” battle.
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