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Sustainability: What it is?

Perhaps the most famous definition of sustainability is that developed in 1987 by the Brundtland Commission, officially known as the United Nations’ World Commission on Economic Development. It declared that sustainability means “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” In the more than two decades since then sustainability has come to be recognized as including the more active long-term goals of alleviating human suffering, promoting healthy ecosystems and healthy communities as essential dimensions of sustainability.

What is causing the world’s climate crisis?

When reduced to the most fundamental causes the focus lands on the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The sun heats the earth and the earth reflects much of that heat back into the air. Some of this heat is trapped by the earth’s atmosphere preventing it from dissipating into outer space. The climate crisis is caused by the atmospheric buildup of too much carbon dioxide, methane and a few other gases, thus preventing excess heat from dissipating into space beyond our immediate atmosphere. The result is slowly rising temperatures on earth, leading to the more rapid melting of ice in the arctic and Antarctic. The most obvious consequence is the slowly rising water level of the world’s oceans, endangering low-lying coastal regions. Also, the earth’s warmer atmosphere absorbs more moisture and affects global air currents, dropping too much rain in some places, increasing drought in others and making weather patterns produce more violent weather events. The oceans are becoming more acidic from absorption of too much carbon dioxide, which dissolves making carbonic acid, endangering coral reefs, fish and other aquatic life. The warmest years on record have almost all occurred in the last two decades.

When reduced to the most fundamental causes the focus lands on the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The sun heats the earth and the earth reflects much of that heat back into the air. Some of this heat is trapped by the earth’s atmosphere preventing it from dissipating into outer space. The climate crisis is caused by the atmospheric buildup of too much carbon dioxide, methane and a few other gases, thus preventing excess heat from dissipating into space beyond our immediate atmosphere. The result is slowly rising temperatures on earth, leading to the more rapid melting of ice in the arctic and Antarctic. The most obvious consequence is the slowly rising water level of the world’s oceans, endangering low-lying coastal regions. Also, the earth’s warmer atmosphere absorbs more moisture and affects global air currents, dropping too much rain in some places, increasing drought in others and making weather patterns produce more violent weather events. The oceans are becoming more acidic from absorption of too much carbon dioxide, which dissolves making carbonic acid, endangering coral reefs, fish and other aquatic life. The warmest years on record have almost all occurred in the last two decades.

What kinds of actions can mitigate the climate crisis?

The primary focus of sustainability actions is to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases coming from burning non-renewable fossil fuels. This can be accomplished both by finding ways to use energy more efficiently to power our nations and by developing energy from sources that do not add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. Thus, the attention to solar, wind, and geothermal energy generation, all of which take naturally occurring energy and harness it to generate electricity and provide both heating and cooling. Nuclear power generation also does not emit greenhouse gases, but does present the unsolved problem of disposing of radioactive nuclear waste.

Water conservation becomes another sustainability goal, despite the rising water levels in the world’s salty oceans. Rising world population, increased demands for water in agriculture and manufacturing, and the growing number of drought prone areas, including up to 37 states in this country, have all contributed to a growing world shortage of potable clean drinking water. Why sustainability is an important consideration in colleges and universities today

  • Spending less money to heat, cool, and light the campus, and to power all campus equipment reserves greater resources to support these institutions’ main reason for being: the education and personal development of their students. Especially true for undergraduate colleges without a major research role.
  • Ensuring that today’s students gain some appreciation of both the importance of, and means to, conserve energy and other resources is excellent preparation for their later lives in a greatly changed environment. This is likely to be an environment that will have to adjust to a world of more costly and scarcer energy, and greater challenges to achieving social justice for the economically disadvantaged areas of society.
  • Educational institutions are mostly exempt for public taxes, because they serve the public good. As such, they must exercise responsible citizenship and act consistently with the national need to achieve greater energy sustainability.
  • Achieving greater sustainability for society requires that individuals recognize and act on the need to be concerned for the well-being of the community as well as themselves. Otherwise individuals seek their own well-being without regard even to the well-being of their own descendants as well as future generations of the rest of society. Blackburn has a special strength to help teach this by example, for almost all students participate in the Work Program. Quite apart from a reduced cost to attend college, the Work Program helps students see and experience the reality that they are members of a community that must work together for their mutual benefit. Constituted as it is, this college would not function without the combined efforts of its students, added to those of the faculty and staff.

Sustainability planning at Blackburn

The College has sought to expend less money for heating, cooling and lighting for well over a decade and, also, to do some recycling, especially of cardboard. However, it has only been within the past very few years that these attempts to support the College’s budget and to recycle have expanded and are now seen in the much wider context of enhancing environmental sustainability.

It was only in “September 2008 that President Mim Pride called for the creation of a Sustainability Planning Committee to carefully review all aspects of college operations with an eye to environmental responsibility, efficient use of resources, and commitment to the long term well being of the natural, social and economic systems that sustain human community.”(May 2009 letter to President Pride from Provost Aper to accompany the planning committee report to the Board of Trustees,”)This planning effort included staff, faculty, and a few interested students. Members of the group canvassed members of the campus community for suggestions to consider for inclusion in a college sustainability plan. This activity extended over much of the 2008-2009 academic year and concluded with the drafting of a comprehensive five year Sustainability Strategic Plan by Provost Aper, which was presented to the Board of Trustees in May 2009.

This “strategic plan” included goals relating to solid waste management, energy use, water and sewage, indoor air quality, landscaping, food service, building construction and renovation, procurement, curriculum and sustainability consciousness. Since then there have been significant advancements toward realizing some, but by no means all, aspects of the plan.

This report on what the College students, staff and faculty have accomplished includes significant energy saving actions from previous years that continue and have been expanded recently, plus others that have been commenced only since 2009.

This summary report is organized into the following sections, each beginning on a separate page to facilitate use by those interested in particular areas of concern.