Grading Green
By

    Photo: Cassi Saari / North by Northwestern

    If the human race does not take immediate environmental action, it will not survive past the year 2000. This was the grim prediction made by the scientists and government officials at Project Survival, the first in a series of “teach-ins” held on college campuses, sponsored by 12 Northwestern departments and NSBE. Three months before the very first Earth Day, the best environmental minds convened in Tech Auditorium to discuss what they already knew would be the heavy burden of future generations: taking care of the planet.

    Students sat in the aisles all through the night to hear about the imminent dangers posed by pollution, radioactive fallout and the depletion of the earth’s natural resources. Northwestern distinguished itself as a leader among college campuses in what Illinois Attorney General William Scott called “one of the greatest crusades to hit the college campuses.”

    That was 1970: pre-oil crises, pre-Priuses and pre-An Inconvenient Truth.

    Northwestern no longer leads the pack when it comes to sustainability. “We’re not lagging, but we’re not leading. And I think Northwestern likes to lead,” says Assistant to the Vice President of Student Affairs Burgwell Howard, who is also a leader of SWaG.

    The bright side: gains can be made quickly. Environmentalist energy buzzes on campus, making excellent progress in academics, research and facilities management, and through the work of student groups. But until these entities intersect and coordinate, Northwestern will continue to lose ground to greener schools.

    Activity in the dark

    Northwestern is like your mom pretending to be the tooth fairy: leaving green and getting no credit. Though earth-minded action occurs all over campus, it is seldom well-publicized.

    All new buildings and major renovations at Northwestern are now being built according to LEED standards, and recycling has made significant improvements in a very short amount of time. The Evanston campus saw a 10 percent jump in the recycling rate from 2005 to 2008. “Basically, we’re seeing the recycling diversion rate [the percentage of the total trash that gets recycled] increasing, and that’s the goal,” says Julie Cahillane, manager of refuse and recycling for facilities management and another head of SWaG.

    “We’re close to peer institutions with similar programs,” Cahillane says, but composting would make a big difference. Composting diverts organic matter (like food scraps) from landfills and turns it into a useful material. The stuff is almost magical: it can suppress plant diseases and pests, facilitate reforestation, capture and destroy industrial volatile organic chemicals and even make crops more productive.

    One challenge with making energy-saving changes is measuring their effectiveness. Consultants are currently working on detailed energy audits of all the buildings on both the Evanston and Chicago campuses and identifying energy conservation projects to undertake over the next few years. According to Ronald Naylor, director of facilities management, funding for at least $10 million of energy conservation projects are already in place, with facilities management expecting to find more projects to fund after the audit. Norris will be one of the first buildings to be renovated, with a rehaul of the heating, air conditioning, ventilation and lighting systems this summer.

    Many of the initiatives on campus originated from student ideas or are executed by student groups. The new trios of outdoor recycling bins were pushed through by SEED and implemented in only one academic quarter. SEED is also working on establishing a loan fund for sustainability projects, modeled off a similar initiative at Harvard. Engineers for a Sustainable World is seeking a use for waste vegetable oil on campus. Green House was started by a student movement, and Green Cup becomes more successful every year.

    Greening is also reaching the classroom. During fall quarter, Climate Change and Local Action was offered through the political science department. The class looked at municipal and university climate action plans and the students produced a report released in January. The report made recommendations on transport, energy efficiency, renewable energy and food.

    The Program in Environmental Policy and Culture, a Weinberg minor now in its fourth year, is making rapid progress improving and expanding course offerings and student involvement. ter. SEED is also working on establishing a loan fund for sustainability projects, modeled off a similar initiative at Harvard. Engineers for a Sustainable World is seeking a use for waste vegetable oil on campus. Green House was started by a student movement, and Green Cup becomes more successful every year.

    The Sustainable Endowments Institute gave Northwestern a C+ on its College Sustainability Report Card.

    Greening is also reaching the classroom. During fall quarter, Climate Change and Local Action was offered through the political science department. The class looked at municipal and university climate action plans and the students produced a report released in January. The report made recommendations on transport, energy efficiency, renewable energy and food.

    The Program in Environmental Policy and Culture, a Weinberg minor now in its fourth year, is making rapid progress improving and expanding course offerings and student involvement. According to program director and political science senior lecturer Yael Wolinsky, enrollment in social sciences and humanities courses in environmentalism have almost doubled over the last three years.

