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.


The Complex

Globalization makes everything more complicated.

Planetary flows of information, people, and materials are increasing at an exponential pace, and the connections between far-flung locales are becoming thicker and more subtle. Indeed, the logic of place that has always governed our interactions seems to have become irrelevant: resources are extracted wherever they’re most plentiful, assembled wherever the labor is cheapest, and shipped to wherever people will buy it. The result? A cornucopia of inexpensive goods – and a dizzying array of unintended social, political and ecological consequences.

It’s a basic rule of systems theory that the larger a network is, the more complex it gets, and the less its entirety is visible from any single node. What this means in the context of multi-billion dollar markets and global supply chains is that it’s become ever harder to understand the ripple effects of our choices of production and consumption. It seems as if we can’t buy anything without tacitly encouraging sweatshop labor in Thailand, desertification in Mali, or carbon emissions throughout the globe – and minding these adverse impacts seems to be a battle with no end in sight.

The truth is, no single government, corporation, or watchdog organization can possibly keep track of the countless unintended consequences of our systems of production. What’s more, our attempts to rein in these “externalities” often result in a new set of unforseen problems that, in turn, require their own solutions. A factory that pollutes the air might shut down due to government regulation – only to be replaced with one that pollutes the water. A company might respond to media pressure to end practices of child labor in Pakistan – and destabilize an entire town’s economy by packing up an moving elsewhere.

Take, for example, recycled paper. Nearly a third of the paper we stick in the recycling bin is shipped to China, where it’s processed into new paper and redistributed across the globe – in other words, our “eco-friendly” paper is making the equivalent of a full circle around the Earth on its way to our desks. I’m not sure of the carbon emissions involved in such a circumnavigation (anybody want to give it a try?), but it seems certain that they’d cancel out the benefit of trees saved by buying recycled.

Another well-publicized example of unintended consequences is biofuel production. Since the oil crises of the 1970s, Brazil’s domestic ethanol and biodiesel production have been widely touted as a model of energy independence. Yet, to satisfy surging demand for biofuels, Brazilian soy and sugarcane plantations have expanded at an uprecedented rate, and they are now the leading cause of deforestation of the Amazon.

To say that we should therefore use FSC-certified paper instead of recycled, and buy hybrids instead of biodiesel vehicles, would be missing the point. It’s not just this or that technology that’s unsustainable, it’s the scale of our technology. For the time being, planetary systems might indeed be the most efficient for the flow of capital. But when our are decisions are subject only to market forces – the biggest quantity for the cheapest price – we blind ourselves to the local conditions that those decisions impact. As ecodesigner Sim Van Der Ryn puts it, “the extent to which we rely on far-flung resources is the extent to which we are no longer accountable to our own place.”