A Solutionary College Sustainability Plan? – the Important Part is the How

Macalester Sustainability Plan Sept 2009Cross-posted from Its Getting Hot in Here

Macalester College, a small liberal arts college I attend in Saint Paul Minnesota, released its Sustainability Plan on September 15th. In the midst of a flurry of action on the national policy level, internationally around Copenhagen, and in the local fights against mountain-top removal and other dirty energy, one more college sustainability plan seems almost insignificant. What’s important about this plan, however, is not what its goals are (though they include carbon neutrality by 2025, zero waste by 2020, and more) but how it plans to achieve them. I hope this focus on the method as well as the goals can inform and inspire the climate movement – with some pretty strong resonances with what it means to be solutionary. Here’s a brief synopsis of the key features of the how, which I’ll explore in more detail below the fold.

1. Going carbon neutral will be revenue positive, meaning a carbon-free future is as much commonsense smart decision-making as it is a moral imperative.
2. Designing the vision was participatory – 400 students, faculty, and staff contributed at a college with a student body of 1900 – and implementation will continue to be. The plan clearly states that it is a baseline platform, not a ceiling.
3. The changes really matter – with a few exceptions, the plan identifies strategies to that make actual change, rather than check the boxes of conventional practice.
4. The college plans to create ripples of change that extend far beyond campus – emphasizing pathways to broader change through the supply-chains, education process, and community relationships it engages.
5. Sustainability is defined holistically as the ongoing process of nurturing a healthy environment, social justice, and a strong economy. It is a guiding quality of all the institution’s core values, not an addition to them.

I’m using this post to encourage movement leaders to dig deeper into figuring out the how, and to introduce future posts exploring what it really means to deliver the visions of a sustainable society that we advocate for constantly. To guide the story, I’ll use the case study of Macalester and the efforts I’ve been involved in that now extend far beyond it, not because the method is limited to this example (the network of amazing solutionaries nationwide clearly highlights that, and any method would be flawed if so limited), but because I know them well. These posts will explore how campus leaders made success not only broad but also deep, meaningful, and transformative, the expansive horizons to which similar methods have grown our work far beyond campus, and the implications that each step has for the broader climate movement over the coming decades. Stay tuned for more stories from the process.

In the meantime, check out more details on what’s important about how Macalester seeks to achieve sustainability below.

So the carbon goal itself is decent – the initial Environmental Studies Senior Seminar that did much of the grunt-work creating recommendations for the report ran several scenarios, including carbon neutrality by 2020, 2030, and 2050 (which we consider business as usual, regardless of what about half of Congress things), and recommended the 2020 goal. 2025 as a final target is a small concession considering the systematic, big-picture thinking that the overall plan employs. There are many other main goals in the plan itself, including Zero Waste by 2020, and a vast set of strategies that a wide range of campus entities will employ to achieve them. Many of these strategies are still pretty vague, but they identify the general processes and clear principles by which the college will advance towards clearly specified goals. I actually see this as a strength – the 16-year implementation process will be vast and complex, and (like the rest of society when seeking a post-carbon future) we don’t have all the details figured out. Having clear and powerful principles that act as a strong platform for future effort towards a clear objective is a great start, and as we’ll see, many of these principles are pretty compelling.

1. Going carbon neutral will be revenue positive

Macalester will focus first on energy efficiency, improving campus behavior, and waste reduction. The college has yet to figure out how it will actually make the shift in budgeting procedures, but Macalester intends to dedicate the substantial savings that these changes achieve to fund the rest of the process. This approach took inspiration from the student-initiated Clean Energy Revolving Fund and subsequent campus projects that have demonstrated that sustainability, when done right, saves more than it costs – which makes sense when you think of it as not throwing resources down the drain left and right – the modern standard practice. While thorough research still needs to be done, initial study by the previous Environmental Studies Senior Seminar suggests that shifting to a non-fossil heating source will also be revenue positive for the college (research was for an off-site biogas purchase from agricultural cow manure production that is becoming increasingly popular in Minnesota – I’m even more fond of the ground-source heat approach, which hasn’t been thoroughly evaluated, both because it’s more sustainably scalable and probably will have less price-volatility when linked with fossil fuels). Cost-effective, concrete, on-campus solutions will reduce our carbon emissions by over 50%, and also provide the funding needed to eliminate the rest through off-campus action. The focus on profitability may seem like a concession to a business-mentality, but it is actually vitally important to the climate movement – if the solutions we advocate are expensive and require sacrifice and loss (as opposed to gainful and meaningful investment) or resources, we rapidly make them inaccessible for low-income communities here in the US and most of the Global South. In other words, unless we can find a new approach to development where climate solutions make money and renew the economy, we’re going to be stuck at a global impasse while the world burns for quite a while.

2. Participatory vision creation and implementation

The President’s Climate Commitment, The Sustainability Office, and the Advisory Committee that helped develop this plan were all formed as result of several years of intense coalition building, innovation, and leadership, much of it by students. The position we took over these years was more than just that we need bold action, but that we intend to be co-creators throughout the process and share in the process of leadership – interestingly, this led to both less adversarial relations, greater openness to a participatory approach, and more power for the grassroots later on. Full-campus engagement has been a constant struggle, but by using a participatory facilitation process, we were able to get input from over 400 students, faculty and staff to inform the vision, strategy, and tactics of the plan – while not all of these people were students, that’s a number of campus participants greater than 20% of our student body. The final draft was compiled by working groups of students, faculty and staff, who also got to review and comment on revisions that were made after the final draft went to the upper administration. The important part is that campus departments and groups that will not play a role in implementation were part of the planning process, giving them both ownership over the vision and a community of support in making it happen. The process also made clear that we as a community are in it for the long haul, and that this document is just a start. The guiding statement introducing the plan clarifies: “Macalester recognizes that achieving sustainability is an ongoing process. The goals in this report are intended to guide the college’s progress and are not meant to be limiting” (p 8). Again, doing this at a small liberal arts college of 1900 students is all very well and good, but on the global scale, we know that solutions to climate change will take everyone – and making sure everyone has a stake is a pretty tall order.

