No Impact Man, Shellenberger and Nordhaus at NYU’s Focus the Nation

By Adam Brock

If you haven’t checked No Impact Man’s blog recently, here’s the final installment of a fascinating back and forth between Colin and Michael Shellenberger, of the Breakthrough Institute – a think tank that’s devoted to reframing the environmental debate around optimistic values.

Incidentally, Shellenberger and his Breakthrough partner Ted Nordhaus will be the keynote speakers at NYU’s Focus the Nation event tomorrow, which we’ve decided to theme around “local solutions to the climate crisis”. To provide an opportunity for them to continue the NIM conversation face-to-face, I invited Colin to be a part of the response panel, an offer which he kindly accepted.

It should be a pretty interesting back and forth – not only will Colin be responding to Mike and Ted’s presentation, but so will Marty Hoffert, NYU’s own climate scientist superstar. If you’re around the Washington Square area and can make it, I would highly recommend stopping by.

NYU Focus the Nation: Local Solutions to the Climate Crisis

Eisner and Lubin Auditorium, NYU Kimmel Center

60 Washington Square South

Shellenberger and Nordhaus are on at 6:00, the response panel starts at 7:00.


The Real Food Summit: A Campus Movement Takes Shape

By Adam Brock

For progressive college students this school year, it’s all about food. In dorm rooms from San Francisco to Vermont, jars of homemade Kombucha are appearing next to textbooks on the windowsill, and the weekly potluck is fast becoming the new dance party. But even as sustainable food becomes one of the flagship causes of the regeneration, there’s a glaring disparity between what students are buying (or dumpstering) themselves, and what they’re able to get on the meal plan. For decades, most colleges and universities have fed their students with the help of corporate food service providers like Aramark, Chartwells, and Sodexho, which in turn source the majority of their ingredients from factory farms – the icons of unsustainable food.

One thing’s for certain: campus dining won’t go green overnight. Because of the numerous agents involved – producers, distributors, food service providers, and campus administrations – transforming the way a college gets its food is an enormously complex undertaking. The last few years have seen some encouraging first steps towards building sustainable campus food systems, with over 300 schools setting up limited farm-to-college programs. But to take the movement beyond the fringe, colleges will need to start working together to demand changes in the structure of food production and distribution.

Thanks to last weekend’s Real Food Summit at Yale, that collaborative effort is up and running. The summit brought together 175 student leaders from nearly 50 Northeastern colleges and universities with the aim of coordinating the dozens of sustainable food initiatives in the region into a cohesive framework. Throughout the weekend, participants built a working knowledge of the details of food service contracts, learned about best practices from other schools, and shared ideas and strategies for how to begin the battle for “Real Food” on campus.

Within the first few hours of the summit, it became clear that one of the most difficult challenges to sourcing large quantities of local food is distribution. Thanks to sophisticated national supply chains, food service providers are used to planning menus months in advance and getting reliable quantities of food sourced from all over the country. In one of the Saturday panels, John Turrene, a former Aramark chef and consultant on sustainable campus food systems, underscored that dining programs must be willing to change this mindset to adapt to seasonal menus and limited ingredients. Meanwhile, local producers need to form networks to help make supplies a little bit more secure.

Another critical issue is accountability. Anim Steel, director of national programs for Boston’s Food Project, led a brainstorming session of how to track and quantify progress in sourcing Real Food, suggesting that purchases be plotted on a graph with scales of “who” (fair trade, local) and “how” (organic, humane). Kelley Erwin of the Massachusetts Farm to School Project spoke to the need for ensuring “product integrity”: making sure that the food being labeled as local was actually grown and processed locally. Even with a proper tracking system in place, she warned, it’s likely that campus groups will need to perform periodic checks of boxes and invoices, because food service providers get volume discounts that give them a financial incentive to stick with national distributors.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the weekend was the genesis of the Real Food Challenge, a national ten-year framework to divert 20% of the $4 billion in annual campus food purchases to local, sustainable and fair trade options. The Challenge was drafted by the summit’s organizers and collaboratively edited throughout the weekend, with a national launch slated for September 2008.

With an unprecedented confluence of student energy and professional input, The Real Food Summit marked a turning point in the movement for sustainable campus dining. Of course, it was merely a call to arms: for each campus, reforming their food system will be a long and difficult process. But with the knowledge gained and connections formed over the weekend, it looks like the dream of sustainable food on campus is well on its way to becoming real.

Photo Credit: flickr/lookoutbelow

Footprint Forward Week

By Adam Brock

NYU is huge – like, small city huge. Making progress towards sustainability in an institution of 70,000 people can be a slow and often painstaking process. But every so often, I get the chance to work on something really incredible that makes it all worth it.


