Happy Campus Sustainability Day!

Rachelle Peterson

Did you bike to work, give up Post-It notes, or eat your leftovers for lunch today? It’s “Campus Sustainability Day,” observed every fourth Wednesday in October since 2003. The nonprofit Second Nature, founded by John Kerry and Teresa Heinz after they met at the 1992 UN Earth Conference in Rio de Janeiro,  devised the holiday to make “going green” chic on campus, bringing sustainability down from the fantastical policy dreams of the UN and into the near reality of an average college campus.  To that end, Second Nature has worked to promote the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment, whereby 673 college presidents and chancellors have vowed to make their campuses 100% greenhouse gas neutral in the near future and to enshrine sustainability as a keystone in higher education in America.

Campus Sustainability Day makes those remote commitments seem more approachable. Each year’s festivities center on a keynote webinar hosted by Second Nature, increasing schools’ repertoires of devices to apply sustainability’s doctrines to all areas of campus life. Prior years’ themes have included “Useful Education:  Sustainability in Admissions, Retention, and Educational Values (2011),” which taught colleges to teach their students to expect and desire sustainability as a central feature of campus culture. 2009’s theme focused on “Sustainability Strategies for Vibrant Campus Communities,” surveying the financial side of college attempts to eliminate their environmental footprints without amputating their academic feet.

This year’s theme is “Climate Adaptation: Resilient Campuses & Communities.” What that means isn’t quite clear. Second Nature is encouraging schools to “interpret this theme broadly, making connections and celebrating successes on a variety of related topics including the role of campuses in adapting to a changing climate, innovations in climate resilience and mitigation, education for sustainability, and campus / community partnerships.” In other words, the theme covers pretty much everything.

That broad scope is typical of the sustainability movement. What seems on its surface to be a push to protect the environment and teach people to be satisfied with fewer and simpler goods is actually a full-blown ideology. NAS has in past critiqued sustainability for its tendency to curb academic freedom by castigating reasonable, inquisitive scientists who treat the global warming evidence skeptically, labeling them “climate change deniers,” an intentional ploy on Holocaust deniers. The movement has also incorporated into its ideology issues unrelated to the environment, such as anti-market economics, minority rights, and gender issues.  

So how do schools celebrate Campus Sustainability Day?

At Ursinus College, which celebrated its Sustainability Week at the beginning of the month, students planted trees, toured bee hive colonies, powered  down electronic gadgets, and swapped their used goods at a campus yard sale. In kindred spirit, the University of North Florida arranged a night hike through a local preserve. The aim, as Second Nature says, is to use less, reuse more, and reconnect with simpler (unprocessed) joys like forest trails and communal games like football.

Other schools approach Sustainability Day in a scientific spirit, inviting biologists and ecologists to present on the local environment. Thus the University of Georgia’s Bioenergy Systems Research Institute is having a “Bioenergy Day” with an interactive display showing how wood chips can be converted into energy, while the University of Louisville is hosting a seminar on “The Potential Importance of Plant-Fungus Interactions for Sustainable Ecosystems.”

At many schools, sustainability becomes a stunt. Meet Michigan State undergraduate Sean Barton, who has made it his mission to fight trash on campus and promote recycling. Imitating Michigan State’s mascot, Barton has created for himself the persona of “Spartan Recycle Man.” Mr. Recycle Man’s costume consists of “number two cloudy plastics” (think plastic milk jugs) cut in halves and turned into eco-friendly armor.

California State San Bernadino’s celebration takes an almost evangelistic tone. The idea seems to be to lure in the unconverted with the promise of a good party and free gadgets, and hope they leave eager to forgo disposables and buy a hybrid car—or at least aware of the harms of their throwing away recyclables and eating meat instead of vegetables. The college is sponsoring a full-scale “Eco Fest” with zip lines, labyrinths of recycled materials, a screening of The Lorax (the movie version of Dr. Seuss’s environmentally-themed tale), food vendors, and live music, with a solar-paneled bandstand, of course.  The Bag Monster ®, a costume made of 500 plastic bags (the average number of bags each American uses each year) made an appearance to instruct kids in the need for reusable grocery bags. At the University of Arkansas’s much smaller event, the Office of Sustainability is offering students the chance to try an electric bike, and the Social Workgroup entices them to watch a solar oven bake breadsticks and heat pesto. Hungry college students can then sup while learning about the need for renewable energy.

And at Santa Clara University (a Jesuit school), sustainability has taken on the guise of a spiritual discipline: “Engage in the spirituality of sustainability…and participate in a daily action and reflection challenge throughout the month of October,” the school invites students. The daily activities consist of three parts: read, act, and contemplate.  Students read Bible verses and inspirational quotes before answering reflection questions and participating in various exercises. The exercises include calculating their individual carbon footprints (day 7), tracking their trash habits (day 21), and learning about water conservation (day 22). But they also veer into matters that seem only tangentially related, until one recalls Second Nature’s broad interpretation of sustainability. Students learn to empathize with minimum wage workers by building a budget based on minimum wage rates (day 9). They are also instructed (day 5) in the problems of over-incarceration of racial minorities.

The sustainability movement has morphed into an ill-defined catch-all for a host of social grievances, and Campus Sustainability Day is a sort of social grievance fest. How shall we celebrate? NAS is about to check out an information fair at The New School in New York City’s Greenwich Village. We’ll give a report tomorrow.  

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