Green Campuses, Brown Students

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Green campuses were all over the news today. Maybe it’s because summer is coming to a close and going back to school is on our minds. The Princeton Review recently released its ratings for some 691 schools as part of its general guide to colleges. In their own press release they called the ratings: a measure of how environmentally friendly the institutions are on a scale of 60 to 99.

As I have written on numerous occasions, this way of talking should send a signal to the reader to be cautious in interpreting and accepting the results. Nothing is ever “environmentally friendly!” The ratings may be a good indication of the relative performance of the schools along a multiplicity of axes, but it should never, never be advertised as telling us anything about the real impact of the activities included in the ranking system. Here’s how they describe the ranking system:

The institutional survey for the rating included ten questions on everything from energy use, recycling, food, buildings, and transportation to academic offerings (availability of environmental studies degrees and courses) and action plans and goals concerning greenhouse gas emission reductions.

The GreenReportCard.org has also published a similar list for 300 schools. Their ranking is based on a composite of the following categories: administration, climate change and energy, food and recycling, green building; student involvement, transportation, endowment transparency, investment priorities; shareholder engagement.

These ratings were summarized in the NYTimes which article had a last minute addition to yet another survey, done by the Sierra Club. They included 135 schools in their ranking, which was based on these following categories: efficiency, energy, food, academics, purchasing, transportation, waste management, and administration.

What’s missing in all of these rating systems? The GreenReportCard.org omits any connection to the education the students are to get. The Sierra Club includes academics, but that category accounts for only a small percentage of the overall score. The Princeton Review appears to be more specific, but looks only at environmental offerings. If you haven’t guessed the answer already, it’s the complete lack of attention to the basic curriculum. What’s the point of an organic cafeteria with great recycling if the students have just come from Economics 101 where they learn how consumption drives growth, how more is always better, and how humans are just heartless maximizers? MBAs learn Michael Porter’s competitive strategy theories which are basically about how to capture ever larger segments of a market. The schools may be putting a green overlay on their activities, but they are still turning out brown students.

Unsustainability is not just a case of excessive consumption. That’s just the superficial cause. Students are the great change agents of the future. They are the Planet’s best chance for changing the underlying cultural beliefs and norms that create the problems, but not if they are imbued with the same ideas and norms that got us there. Remember Einstein’s admonition about not being about to solve problems by thinking the same way that created them. It’s relatively easy to green the campuses compared to change the curriculum. I do applaud the efforts being made. The students will be able to see that there are better ways to do things they have already become accustomed to. Then they will graduate and leave behind the green buildings and transparent endowments. Like addicts released from a rehab center, they will be plunged back into the culture with little capacity for critical thinking and few possibilities for practicing the alternate ways of being, thinking, and acting essential to sustainability.

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