Emory Report
August 30, 2004
Volume 57, Number 02


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August 30, 2004
Book searches for Sustainability on Campus

By Michael Terrazas

There are many ways to green a university. Environmental awareness—and action—can start from the highest levels of administration, or from a small group of committed students, or anywhere in between. And once the momentum builds, there’s always a story to tell.

Collecting those narratives is the purpose behind Sustainability on Campus: Stories and Strategies for Change (MIT Press, 2004), a 327-page volume co-edited by Peggy Barlett, professor of anthropology and one of Emory’s key environmental storytellers. In the book, Barlett and co-editor Geoffrey Chase (dean of undegraduate studies at San Diego State University) share the personal tales of those who have led eco-conscious efforts at institutions that truly span the range of American higher education.

“The purpose was to stimulate people in higher education to work toward sustainability in their institutions,” Barlett said. “Higher education has a responsibility to be a leader, and many institutions have not stepped forward.”

Sustainability, for those unfamiliar, is a term that emerged in the 1980s. In its most common definition, sustainable development is that which meets the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to do likewise. Its principles reach across human endeavor from the political to the economic to the social, and all must be addressed in proposing truly sustainable strategies.

Barlett and Chase scoured the country for stories of sustainable aspirations put into practice. There are well known stories, such as the development of Oberlin College’s (Ohio) Lewis Center, a building that went up with the goal of producing all its own electricity (through solar panels) while producing zero waste products.
There also are lesser known cases from institutions like metro Detroit’s Oakland Community College, which incorporated sustainability components into its degree requirements.

“A lot of places have publicized the success stories; we wanted the more human stories of how individual leaders did what they did—and what they did sometimes didn’t work,” Barlett said.

Each of the book’s 16 chapters covers a different situation at a different institution, and all are written in engaging prose by the players themselves, detailing their strategies from conception to conclusion—and the lessons learned.

For her part, Barlett said in compiling the book, she learned the importance of building relationships and trust; failing to keep all parties informed and invested derailed budding environmental processes at more than one school.

Indeed, Barlett’s own chapter—titled “No Longer Waiting for Someone Else to Do It”—chronicles the consensus building during the emergence of the Ad Hoc Committee on Environmental Stewardship and the Piedmont Project for Faculty Development, a blueprint for cooperation it set for future environmental issues
on campus.

Perhaps in the not-so-distant future, Emory will have established an ethos of sustainability such as that at Vermont’s Middlebury College, which Barlett says has been preaching and practicing sustainability for two decades. The product (described in a chapter called “Cultivating a Shared Environmental Vision”) is an institution where environmental thinking permeates the culture. One example: Looking ahead in the early 1990s to build a new science center, Middlebury worked with local company that pledged to provide green-certified lumber from Vermont forests. Currently planning the construction of a new library, the college has contracted five years out for such lumber.

Has Emory’s environmental ethos reached the level of a place like Middlebury? Perhaps not. But the University has become a leader in green-building efforts, boasting two LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified buildings and more projects under review for certification. Emory also has won awards for its recycling program, and environmental concerns are playing a major role in the University’s current strategic planning efforts.

“I’m proud that Emory’s story can take its place among the 16 inspiring stories in this book,” Barlett said. “And I hope it will draw positive attention to Emory from around the world.”