Yale goes green — but is it sustainable?

Sustainability, or at least the idea of it, has found a home at Yale, and it means more than just grass-fed burgers on Wednesday. Within the ivy-covered walls of an elite institution, environmentalism has suddenly emerged at the fore of administrative thinking. In building plans and blue bins, in posters and mass e-mails, in percentages and target dates, in stickers and buttons, the signs are clear: Yale is going green.

Perhaps the clearest sign of all is the University’s Office of Sustainability, created by Yale President Richard Levin in 2005 for the purpose of advancing a gamut of policy goals. Those goals range from reducing energy consumption to cutting greenhouse gases to constructing eco-friendly buildings, and each is accompanied by a host of quantitative metrics for monitoring Yale’s progress toward the ultimate goal of an environmentally sustainable campus.

From the top down, sustainability appears to have taken hold. But what remains to be seen is whether sustainability’s exponents can spread their cause at the opposite end of the spectrum—among the students themselves. Their success in doing so may determine the fate of their entire enterprise. With buzz words hanging heavy in the air and Al Gore’s polemics fresh in the mind, are Yale students ready to strap on their Birkenstocks and start saving the planet?

Setting the bar

In a blizzard of environmental statistics, certain numbers stand out more than others. Yale has pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions to 10% below 1990 levels by the year 2020. It also struck a deal with the residential colleges one year ago, pledging to purchase energy from environmentally-friendly sources if students could reduce their power usage by 15% over the following 3 years. Goals like these signal that sustainability has been accepted as a legitimate, if not vital, policy objective at the institutional level but also in a way that directly affects the lives of Yale students.

“We’re taking a much more thoroughgoing stance than in the past,” Levin said. “It’s been a gradual evolution. I think the commitment to reduce emission levels below 1990 levels was a major step forward, and we are quite encouraged by the work that has been done to support that goal.”

Levin committed Yale to emission reduction last year after reading a proposal drafted by the Yale Energy Taskforce, a coalition of students, faculty and administrators dedicated to advancing the cause of sustainability.

“That certainly had an effect on my thinking,” Levin said. “It was a very thoughtful piece of work.”

Advocates of sustainability among the Yale faculty and administration seem to regard the University’s initiatives as an opportunity to take the lead in the national and even international arena. That opportunity is arriving after decades of relative inertia.

“President Levin has recognized this issue as a core issue, not something that’s just on the periphery,” Professor Stephen Kellert of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Sciences said. “I’ve been here long enough to remember a Yale where this issue was a very small concern within the greater constellation of the University.”

Kellert chairs the building committee for one of Yale’s more widely-heralded eco-friendly projects, the $27 million Kroon Building, a School of Forestry and Environmental Studies classroom building scheduled for completion in 2008. The Kroon Building will adhere to a series of standards for environmental sustainability grouped under the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification system. Kellert said he hopes that the building will be a paragon of sustainable modeling.

“If you think about what we’re trying to accomplish, it’s not such a simple task,” he said. “Basically, to advance sustainability we have to take everything that’s done with regards to the construction and maintenance of a building and then change it by turning it 90 degrees. Our ultimate goal is to create a building that is energy-efficient and climate-neutral.” The Kroon Building’s materials and energy systems will be intended to maximize efficiency and minimize waste.

The administration’s decision to adopt a sustainable construction model did not come easily or immediately, Kellert said.

“At first there was some resistance, but eventually people saw that this was really an opportunity to do something important,” he said. “It’s always risky when you do something new. You can tell the pioneers from the arrows in their backs. Every time you try to make a major operational change to a certain method of doing things, you’re pushing against a long-established structure that probably had a good reason for being there in the first place.”

The case for switching to more environmentally-sustainable options is one that is rarely made on the grounds of any immediate economic benefit. Instead, Yale’s sustainability gurus portray the decision as more of an investment with a long-term intangible payoff. And the University is now prepared to make that investment: President Levin said that every new Yale construction project will be LEED-certified.

“There’s no question that the first costs, the up-front costs, are always the most painful,” Kellert said. “But this is an investment for the future that goes beyond dollars and cents.”

The University’s willingness to trade immediate material expenses for sustained ecological benefit has been attended by a spate of recent developments around the globe. Such developments lend a sense of relevance, if not urgency, to the arguments in favor of a sustainable campus.

“Certain present circumstances really aided the change in institutional thinking,” Kellert said. “The cost of hydrocarbons has gone up recently, and now more and more studies are coming out that point to the likelihood of major climate change.”

The idea of sustainability appears to possess staying power among the University’s top officials. With commitments to energy and greenhouse gas reduction, and with environmentally-friendly building policies now on record, Yale is seeing green in its future.

“This isn’t just a temporary trend,” said Julie Newman, Director of the Yale Office of Sustainability. “This is an ongoing commitment by Yale to be a leader among its peers and to inspire similar initiatives around the country and around the world.”

Bridging the gap

For all the acceptance sustainability has found within the realm of administrative policy at Yale, whether it gains any traction will likely be determined by Yalies themselves.

“There are two commitments that must be made,” Newman said. “There’s an institutional commitment, but then there’s also the more systemic challenge of a school-wide commitment among the students.”

Generating such a commitment is the primary task of STEP, the Student Taskforce for Environmental Partnership. STEP coordinators — two students from each of the residential colleges — are employed by Yale to communicate and organize the University’s sustainability initiatives among their peers.

