March 16, 2017
Campuses across the United States are striving to be more green. On prospective student tours, statistics and facts about sustainability are thrown at visitors to try to make a college appear an even more attractive choice. With an increasing environmental awareness across the country, no one is excluded; even universities are being included in the conversation. Even so, the extent to which a university should involve itself with sustainability efforts is debated. What actions can an institution like the University of Michigan take to address environmental issues? Are the actions that are already being taken enough?
U-M has actors who strive to create an atmosphere that encourages environmental awareness and challenges its community members to formulate sustainable solutions. As a member of the Student Sustainability Initiative, I see this firsthand. We are a student board funded by the Graham Sustainability Institute to act as a liaison between student organizations and the University to strengthen the environmental community. We are also responsible for distributing grant money to student organizations taking on innovative environmental projects. By supplying funds like the ones we distribute, as well as other grants that are available, the University demonstrates its commitment to fostering efforts to make sustainable changes by entrusting students, faculty and staff to seek out problems and find optimal solutions.
Unfortunately, there are many shortcomings on U-M’s end regarding environmental action. There is a disconnect between what students are hoping to achieve in their various endeavors and those issues on which U-M takes action. U-M has an incredible amount of power. Students can try to make as much change as they’d hope, but there are certainly roadblocks. For example, I worked on a project within Net Impact, a student organization, aiming to make the Big House more sustainable. While we ended up implementing an initiative to increase recycling, there were setbacks - financial and operational - that would not have been an issue if the administration were also implementing a similar project. As a student, this was not only frustrating, but also a little disheartening. Even though the University’s president has vocalized his commitment to sustainability, at times it feels like there is far more that could be done.
Even though I would like to see the administration take more action, I understand that there are misconceptions about the University’s actions pertaining to sustainability. Although the size of our campus gives us an incredible amount of power on some fronts, it also can be our biggest - and most expensive - obstacle. Methods, partnerships, contracts and logistics are set in place, and to rework anything costs a good amount of time and money. The external environment also presents issues, including access to renewable energy, waste management limitations and the sheer cost of some environmental initiatives. It’s incredibly easy to aim for carbon neutrality, for example, but it is incredibly difficult to execute such a complex goal.
How far should the University extend its reach to those who may resist it? As part of the environmental community here on campus, I’m always excited to see U-M put forth a new initiative. I understand my bias - the environment is my passion, and so of course I’m thrilled by action. However, our broader U-M community may not feel this way. For example, students have expressed discontent with “Meatless Mondays” in the dining hall, because it does not allow them to choose what they may be eating that day, despite that it helps reduce our campus’ environmental impact. Again, this is something that I struggle to understand. Even such a small initiative brings about debate about whether the University is overreaching.
I think the University should be, and frankly needs to be, doing more. How can we claim our title of “leaders and best” if we neglect to aggressively address such a pressing issue? But, most importantly, it truly comes to down to individuals in our community and their respective actions. If each community member demands more from our school, and does as much as they can on their end, then a substantial impact can be realized. Our greater question is: How do we get every single University of Michigan community member to care and to change?
Siri is a senior in Ross minoring in Scandinavian studies and sustainability. She is currently serving as the communications and outreach chair for the Student Sustainability Initiative and is a vegan in an effort to reduce her environmental impact.
As a student double-majoring in environment and economics, I’m privy to both the social science and quantitative arguments for protecting our natural environment. While the approach my respective degree programs take may differ in promoting the fight against climate change, the message is clear to me that we need to be doing more to protect the Earth. As a leading research university, the University of Michigan has a responsibility to allocate funds and resources towards the progression of sustainable projects. This should be done through promoting research, new programs for students, and areas of study that emphasize the protection of the environment.
The University of Michigan is very large, and while its size is extremely valuable in terms of the influence it can have, it poses significant organizational challenges to bringing together the ideas, research, and skills of the 80,000 people that comprise the University community. The status quo of little communication and collaboration across schools and departments has lead to a noticeable lack of cohesiveness in mission and practices among University bodies focused on the environment and sustainability. In October of 2016, the University hosted a panel to promote dialogue on the issue of addressing climate change on college campuses. I attended, and at my table, which consisted of three U of M students and two U of M provosts, we talked about this fragmented nature of the University, especially with regards to fighting climate change.