    “Students are much more interested in environmental issues,” Wolinsky says. “The program has expanded quite a bit and it is a reflection of student demand and growing general interest.” Starting next fall, a one quarter program on environmentalism in China will be offered in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

    But Wolinsky would still like to see more, including offering environmental policy as a major and a requiring all students to take a class in environmental education and sustainability. “It is really important that students receive proper environmental education,” she says. “The university has an important role in educating students in an educational and social role in leadership in these areas. From this perspective, it is almost a mission.”

    With our powers combined

    On a green scale of 60 – 99, The Princeton Review gives Northwestern a 60.

    The individual entities involved with environmentalism and sustainability at Northwestern are a bit like Captain Planet’s Planeteers. Earth, Wind, Water, Fire and Heart are each powerful on their own, but until they join their rings together and form Captain Planet, they are not fulfilling their potential for action.

    “I think that there are a lot of small pockets of people who are doing a lot and are really passionate and involved,” says Weinberg sophomore Jackie Beard, one of the co-founders of the Green House. “But it’s difficult for those people to be connected. A lot of the time they are fighting the same battles with different groups of people.” SWaG acts as a platform for discussions between different groups on campus, but it is not enough. Northwestern needs a sustainability coordinator.

    New York University’s sustainability task force is headed by project coordinator Jeremy Friedman. The task force is a university sanctioned advisory body that makes and helps implement annual recommendations.

    Many involved in sustainability at Northwestern agree that hiring someone like Friedman is necessary now. SWaG is not enough, as its members cannot devote their full attention to a task that needs a 40 hour-a-week commitment.

    But can the university afford an additional office and budget for that person? Naylor says no. Though it could be something to consider later on, he says, right now his office would like to make more capital investments in energy conservation and find ways to save money given the current financial situation. Howard and Friedman disagree. Costs can be met by the savings netted from energy saving improvements.

    Howard estimates that $100,000 would be enough to cover a staff person’s salary and benefits, plus a graduate assistant or some student employees. While that is a lot of money, it would be a good move with the savings hiring someone would bring.

    In April, the Sustainability Working Group organized Mount Trashmore to demonstrate how wasteful campus can be. Photo: Cassi Saari / North by Northwestern

    “Establishing a new position…would be a challenge,” Howard says. “What a sustainability coordinator can… [accomplish is help] people understand the return on investment. The savings that you get from the decisions you make contribute towards the expense of this position.”

    Stacking up

    Admissions may boast to prospective students about our student to faculty ratio, retention rates and graduation rates, but there are other measurements they should consider. Twenty-three percent of prospective students and their parents reported that information about a school’s commitment to the environment would “strongly” or “very much” impact application and enrollment decisions according to a survey administered by The Princeton Review.

    On a green scale of 60 – 99, The Princeton Review gives Northwestern a 60. Harvard earns a 99 and NYU follows closely with a 96. A 60 seems pretty harsh, especially to many Northwestern students who would call home crying with such a low grade.

    The Sustainable Endowments Institute, which gives schools letter grades with their College Sustainability Report Card, awarded Northwestern a C+. Though Northwestern received an A in investment priorities and solid B’s in transportation, student involvement, green building and food and recycling, the school scored C’s in administration and climate change and energy as well as D’s in endowment transparency and shareholder engagement. We’re a school of notorious overachievers: If we find a C+ in Introduction to Fiction embarrassing, we should be shamed into action by a C+ in sustainability.

    Harvard, often held up as the shining example of sustainability, achieved an A-. NYU, where Friedman works, climbed to a B- this year from a C just two years ago. Northwestern might convince prospective students that we’re the Ivy of the Midwest with our academics, but we can hardly compete when it comes to environmental ratings.

    “No one likes a C+. I would love to see us move up a full letter grade for next year if possible,” Howard says.

    Sustainability efforts and culture at other universities are accelerating quickly. Arizona State University has a School of Sustainability that offers trans-disciplinary degree programs and a required course for all incoming freshmen includes sustainability education. Starting this spring at the University of New Hampshire, up to 85 percent of the campus’s energy will come via methane gas from a nearby landfill. The university expects payback of the approximately $49 million the project costs within ten years. At College of the Atlantic, all electricity comes from renewable hydropower.

    When institutions invest time, money and intellectual efforts towards preserving the planet, everybody wins. The Wildcats led the push back in January of 1970 and can do so again – the commitment and resources are already in place.

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