3. The changes really matter

There are plenty of ways to call an institution carbon neutral. Several have already bought carbon offsets or renewable energy credits from outside corporations equivalent to their carbon emissions and declared victory (note that that also implies a significant cost, violating the first big principle of Macalester’s how). Ultimately though, we’re going to have to make a lot more very real changes in how we do business. Aside from the almost exhaustive list of specific actions the document describes (real and concrete goals ranging from paper reuse to fuel switching in vans, to encouraging hemispheric study abroad – and thus fewer, shorter flights), the plan provides some key guidelines. These include that we will offset OR develop off-campus renewable energy for our carbon emissions ONLY after exhausting opportunities for on-campus efficiency, waste reduction, change in practices, and energy generation. Many in the student community worked for a very long time before off-campus renewable energy generation was given the same weight in the plan as traditional offsets, and its inclusion serves as a major platform on which to build. In the long run, it makes no sense to be expending large amounts of money paying for vague, distant, and often dubiously sustainable carbon credits when we could act as an investor and coordinator of further investment for the profitable clean energy (mostly wind) opportunities that are springing up across rural Minnesota and even at rival (rural, windier) colleges like Carleton, St. Olaf, and Morris. Again, there’s enough fluff in the broader “climate solutions” field already – we need an approach that is dedicated, meticulous, skilled, and adventurous in making the changes that really matter.

4. The college plans to create ripples of change that extend far beyond campus

In the conventional carbon assessment method for institutions, ones carbon footprint – and thus what one has to deal with – ends at the campus or corporate boundary – limiting the assumed difficult and costly responsibility. Here’s a key extended quote, from page 8:

“Macalester is committed to being a leader among institutions of higher education to create the optimal educational experience, demonstrate sustainable business practices, and foster sustainable communities. Macalester understands that its commitment to sustainability must reflect its interdependency with other local and global communities and ecosystems. As well, we believe that our economic prospects rest on the flourishing of sustainable economic practices and activities, and we recognize the liability that unsustainable industries invariably pose.

Using the lens of sustainability, Macalester will teach and practice local and global citizenship. We will support sustainable community development beyond the campus by proactively engaging the broader community in the transition to sustainability. The college will use its purchasing power (alone or in purchasing pools) and educational actions to influence and provide examples of sustainable behavior. Macalester’s commitment to looking beyond its own boundaries to make the world more sustainable (rather than simply minimizing its institutional negative impact) is a crucial responsibility that is reflective of the college’s core values.”

More specifically, the plan commits to evaluating the supply chains of our purchases to identify ways to pool resources with community groups and peer institutions to leverage more sustainable practices and augment its educational program to foster multi-faceted student-community partnerships and the innovations in sustainable community development that result. Of course, that leaves a lot of details to be figured out (the commitments to action on the investing front are particularly vague), but the core principles, the statement that this is a guide, not a limit, and the participatory process that has been followed leave ample room for this outline to be grown to fruition. Another quote from page 10 that highlights this commitment:

“We will reach out to regional, national, and international higher education and sustainability networks for inspiration, assistance, and joint endeavors. Collaboration will occur across hierarchical lines, incorporating ideas of our students, staff, faculty, alumni, parents, and community experts.”

Right now, most Americans worried about climate change are engaged in mitigating the box that this their personal lifestyle. Most nations are arguing over what pieces of which pie who will be responsible for. Households separate from households, colleges separate from colleges, nations separate from nations. What would a strategy look like were we focused on the synergies of partnering across boundaries, and harnessing our influence to shape the sustainability of the vast networks of interconnections that all of us – personally and organizationally – are connected to in a diverse range of ways. This is obviously what the youth movement is trying to do, but I fear that we often get into “box” thinking too often.

5. Sustainability is defined holistically

Here’s the Macalester definition, expanded from the traditional Brundtland one:

Sustainability is the continuous effort to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs by working toward a healthy environment, social justice, and a strong economy. At Macalester, sustainability is infused throughout our core values of academic excellence, internationalism, multiculturalism, and service to society.

I once heard a quote saying that the 2-word definition for sustainability is “one world”. A lot of us think that our movement is really about a new way of doing things at a society-wide scale, and that our work is not a separate issue from development, or justice, or health, or any of that. If we’re serious about that – that the climate movement is really about a new Industrial Revolution that this time is founded on sustainability and justice and improves everyone’s lot together – we need to get very careful about our language and what we say it is. Because to an awful lot of people, they’re still hearing only carbon, dirty energy, pollution, and other environmentally-coded words, along with confusing frames like “green jobs” that don’t resonate with their lived reality. Let’s find a way to say that the world we’re working for is what everyone has always wanted, and that we finally have a clear and compelling strategy for getting there.

This entry was posted in Local Programs by timothydenherderthomas. Bookmark the permalink.

About timothydenherderthomas

Timothy is the General Manager of Cooperative Energy Futures and a member of the Community Power Steering Committee. He's all about people power, and being the changes we actually want to see. Timothy has been heavily involved in community development and using climate solutions as incredible opportunities for local economic activity, collective empowerment, and self-determination. He does lots of network building with buddies in the youth movement as well as labor, faith, agricultural, small business, and neighborhood groups.

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