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March 26, 2001

Emory's environmental challenge

Howard Frumkin is professor and chair of
environmental and occupational health.


Six billion of us live on the globe, and the United Nations projects that we will top 9 billion by 2050. Most of this growth will occur in poor nations, whose citizens demand and deserve considerably more food, more goods and more energy use than they currently enjoy. The impact on the global environment will be enormous.

In the United States, there are 275 million of us. The Census Bureau projects that we will reach 400 million by 2050 and nearly 600 million by the end of the century. Look around Atlanta—at our traffic, our air quality, our water shortages, our scarce parkland—and imagine living here when the country has more than twice its current population.

The world is losing forests and fisheries at an unprecedented rate. Species loss is accelerating. We are burning fossil fuels much faster than nature created them, and at some point we will run out.
And the global climate is warming.

Today’s children will reach old age in a profoundly different world than the one we know. Everything we do for the rest of our lives—everything—and everything our children and our grandchildren do will occur in the context of an increasingly stressed global environment. New technologies may help us address some of these challenges. Lifestyle changes may be necessary. Wars may be fought over scarce resources. We will need to be creative, and we will need to adapt. We are entering the Century of the Environment, and we cannot ignore these issues.

Many institutions are stepping up to the plate. From the UN to the European Union to individual cities and towns, governments are changing the way they operate. Some of the most exciting and promising initiatives are in the private sector. “Our environmental goals,” declares Hewlett Packard, “are to provide products and services that are environmentally sound throughout their lifecycles.” If you’ve recycled an HP printer cartridge, you’ve participated in this vision.

Coca-Cola, General Motors, Polaroid and other companies have endorsed the CERES Principles (; biosphere protection, natural resource and energy conservation, environmental restoration and informing the public. Computers from Dell, sneakers from Nike and carpets from Interface are being manufactured more sustainably, using fewer toxic materials and often being recycled after use. Change is in the air.

In comparison, the academic world has been slow to act. In 1990, 20 university leaders from around the world signed the Talloires Declaration, recognizing a unique responsibility for education, research, policy formation and information exchange on environmental issues.

But more than a decade later, few universities have clear statements of environmental commitment. Few universities have vice presidents for environmental affairs. Few universities have broad environmental programs or a “product line”—education—that includes excellent environmental education for their students and service to their communities and regions.

There are exceptions. Harvard, “recognizing its responsibility to assume a leadership role in meeting the global environmental imperative,” initiated its “Greening the Crimson” program that includes a range of internal activities and community partnerships. Oberlin College recently dedicated the groundbreaking Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, which produces more energy than it consumes.

But these exceptions prove the rule; academia has a lot of catching up to do. And the challenge is especially compelling at universities like Emory that have medical centers.

The health care industry is an environmental offender. The EPA reports that medical facilities, by incinerating disposable plastics, are second only to the paper industry in emitting dioxins. We create large volumes of solid waste. Equipment and supplies such as latex gloves and tongue depressors, when traced back to their origins, reflect environmentally unsound practices—clearing forests, overusing pesticides, burning excessive fossil fuels. And just count the gas guzzlers in the doctors’ parking lot!

The health care sector has tended to overlook these problems, perhaps believing that the urgency of our healing mission eclipses any environmental responsibilities. But precisely the opposite is true. As stewards of human health, we have a special responsibility for environmental stewardship—because human health is intimately connected with the environment.

As a physician, I would care a great deal if a rogue destroyed vaccines, blew up a hospital or infected a water supply. These are acts of health terrorism. But pumping persistent organic chemicals into the atmosphere, clearing forests, overusing resources and contributing to global warming are equally inimical to health. If universities have a special responsibility for environmentalism, then those with academic health centers should be in the vanguard.

At Emory, we can be proud of some successes. Our University Senate Committee on the Environment monitors the environmental impact of new buildings, and although its volunteer members have no staff, limited technical skills and insufficient time, they have forged an effective working relationship with Facilities Management and have made a difference. We have promoted alternative transportation such as carpooling and MARTA. We are transforming the campus center from secondary highway to pedestrian mall. And two major buildings now under construction, the Whitehead Research Building and Science 2000 Phase II, will likely be certified by the U.S. Green Building Council for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.”

But we do not have a broad, effective energy policy. We do not have an institutional waste minimization program. We lack provisions for purchasing environmentally sound products or for monitoring our contractors’ and vendors’ environmental performance. We have only begun confronting the challenges of environmental education. Above all, we have not articulated a broad environmental vision.

We now have the opportunity to fill this void. Over the last year, the Ad Hoc Committee on Environmental Stewardship has developed a Campuswide Environmental Policy (see Through meetings and consultations across the university with hundreds of faculty, staff, and students, the policy has grown into a truly visionary statement. It expresses a commitment to environmental stewardship, awareness and sensitivity.

When the policy was first considered by the Senate at its February meeting, the School of Medicine attacked it, complaining that it was “vague” and might be used to block future building projects on campus. The school’s position was mistaken. Yes, the policy is written broadly, as befits a statement of vision and commitment. (Are there specific implementation steps in the Ten Command-ments?) At Emory, implementing the specifics will require hard work and careful balancing of competing priorities. But that is no reason not to resist embrace sound principles.

Most emphatically, the policy is not a no-growth manifesto, and it will not be a roadblock to medical school progress. Instead, it calls for “smart growth.” It challenges us to think about what we want to grow on the campus—the kinds of buildings, the kinds of lifestyles, the kinds of collective insight and wisdom, and the kinds of future citizens, professionals and leaders.

The policy is scheduled for a formal vote in the University Senate tomorrow. The medical school should join the broad University consensus and support it. Together, all of us at Emory should welcome the policy as chance to rededicate ourselves to tackling some of the toughest, most interesting and most morally compelling challenges the world has to offer.


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