Fortunately, the University is taking steps to promote a more interconnected policy regarding climate change, most notably with the new School for Environment and Sustainability that will be replacing the School of Natural Resources and Environment. Although specific plans regarding the school are still in progress, according to a University press release, the new school will be organized around “disciplinary clusters and interdisciplinary sustainability themes pulling expertise from the fields of sustainability science, design, engineering, policy, the humanities and the arts.”
Hopefully with the new school in place, there will be a stronger sense of unity across schools and departments as the University tries to combat climate change. Although this is not the only step the University can take to promote a more unified fight against climate change, it is surely an important one.
Additionally, one of the most contentious policies regarding the University’s fight against climate change has been the debate about whether U of M should divest from fossil fuel corporations in its endowment. However, at this time, that is not realistic, and is perhaps misguided. The endowment is committed to generating funds that promote the School’s mission and practices, including research, student programs, housing, and the University’s health system.
Divestment from fossil fuels is often pushed as being the best way for colleges and universities to promote the fight against climate change. While I think it is a novel idea and understand the merits of the argument to divest, it is not the University’s place to take such a political stance with something as serious as its endowment. In the two previous instances when the University divested, the investments in question (tobacco companies and South African corporations during Apartheid) were undoubtedly in violation of the University’s ethics. While fossil fuel companies certainly contribute to the degradation of the natural environment, they are also some of the most impactful entities contributing to research and design of renewable energy technology. To pull our investments from these organizations would only hinder the progression of those innovations.
The place for the University to support the fight against climate change is through its people and programs, not its investments. Through research, student-led organizations, and a more cohesive mission and collaboration to fight climate change, the University can have quite a large impact. The University of Michigan should be one of the leaders in the the fight against climate change, and that can be achieved successfully through constant innovation and continued improvements to the University through its most valuable resource: its people.
Press release from University regarding new school: http://ns.umich.edu/new/releases/24397-u-m-creates-new-sustainability-school
Patrick Birdsong is a senior in LSA studying economics and the environment. He is a political junkie and spends 90 percent of his time watching/listening to CNN. Patrick is also a member of Kappa Omega Alpha, a pre-law and public policy fraternity on campus, and he has two dogs named Maize and Blue.
Christian Mackey & Jacob Grochowski
A powerhouse research institution like the U of M, given the scale of its many buildings and operations, is not entirely green or sustainable. But we want to make it clear from the outset that we believe the University’s faculty, staff and administration are supportive in both action and attitude towards sustainability in its many forms.
Forward-thinking administrators are making great changes in student services. For example, student dining has been advancing towards sustainability in a number of areas, including reducing waste and sourcing ingredients from local businesses and organic producers. The University is also generous in the financial and structural support it gives to green-focused student movements. It offers thousands of dollars to start and sustain programs through grants from the Planet Blue Sustainability Initiative Fund, and staffs professionals to support student coalitions, like the University of Michigan Sustainable Food Program. This shows the University itself is open, excited and prepared to support steps towards green sustainability.
This positive attitude towards ‘going green’ is, in part, because of the student body. These relatively new resources have come into being because small groups of vocal and sustainability-minded students started projects and organizations, bargained for support from the University, and produced significant results. This demonstrates that the school is by and large ready to integrate sustainable programs on campus, especially when they are propelled by hard work from students. This partnership between the school and the students is the reason why a number of green organizations on campus exist today.
Student Food Co., which operates a weekly, nonprofit grocery stand on campus, started after a class project inspired a group of students to both improve access to cheap fruits and vegetables on campus and secure sustainably grown options. The founders of the organization were some of the first to receive a five-figure grant from the University for sustainability projects, which ultimately sparked the creation of the University of Michigan Sustainable Food Program.
The Campus Farm is a representation of the commitment that the University has made to pursuing sustainability in education and operation, and it was made possible by persistent students. More recently, the University has provided more institutional backing for this living-learning laboratory by funding a full time staff member at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens to help steward the farm and to bring students’ ideas to fruition. To date, the Farm has produced thousands of pounds of sustainable produce, hosted classes on topics ranging from environmental justice to biodiversity, and provided hundreds of hours of volunteer opportunities.
While the success of these organizations stems from student activity, a lack of student enthusiasm for mindful foodiness continues to be a barrier to doing more. Student Food Co.’s ability to source local and organic options is limited by student preferences for tropical fruit over hearty, seasonal produce like greens and root vegetables. Justifying further investment in the Campus Farm is also challenging for the University, given the relatively narrow scope of majors represented by its attendees - often environmental science, engineering, or art students. This involvement pattern is not just a problem within the organizations we represent, but broadly across sustainability groups we correspond with as well. There are some truly amazing programs in food sustainability alone here at U of M: opportunities in a student-run apiary, training in industrial food systems, and bi-weekly, city-wide food donations. Members of these organizations are passionate and serious about their work, but are simply too few in number to achieve the potential of which their organizations are capable.