My favorite campus greening project so far this semester is Footprint Forward, a university-wide challenge to live with as miniscule an impact as possible for a week. Participants will have the opportunity to calculate their footprints before and after the challenge, but Footprint Forward isn’t intended to be a competition. Rather, it’s an opportunity to build community and discover how low-impact living can enrich their own health as well as that of the planet.

The week will kick off with a lecture by our neighborhood low impact expert, No Impact Man, to be followed by an introduction to ecofootprinting led by yours truly. A group called the Gallatin Consciousness will be using the week to start a campaign to ban bottled water on campus, and we’ll be cosponsoring a talk by “Post-Carbon Cities” author Daniel Lerch. With a participant handbook, a plethora of volunteer opportunities and workshops, and even a Footprint Forward blog, there should be no shortage of chances for participants to connect and share tips.

As part of the community-building spirit of the program, we’re extending an open invitation to the New York community at large – so if you live in the area and are interested in participating, you can sign up here.

Making it Actionable: Gallatin’s Community Learning Initiative and the Art of Inhabitance

By Adam Brock

College can be a mighty frustrating place for young radicals. While universities are often hotbeds of revolutionary thought, very little of that thought seems to make it outside the walls of the classroom and into the real world. Colleges tend to remain insular to the social pressures in the communities around them; sometimes, they’re even the cause. My own school, NYU, is certainly no exception – its continual expansion has long antagonized the Greenwich Village community, and it’s played no small role in the gentrification of the area.

Gallatin, the small, innovative division of the University that I attend, is working to reverse that role with a program called the Community Learning Initiative. CLI started several years ago as an attempt to bring the university a bit closer to the ground: courses like “Mapping for Social Change” and “Literacy in Action” combine the rigorous theory and reflection of typical university curricula with hands-on partnerships with nonprofits and activist organizations.

As innovative as these courses are, though, they have limitations of their own, particularly with conflicting timescales: grassroots campaigns usually last years, while universities tend to operate in 18-week chunks. This year, with a bigger budget and expanded staff, CLI is expanding its scope with multi-semester working groups, campaigns, workshops, guest lectures, and research.

While the Community Learning Initiative isn’t explicitly focused on sustainability, its approach naturally connects with the precepts of ecoliteracy. Ecological awareness, after all, means understanding the way we affect and are affected by our environment, an understanding that entails social factors as well biological ones. David Orr, in his essay “Place and Pedagogy,” frames the process as a shift from residing to inhabiting: “Good inhabitance is an art requiring detailed knowledge of a place, the capacity for observation, and a sense of care and rootedness. Residence requires cash and a map.”

With the Community Learning Initiative, Gallatin is well on its way to integrating Orr’s inhabitance into its educational model – but is it scaleable? Grassroots campaigning for credit might be the progressive Gallatino’s dream education, but how would it fare in the decidedly more traditional College of Arts and Sciences? It’s hard to say. For now, at least, it’s reassuring to see that programs like CLI are happening at all, bringing their students closer to the place where they live – and in the process, transforming the role of what a university can be.

Extreme… or Just Sane?

Last week I attended a panel discussion at NYU with the intriguing, if somewhat embarrassing, title of “Extreme Green.” After working with dozens of NYU administrators whose ideas of sustainability end at the recycling bin, I was somewhat skeptical of how “extreme” the event would be. I was forced to admit, though, that the event’s organizers had assembled quite the verdy cast of characters: primitivist Gallatin alum Rob Archangel, forest green superstar Colin Beavan (No Impact Man), NYU sustainability director and Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage cofounder Cecil Schieb, and freegan spokeswoman Madeline Nelson.

And the panel didn’t disappoint. Between Rob’s glorification of hunter-gatherer societies, Colin’s entreaties on the personal benefits of living a low-impact life, and Cecil’s tales of strawbale and naked ice skating, it was clear that there was to be nothing even remotely lime about the proceedings.

Just as importantly, though, there was plenty of disagreement to go round. The speakers were unanimously opposed to consumerism, for example, but their ideas of what to do about it could hardly have been more different. Madeline, a former communications director at Barnes and Noble, spoke of toppling the global corporate system by boycotting the capitalist economy as much as possible. Cecil, as the radical in a suit and tie, responded with his counter-vision of the edifice of capitalism slowly engulfed in a mass of engineered vines. Rob, meanwhile, predicted a peak-oil induced collapse that might be avoided by those who revert to more indigenous ways of living.

The incredible thing was, I found myself agreeing with all of them. There were no obviously specious arguments, no viewpoints that took the easy way out. Instead, there was impassioned debate about the very real issues confronting our society – exactly what we need to be seeing more of from influential institutions like NYU. And while each of the panelists were full of great stories and quotable phrases, the most insightful comment of the evening might have come from the moderator, my good friend Jeremy Freidman: when you really think about it, it’s not anyone on the panel that’s living an “extreme” lifestyle. It’s the rest of us.