Guest Blogger: How to Help Sustainability Survive the Downturn

Steve Bellona, the Buildings & Grounds January guest blogger, is Hamilton College’s associate vice president for facilities and planning.

Steve Bellona

Steve Bellona

Colleges and universities have taken a leadership role in working towards more sustainable operations, as evidenced by the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment. However, as economic pressures mount, a question arises: How well will these environmental programs compete with other priorities within the college? How can we keep our sustainability efforts at the forefront as we climb out of this economic downturn? I have been asked these questions many times in the past few months, but I have always returned to the same answer — the fundamentals of environmental stewardship remain unchanged.

As a young engineer in the late 1970s, I worked on many conservation projects that were short-lived. At the time, they seemed to make sense, but in retrospect they lacked any capacity to last. Removing light bulbs from fixtures only led to further questions later, when people asked why the light was out. Installing lower-wattage bulbs without ensuring adequate lighting levels only provided the impetus for higher-wattage bulb to be returned in short order. Conservation programs were mandates that lacked any educational justification. And as energy prices dropped and energy appeared abundant, conservation disappeared from the landscape.

It’s easy to understand that being a good steward of the environment requires solutions that have staying power and can be inculcated into our daily routines. Finding such solutions will take time and hard work, but not necessarily lots of money. Like other institutions, Hamilton College is in the midst of developing a climate action plan to meet one of its pledges under the Presidents Climate Commitment. With members representing all constituencies on the campus, there will be considerable conversation on how to proceed. Understanding how far individuals will go in making sacrifices in personal comfort, establishing expectations of each other, and agreeing on the level to which environmental stewardship is important to the institution are all central to success.

Establishing a list of priority projects that provide the largest carbon reductions while anticipating a tight fiscal future presents a significant challenge. Our first hurdle has been understanding the magnitude of the challenge. While we expect to review financial requirements eventually, getting all the ideas on the table first is critical to realizing what we have in our arsenal to achieve our goals. The next hurdle, and toughest to clear, will be putting our thoughts into a document that our Sustainability Committee can get out to the campus community for review. The third hurdle will be achieving a level of consensus that will allow the plan to move forward.

This planning document is our moment as a community to have an impact on our future, and we can do it now in an economic downturn. If the plan is thoughtful, it can help us as an institution to move through, and out of, the downturn while also keeping our collective eyes on the environment. It’s time to roll up the sleeves, have the conversation, and continue the journey we have only recently embarked upon.

And let’s still remember the lessons of the 70’s. At Hamilton, we recently changed out a bank of bulbs in our new science building. This time around, though, we studied the problem, developed a solution that everyone agreed to, instituted this into our purchasing and custodial procedures, and saved 28,000 kilowatt-hours. I think the solution will stick, and it looks good too. —Steve Bellona

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