In recent years, “sustainability” has become a popular buzzword in the environmental movement. Put simply, sustainability refers to a lifestyle that enables present generations to fulfill their needs without compromising the ability of future generations to do so. Sustainability means living, working and behaving in ways that restore the integrity and biodiversity of the social and ecological systems upon which all life depends. Sustainability encompasses a broad spectrum of social and environmental issues, from food consumption to purchasing decisions to waste disposal.
Here at the University, the issue of sustainability is becoming increasingly relevant. For the past two years, Sustain U-M, a student and faculty-led group, has been campaigning to move the University towards greater sustainability. Theirs is a far-reaching initiative that, according to Mike Shriberg, an RC Graduate Student Instructors and Sustain U-M founding member, seeks both “big, systemic changes within the University” as well as shorter-term initiatives.
Sustain U-M came into being after a series of business school lectures in 1999 that included speakers such as David Orr, an Oberlin College professor and leading environmentalist, and Paul Hawken, author of “Natural Capitalism.”
“We were challenged as a university by a lot of the lecturers to begin meeting some of these sustainability goals,” said Jason Smerdon, a physics graduate student and Sustain U-M member. “Out of that sprang the student and faculty initiative.”
Rackham Student Government recently approved Sustain U-M”s Top Ten Priorities, a set of recommendations to administrators on how to incorporate environmental principals into University policy. These recommendations include the establishment of a full-time sustainability coordinator. Essentially, this would be an administrator with extensive environmental knowledge who would act as a liaison between the University and some of the outside interest groups, Smerdon said.
“You need to have somebody who really has sustainability as a vision, and is good at putting all of the different efforts on campus together,” Shriberg said.
The sustainability coordinator would be consulted on a myriad of issues, including construction, grounds maintenance and dining hall purchasing. Michigan State, Tulane, Brown and University of Texas at Houston, among many other colleges and universities, have all adopted a sustainability coordinator.
Another of Sustain U-M”s top priorities is for the University to draft a sustainability vision statement. Currently, the University”s vision statement includes nothing about environmental or social responsibility to the local and global community, an oversight Smerdon views as “unfortunate, but a sign of the times.”
“It”s time to change that we need to start putting these kinds of things in the University”s protocol,” he said.
Campus activists are hoping that Michigan will follow the lead of schools such as Tufts, Brown and Dartmouth by officially committing to a more sustainable future.
“If the University is serious about committing to ecological and social responsibility, they need to have some guiding vision,” Shriberg said.
Sustain UM argues that because of its size and prestige, the University is in a unique position to influence environmental policy. By making a firm commitment to a greener campus, Michigan would be sending a message to the rest of the academic community. Shriberg said he feels very strongly that the University has both an obligation and a responsibility to be a leader in sustainability.
“The University has been a leader on the issue of diversity,” he said, but “they have not taken a strong stand at all in support of the planet.”
Smerdon agrees. “The University is really poised to become a leader if they want to start stepping forward with a lot of these things,” he said.
Sustain U-M argues that moving towards sustainability is not only the right thing to do, but that it makes economic sense as well, citing the money already saved through the implementation of energy-saving programs.
Since its conception, Sustain-UM has been working to secure a meeting with President Bollinger. Several meetings have been arranged and cancelled. Currently, the group is again scheduled to meet with Bollinger on April 5.
“We really haven”t seen a ton of support,” Shriberg said.
According to a University website (www.umich.edu/oseh), Michigan “is committed to environmental stewardship and sustainability,” and has already taken several positive initiatives. The website cites recycling and energy conservation programs already underway, as well as further reaching agendas still being developed, such as pollution prevention and more sustainable construction. Additionally, the University”s transportation department is exploring use of alternative fuel vehicles.
Shriberg doesn”t deny that “there are pockets of people doing good things,” but believes that overall, there is not a strong, unified effort.
“We”re doing some good things, it”s simply not enough,” he said. Shriberg implores the administration to realize “what”s at stake is the future of our planet. That”s the simplest way to put it.”
The group hopes that the University will play a more proactive role at the forefront of the sustainability movement.
“The leaders are going to be the ones that step forward when there isn”t a path in front of them, and they”re the ones that are going to make the path,” Smerdon said.
To learn more about the efforts of Sustain U-M, or to sign on in support of the initiative, visit www.umich.edu/usustain.