Bright Green Baby Steps

By Adam Brock

The big news coming from NYU’s Sustainability Taskforce this past month was the announcement of the campus greening projects that will receive funding next year. In January, the taskforce asked students, faculty and administration to submit proposals for making NYU more sustainable. Of the nearly 50 that were considered, fifteen were given the go-ahead. Among the winners:

  • A demonstration “healthy landscape” garden, using native plants and water-saving techniques that will enable it to sustain itself with very little maintenance.
  • A pilot project (led by WGY’s own Nelson Harvey) to run an NYU vehicle on waste vegetable oil.
  • The EcoPod, an indoor gardening container constructed from materials from NYU’s waste stream.
  • A comprehensive “guide to green living,” to be distributed to all incoming freshmen as part of their welcome materials.
  • A collaboration with NYC bike workshop Time’s Up! to conduct a survey of bike racks on campus and to refurbish and distribute abandoned bicycles to students.

All in all, the funded projects seem to me a diverse and promising set – there’s certainly no lack of creative approaches to campus greening among the NYU community [full disclosure: one of my own proposals, a program to encourage energy conservation in the residence halls, was also selected]. Given the passion and enthusiasm of their orchestrators, I’m sure that this year’s crop of projects will result in successful, creative and highly visible results.

But for all their panache, the projects being funded are merely window dressing on what, come May 2008, will still be a fundamentally unsustainable campus. One vehicle will be running on biofuel, while 70 others continue to use petroleum. One dining hall will offer organic produce, while ten others will serve unhealthy processed food shipped from thousands of miles away. And most importantly, NYU’s 50,000 students will still be learning from professors who teach as if 20th-century concepts like neoliberal economics, advertising-based marketing, and discrete, disconnected disciplines were still valid. In short, the taskforce is a welcome proxy for a true administrative push for a sustainable NYU – but it shouldn’t be mistaken for the real thing. A university this large can’t hope to make any real headway by throwing $250,000 towards the cause; in comparison, it spends 33 times that amount on office equipment every year.

NYU’s struggle to define its approach towards sustainability is one that every institution is facing, or will have to face soon. The extent to which these institutions can incorporate ecological thinking will determine how successfully they meet the challenges of the next century. It’s a whole lot easier, though, to talk about embracing sustainability than it is to actually do it. Making these insitutions sustainable in even the grass green sense will require them to be fundamentally restructured from the inside out, something that will take far more than just bright ideas. For all the recent talk of “corporate green”, the values of the grass and forest green movements – transparency, localization, unconsumption – are still far from mainstream. Bringing them to the fore means shifting the values of hundreds of millions of people, people who like their lives just fine the way they are, thank you very much.

It’s difficult for any organization as large as NYU to change rapidly: the decisionmaking structure is long and diffuse, many stakeholders have a vested interest in the status quo, and important financial decisions are subject to an understandable amount of skepticism. But the world is changing around us. Ideas, values, and most importantly, our natural systems are evolving far faster than most of our institutions can keep up with. In particular, climate change and the end of the fossil fuel era will bring about massive transformation in the next decade, whether we like it or not.

The challenge, then, will be not to instigate change but to guide it: away from isolationism, greenwashing and expensive last-ditch efforts, and towards equity, community and elegant solutions. With these values in mind, I eagerly await the results of NYU’s first green steps – but I’ll hold my applause till sustainability on campus is on its feet and running.


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