Monday, January 5, 2009

Students and sustainability

Thinking more about Connie's question on the way in to work this morning.

How do you see students fitting into this disccusion of sustainability at OSU and playing a role in campus initiatives? How can students get involved now?
I'd have to stress the importance of understanding the situation: at OSU, in the state of Ohio, in the United States right now. Given that sustainability is not something we can achieve alone, we need to work hard to know how we relate to other actors, and what's possible now.

At OSU, I want to say that students should know what's in the President's Climate Commitment and should publicize that commitment. In particular, they should learn what the timetables are and how the university has established its goals. Who's responsible for meeting those goals, and whom are they responsible to? What does accountability mean in this context?

But we need to grapple with the fact that Ohio gets most of its electricity from coal-burning power plants, and that the demise of the auto industry threatens to cripple the state's economy. Ohio has been a cornerstone of the way of life that we now call unsustainable, because its environmental costs are too great. The university, too, has been one of the drivers of that social model. So how can we break out of that loop? What impact is the university having on Central Ohio (ecologically, economically), and what impact could it have? How do we shift institutional directions?

The expansion of the US consumer economy has been one of the drivers of the global economy for several decades at least; the current economic crisis has exposed the limits of that model. As the US teeters on the brink of a depression, it risks dragging the rest of the world along with it. But in trying to address the crisis in the short term, political and economic leaders are tempted--in fact, they're being pushed--to restore the status quo ante as quickly as possible:

"Rather than tackle the source of the problem, the people running the bailout desperately want to reinflate the credit bubble, prop up the stock market and head off a recession. Their efforts are clearly failing: 2008 was a historically bad year for the stock market, and we’ll be in recession for some time to come. Our leaders have framed the problem as a “crisis of confidence” but what they actually seem to mean is “please pay no attention to the problems we are failing to address.” (NYT 1/3/08)
The fact is, we don't have an economic model that takes sustainability seriously--and, for the past several decades, we've done our best to ensure that nobody else does, either. So the crisis, while it presents an enormous opportunity, also presents a huge risk that we'll simply put off the difficult choices, go for a quick fix rather than a fundamental restructuring.

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