March 26, 2001
Emory's environmental challenge
Frumkin is professor and chair of
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 Atlantaat our traffic, our
air quality, our water shortages, our scarce parklandand 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.
Todays children will reach old age in a profoundly different world
than the one we know. Everything we do for the rest of our liveseverythingand
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 youve recycled an HP
printer cartridge, youve participated in this vision.
Coca-Cola, General Motors, Polaroid and other companies have endorsed the CERES Principles (www.ceres.org); 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 lineeducationthat includes excellent
environmental education for their students and service to their communities
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 practicesclearing forests, overusing pesticides, burning
excessive fossil fuels. And just count the gas guzzlers in the doctors
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 stewardshipbecause
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 www.environment.emory.edu/who/policy.shtml). 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 schools
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 campusthe kinds of buildings, the kinds of lifestyles, the kinds
of collective insight and wisdom, and the kinds of future citizens, professionals
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.