So comes the question, “Does the school have a responsibility to be more green?” Technically yes, but the question does not capture the scope of the issue at hand. Sustainability and environmentalism are conventions to which everyone is obliged. Being green is not a condition that the administration needs to deliver to students. Instead, it is an active movement that is in need of more attention from students on campus; In that sense, students are responsible for making the school greener.
But the answer for this isn’t that everyone starts their own sustainability movement. People just need to be more cognizant of their actions. Our suggestion is this: review how you’re currently living ‘green’ and consider areas for personal improvement. Whether it’s trash, electricity use, or food choices, you will most likely find there are already students on campus who can help you work on being more sustainable. If not, know the school is looking forward to helping you learn more and share that information with others.
Christian Mackey is the president of Student Food Co. He is currently a senior in LSA and will be attending the U of M School of Public Health in the Department of Nutritional Sciences beginning in Fall 2017.
Jacob Grochowski is a senior in LSA studying environmental science with an emphasis on law and policy. He is a student manager at the Campus Farm and the co-president of UMSFP.
When developing countries look for examples to follow, they turn to developed countries like the United States. We can claim that clean air, clean water and industry regulation are important issues, and we discipline others when they fail to comply with standards. But if we don’t employ sustainable practices ourselves, many developing nations will deem it unimportant to do those things either. In claiming ourselves to be the “leaders and best,” the University of Michigan has an immense responsibility to perform the best.
We have a duty to lead by example and establish precedents that guide the world in the right direction: if we let that burden fall on others, we can surely expect to make slow progress. There are more resources and talent available within this University than some nations have in an entire country, so I believe that we naturally bear an unequal part of this burden, whether or not we are happy about it. But we are extremely capable of producing results, as evidenced by environmentally-friendly practices found all over campus.
Some of the more noticeable efforts are ones that students may be familiar with: single-stream recycling bins, low-flow plumbing, a massive light bulb replacement in the Law Library, default two-sided printing on University computers, a movement to rid the campus of blue books in favor of green books, a campus-wide ban on smoking, a shift to making Blue Buses hybrid, compost bins on campus, seasonal farmer’s markets in University buildings, classes offered on topics such as the environment and sustainability, and compostable paper towels in some bathrooms on campus. These are supplemented by extensive measures implemented by Michigan Dining alone. M Dining buys seafood from sustainable wild fisheries and milk from Michigan dairy farms, lessens portions to reduce food waste, donates unused perishable goods to Food Gatherers, and composts all its waste from dining operations.
As a biology major passionate about protecting the environment, I cannot think of a better place to have attended school for the past four years than the University of Michigan. Stereotypically one of the most liberal college campuses in the country, U-M puts a huge effort into sustainability progress and research each year. In Fiscal Year 16 alone, sustainability experts at U-M conducted $65.6 million of research. Additional statistics from 2016 show a five percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and a 34 percent reduction in chemical outputs onto campus below 2006 levels, which shows progress toward the University’s goals for 2025. Furthermore, 12 percent of food purchased was supplied by local and sustainable sources and 1,100 tons of material were composted.
Statistics like these make me incredibly proud to be a student at this University; yet there is always more to be done. From 2015 to 2016, the amount of waste sent from U-M to disposal facilities increased from 12,900 to 14,100 tons. While the recycling rate on campus also increased to 29 percent, more changes will obviously need to be made if the University is to meet its sustainability goal of reducing landfill waste by 44 percent by 2025.
As my senior year comes to a close, I look back fondly on the experiences this University has provided for me, and I feel confident that one I will remember the best is a class called Environmental Law and Policy. Being surrounded by undergraduate and graduate students alike who care about the future of the Earth and want to make a difference feels like the opportunity of a lifetime. It has shown me that I am not alone in my commitment to these ideals, but rather part of a whole, and we are all united by similar goals. These students are among the leaders and best - some of the world’s next lawyers, engineers, politicians, and policymakers - and they all recognize that the onus is on us to make greater change happen.
Audrey is a senior in LSA studying biology with plans to attend law school after graduation. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, doing yoga and trying new restaurants.