“The theme of STEP is to get students to think about alternative ways to live and to deal with their everyday use of resources,” STEP student director Alice Shyy ’08 said. “It’s about creating a culture of sustainability.”

That culture might already be underway: Shyy said that last year, the average reduction in energy consumption for the residential colleges was ahead of schedule. Still, when it comes to promoting sustainability, some STEP coordinators find themselves continually searching for the best possible means of getting through to their fellow students.

“We’re hoping to show people that to be environmental, you don’t necessarily have to make big sacrifices,” said Emily Biesecker ’08, STEP Energy Team head and Silliman STEP coordinator. “We’re not asking people to live uncomfortably or to give up basic amenities. The small things are what end up making huge differences: turning down the heat a couple degrees, switching to compound-fluorescent light bulbs or using cold water for laundry instead of hot.”

Kate Gasner ’09, a Saybrook STEP coordinator, said that the simplicity of certain tasks can sometimes present a disadvantage.

“Outright resistance from students is hard to come by,” Gasner said. “The greater problem is indifference. Many of the things we’re promoting — recycling, reducing food waste, conserving energy — are such little things that it’s easy for us to remind people, but it’s just as easy for them to forget. It’s simple stuff, but because it’s so simple it’s easily brushed aside.”

Gasner, in addition to being a STEP coordinator, is also the co-chair of YSEC, the Yale Student Environmental Coalition, a nonprofit student group dedicated to green advocacy. If STEP is Yale’s organ for sustainability outreach, YSEC plays the opposite role — that of students lobbying the administration from the outside. Students from YSEC were major contributors to the original Energy Taskforce proposal read by Levin, and they continue to play an active role in articulating and promoting sustainability goals from the grass-roots level.

Gasner said that her involvement in YSEC allows her to engage in a far greater latitude of issues than STEP touches.

“In STEP, our jobs are to advocate the programs that have been set up within the framework of the University,” she said. “Because we’re employed by Yale, there’s no wiggle room to support outside causes or to partake in activism.” Activism is YSEC’s concern, and Gasner said she thinks that it still has a critical role to play in advancing sustainability even further.

Newman said she agrees that sustainability will require a greater grass-roots mobilization than is now represented by STEP alone.

“I can’t predict what other student groups will emerge in time,” Newman said. STEP is a very important arm for outreach efforts right now, but I’m sure that more and more students will become involved in various new campaigns as time goes on.”

Trying to connect

The fact that environmental concerns have gained increasing credence in broader American culture over the past several years may be the greatest advantage possessed by groups like STEP and YSEC. Kathryn Baldwin ’09 said she thinks of recycling as second nature.

“I remember when I was growing up, around the house we’d always have separate bins for recycling, and I just instinctively knew that I was supposed to put paper in one and plastic in the other,” Baldwin said. “I think we’re probably the first generation that has really grown up with the idea of recycling ingrained in our basic thinking. In school, too, there was always the blue recycling bin in the corner of the classroom.”

But recycling only encompasses so much of Yale’s sustainability agenda: another student, Meredith Wall ’09, said she had always recycled, but that STEP had done little to change her attitudes about daily energy use.

“I can’t really think of any instances in which my day-to-day behavior has actually changed,” she said.

For Evan Edwards ’09, who last year shared a suite with a STEP coordinator, the story was somewhat different.

“I remember starting out and not really knowing much about sustainability,” Edwards said. “But after a while, it wasn’t hard to realize where I could make certain small changes. I never left the light on when I was out of the room, and we switched to fluorescent bulbs and unplugged our appliances over the breaks. The changes became permanent, sooner or later.”

Kevin Currey ’09 said he thought that most sustainable choices are common sense, and that most students require only a small nudge to put them into effect.

“I think most people already know what they should be doing, but STEP helps to remind them,” he said. “STEP is a great initiative because instead of just being the administration, it’s actually led by Yale students.”

STEP’s campaign draws momentum from the fact that most students, when asked, say that they have always been aware with environmental needs. Sherman Wang ’07, co-director of Yale’s Freshman Outdoor Orientation Trips, said that he was already concerned with sustainability when he first arrived at Yale, in large part because of his California background.

“I wasn’t a tree-hugger or anything, but I came from a part of the country where the environment was definitely a big concern for a lot of people,” Wang said. “I think that one sign of STEP’s success over the past couple years is that such a high percentage of students know about the issues and are at least open to making a change to their lives.”

Students like the ones Wang describes are the kind of demographic that STEP is hoping to influence, Shyy said.

“We’re trying to sway the middle of the spectrum,” she said. “You’ll always have this top tier of individuals who are responsive to new initiatives and will change willingly if you keep them informed. And then there are just some people who hate the environment, for whatever reason, or who are too stubborn or lazy to change their ways. Our goal is to reach the majority of the people who are in between.”

Shyy said that in order to maximize sustainability’s appeal, coordinators are careful to draw a distinction between STEP and radical environmentalist caricatures that might persist in a student’s mind.

“Environmentalism is definitely an easy target, and for some people the notion of ‘green’ has always had a stigma attached to it,” Shyy said. “We try to emphasize that STEP is not a radical activist group.”

Gasner said she has found that the best approach is to take the middle road of common sense, eschewing ideology and avoiding possibly politicized language.

“I usually don’t like to pull the global warming phrase out of the bag, just because it can force some people to tune out altogether. I usually say that this is just a responsible lifestyle to have for the years to come, so why not start now?”

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