Given the consensus among scientists, economists, and world governments on the devastating consequences of resource depletion, why is it that colleges and universities don’t put the environmental crisis front and center in their curricula and policies?
Four hundred and twenty-four students, faculty, and administrators from 35 campuses convened last weekend at the Campus Environmental Leadership Summit to begin to answer that question.
“Policy decisions that have led society down unsustainable paths have been made by people educated in higher education,” said Anthony Cortese, Sc.D. ’76, former dean of environmental programs at Tufts University and currently president of Second Nature, a nonprofit that counsels universities on “sustainability.” During the opening plenary session panel at the Geological Museum on Oct. 27, Cortese stressed the central theme of the summit: “universities must understand and model environmental sustainability, because they will be training future leaders as well as every K-12 teacher.”
The panel was aimed at providing activists with the tools to make their institutions more amenable to environmental values and more responsible in their day-to-day operations. An additional goal was to create an environmental network of students, faculty, and administrators among the campuses in Greater Boston.
The plenary session’s moderator, Michael B. McElroy, Gilbert Butler Professor of Environmental Studies, was named to head the University Committee on Environment (UCE) by President Neil L. Rudenstine in 1992. Describing the turnout for the summit as “incredible,” McElroy said he was delighted that Harvard could take the lead in hosting this inter-campus conference. He also expressed satisfaction with the progress that Harvard was making on environmental values.
“Over the last eight to nine years, Harvard has done a good job of improving its practices, developing an undergraduate concentration, a strong research component, and a spreading of environmental awareness into the undergraduate curriculum,” McElroy said.
Although he was excited about the “Greening of the Crimson” initiative, McElroy expressed concern that Harvard’s efforts at energy conservation were falling short, with energy use expanding despite conservation efforts. He sees the proliferation of personal computers as a major culprit and urged all employees to turn off their computers when they leave at the end of the day, saying “screen savers do not save energy.”
The summit was the idea of Chris Fox, a Divinity School student, who in 1994, organized Yale’s Campus Earth Summit and went on to co-found the Center for Environmental Citizenship. “Contrary to public belief,” said Fox, “universities do not currently train students to become environmental leaders. The summit shows the opportunities for universities to allocate more resources to solving environmental problems and preparing the next generation for environmental leadership.”
Fox went on to give credit to Provost Harvey V. Fineberg for his responsiveness to the idea of hosting the conference, and the Provost’s eagerness to have the summit scheduled as soon as possible.
The event was funded by the V. Mann Rasmussen Foundation, which was represented at the conference by trustee Martin S. Kaplan, a graduate of the Law School.
In his presentation on the plenary panel, Kaplan raised the issue of the decentralized and fragmented nature of universities in general, and Harvard in particular. Kaplan was critical of Harvard’s notoriously independent departments, claiming that they frustrate across-the-board changes.
Although much of the conference was focused on moving faculty and administrators toward institutional changes, the responsibility of students was not overlooked. In fact, several speakers took students to task for the proliferation of computers, refrigerators, microwave ovens, and a plethora of other electronic devices in dormitories that are causing campus energy consumption to increase.
Environmental justice was an additional theme of the conference, and the need for awareness of the disproportionate environmental impacts and adverse health effects that minorities and the poor experience. Friday evening’s keynote speaker, Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Research Center at Clark Atlanta University, addressed this issue, chronicling his efforts to reveal the nature of “environmental racism.” One of his strongest examples was the NIMBY (Not in My Back Yard) bias in the siting of power plants, landfills, and smelters, and what Bullard characterized as the resulting “PIBBY – Place in Blacks’ Back Yards.”
On the front line of Harvard’s environmental programs is Leith Sharp, coordinator of the Greening the Crimson program and a panel moderator for the summit. With considerable experience in “greening” Australian campuses, Sharp came to Harvard seven months ago to head up this program of the UCE. Although Sharp sees plenty of room for improvement in Harvard’s practices, she describes the latest draft strategy hammered out by the UCE program as “world-class,” and “the most ambitious and far-reaching institutional program I have seen.”
Panel moderator James Hoyte, a Harvard associate vice president, and a lecturer on environmental justice in the Environmental Science and Public Policy Department, sees programs to promote sustainability at Harvard as a potential vehicle to bring departments together. Hoyte has been observing Harvard’s environmental practices since his undergraduates days in the early ’60s and his graduate career at the Law School and the Kennedy School of Government. “I am enthusiastic about the energy of the students, the Greening of the Crimson program, and the efforts to harness the faculty and administration in a new infrastructure,” he said.