Greening Penn State

Recent reports issuing from the academic communities of our finest educational institutions indicate that we have put our future at risk. Atmospheric chemists report steady rises in greenhouse gases; soil scientists report that our soils are eroding in many places more rapidly than they are forming; human physiologists tell us of increases in foreign, perhaps disease-causing, chemicals in our bodies; ecologists register the impoverishment of ecosystems and the extinction of species; sociologists observe the breakdown of families and the deterioration of communities; and theologians discuss the erosion of moral principles and the alienation of humans from the natural world.

It is clear to me that we face the urgent challenge of learning how to live in a manner which does not jeopardize the future. This is particular relevant for colleges and universities because the more education people get, the more they tend to earn and, in accord with this, the more they tend to consume. In other words: more education->more consumption->more environmental impact.

But what if, rather than being part of the problem, universities could lead society toward a sustainable relationship with Earth? This was the question I asked myself in 1995. At that time I had already been serving as a Penn State professor for 13 years. However, during all this time, it had never occurred to me to actually study the actions, attitudes and practices of my university thorough the lens of sustainability. That was about to change.

For me the process began with reading everything I could get my hands on regarding the ecological crisis, and then writing a paper: "Higher Education: Good for the Planet?" In this paper I described the ecological crisis confronting humankind and challenged universities to become part of the solution (not part of the problem).

My next step was to issue an invitation to students to come to a meeting in my lab to discuss sustainability at Penn State. Fourteen came. In this meeting we talked about how it might be possible to gauge sustainability at Penn State. This eventually led to the production of the "The Penn State Indicators Report." This report gauged sustainability, or lack thereof, at Penn State using 33 sustainability indicators.

In an effort to frame our results from Penn State in a larger context I published a paper in BioScience (Vol 51. No. 1, January 2001, pgs. 36-42. ) entitled, "Green Destiny: Universities Leading the Way to a Sustainable Future."

Despite our efforts, Penn State administrators were slow to respond, so our small band of students and faculty created an ecological mission for the University, titled, "Green Destiny: Penn State's Emerging Ecological Mission"

This proved catalytic. By 2000 University administrators were beginning to take concrete steps to become more sustainable. In an effort to nudge them along we conducted an in-depth study showcasing the measures that could be taken to comprehensively "green" one campus building. The report dubbed "The Mueller Report: Moving Beyond Sustainability Indicators to Sustainability Action at Penn State" revealed how the "ecological footprint" of this single building could be reduced by half while saving $45,000/year.

An overview of the "greening" Penn State process is provided in "Process and Practice: Creating the Sustainable University" (Chapter 1 in Sustainability on Campus: Stories and Strategies for Change).