Walsh: That which we call progress

Page two of Yale’s recently released Sustainability Strategic Plan presents a diagram: four bold orange arrows feed into each other, head to tail, in a perpetually repeating loop around the word “Yale.” The four arrows are labeled People, Materials, Technology and Earth Systems. A small, lime-green caption beside the image reads, “Sustainability framework.” There is no further explanation. The diagram, though devoid of any straightforward meaning, appears strangely emblematic of Yale’s approach to sustainability: a broken record, a moated solipsism.

Yale has long been a leader of progressive causes. The University is justifiably recognized as one of the world’s intellectual powerhouses. But the Sustainability Strategic Plan, released on Oct. 4 with a campus-wide pronouncement from University President Richard Levin, falls tragically short of this school’s reputation. The ideas are lackluster, anachronistic and overworked. The plan’s “vision of being a sustainability leader” is nowhere manifested in the text of the plan. And while the insultingly vacuous diagrams may elicit soft chuckles, they as often elicit mild queasiness: is this really the product of a year’s work at one of the world’s leading academic institutions?

On the whole, the report seems neither innovative nor creative. But more serious than this staleness is the Sustainable Strategic Plan’s unqualified exclusivity. Yale becomes an island, neatly ringed off from its social and economic contexts. There is no acknowledgement of the University as part of an urban fabric. New Haven is mentioned only three times in 25 pages, and never in a substantive way. This approach is antithetical to any contemporary considerations of sustainability, which must not only reduce waste streams and capitalize on efficiency, but also address social ills across disciplines. The following from the recent report is both indicative and damning of its insular perspective: “Yale recognizes the need to maintain a healthy relationship between its vibrant campus and the natural ecosystem within which it exists — taking into account the wastewater it discharges, the resources it uses, and the species that co-inhabit the land.” What are we to make of this? Does Yale not need to explicitly consider the health of its relationship with New Haven residents who are not members of Yale’s vibrant campus? Perhaps they are meant to fall under “the species that co-inhabit the land.”

The Sustainability Strategic Plan must examine not only Yale, but Yale within New Haven. Absent this consideration, the plan is nothing more than a conceptual exercise, a hollow vision. Take, for example, the following two ideas for broadening Yale’s sustainability efforts: the report’s analysis of electronic waste recycling ultimately advocates for … recycling electronic wastes. What if Yale instead instituted a program to donate old computer products to job training centers, reducing waste while working to close the digital divide? Or take the new construction priorities of the plan, which focus on LEED certification. What if these goals focused as much on the creation of local, green jobs through LEED construction? What if they focused on the enhancement of neighborhood livability through mixed-use buildings? (The new health center at Yale, in the historical shadow of the Elm Haven Project, could have been an interesting experiment for integrating both University and community needs.) These prospects hardly scratch the surface of Yale’s potential for sustainable leadership. A one-year commission for a campus-wide sustainability plan should have, and should still, go much deeper.

To be taken seriously, the Strategic Sustainability Plan needs to update and expand its conception of sustainability; it needs to broaden the horizons of action. In its current form, the plan reads like a hymn to mediocrity, to insufficiency. It resonates as gloomily as Walter Benjamin’s vision of the Angel of History, its face turned toward the past, and of a heavy storm blowing that “is so strong that the Angel can no longer close [its wings]. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.”

Dylan Walsh is a second-year student in the School of Forestry & Environmental Sciences.