There’s a new buzzword on campus these days: sustainability. What does it mean? Sustainability is not the same as environmentalism, but since they are so often lumped into the same sentence, it is easy to see why some people get them confused. Sustainability is the idea of weighing our acts in order to find a balance that can exist indefinitely. Environmental sustainability seeks to weigh the environmental and human costs and benefits of a particular action.
It is recognized that humans need certain things to survive and want many other things for personal comfort. Proponents of environmental sustainability ask that before we use natural resources or run man-made machines, we take a moment to consider the impact on the natural world and decide that their use justifies the expenditure of these resources. Everyone’s ratios for determining this justification vary, and that is all right. The most important thing is that the action was considered.
“Sustainability” is a word that has only recently become popular around Yale’s campus, but it is not a passing fad. In fact, Yale has made a long-term commitment to becoming a more sustainable university and a leader in that regard. Last year, President Levin announced an initiative to reduce Yale’s greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2020. It is easy to skim past these numbers on paper, but that is a huge goal. And now that the University has formally announced its plans, it would be embarrassing to fail in the public spotlight. This plan calls for a 43 percent decrease in emissions from the 2005 baseline. This task is especially daunting because Yale is planning to increase the square footage of its building space by about 15 percent during the same time period. And even though that year seems a long way away, the class of 2010 just took up residence on Old Campus. This is an issue we should all be thinking about right now. With all this new buzz about “sustainability,” it is not surprising that there is a lot of misinformation buzzing around, too. The truth is that environmental sustainability is not economically unsustainable, and that sustainability at Yale is not environmental extremism.
In the house I grew up in, we turned off lights and turned down the heat for economical, not environmental, reasons. At Yale, there is no reason that we can’t perform these simple tasks to both ends. One of the biggest misunderstandings about sustainability is that it will cost more money, or only break even in the long run. This is untrue. Investment in renewable energy sources and environmentally friendly technology is only a small portion of Yale’s plan to cut emissions. The largest part of Yale’s sustainability goal is conservation, which, rather than costing more money, actually costs less. How much does it cost you, and Yale, to turn off a light when you leave the room or shut down your computer at night? Absolutely nothing. In fact, last year Yale saved 3,300 barrels of oil when students reduced the energy consumption in residential colleges by 10.2 percent. With part of these savings, we purchased renewable energy credits from a wind farm in Oklahoma. Because the primary power source in that part of the country is coal, Yale was able to purchase enough credits to offset three times the carbon emissions that otherwise would have been generated by our power plant here in New Haven. Students’ responsible behavior allowed Yale both to save money and to offset carbon emissions at the same time. Hardly a costly example of environmental extremism.
In fact, sustainability here at Yale is anything but extreme. If you go to the STEP Web site and read the suggested guidelines to being more sustainable here at Yale, you will read such radical ideas as “turn off your lights when you leave the room,” “recycle cans and bottles” (in the blue bins that Yale provides to every room on campus), and “only put the food that you think you can eat on your dining hall tray.” STEP does not tell people that they must study by candlelight, dry their clothing by clothesline or freeze during the winter without heat. STEP trusts students to act as environmentally responsible as they are able. They understand that students need to be students first, and do not always have time to devote themselves to an environmental cause. That said, every student here at Yale can be an environmentalist, and it requires no time and no cost.
Katherine Knapp is a senior in Berkeley College and the STEP coordinator for Berkeley.