It’s not easy being green.
GW jumped from being one of the nation’s five least eco-friendly universities to the middle of the pack last week, according to environmental group The Sierra Club. Earning a No. 81 ranking out of 135 is a positive step for one of University President Stephen Knapp’s favorite initiatives, but now the true challenge begins. If GW is serious about becoming a truly green institution, it is time to eliminate the excuses and challenge ourselves to confront the stumbling blocks toward sustainability.
Right now environmental thinking on campus is caught in a vicious cycle. We recognize that we are not anywhere as environmentally friendly as we wish, but this complaint is followed by a chorus of excuses. Among the most common: that our urban campus makes it more difficult to be green and that an aging infrastructure is prohibitive to having more environmentally friendly buildings. It is time that GW stops seeing problems and looks more for opportunity.
GW officials concerned about the environment have all of 44 acres to worry about. Compared to Sierra Club’s No. 1 ranked school, University of Colorado at Boulder’s 786 acres, GW has relatively little physical space to make more environmentally friendly. Yet when it comes to this initiative, the University has somehow come to view its strengths as weaknesses. If GW as a whole could come to conceptualize the image of an eco-friendly urban institution instead of denying the possibility of such a vision, progress would follow quickly.
This vision needs to be created on all levels, but nominally the creation of this vision falls upon the Office of Sustainability – an office poorly equipped for the next stage of GW’s green makeover. With only two staff members and limited policy making power, it is difficult to picture reform coming from this office. A much larger investment will be necessary to bring about progress on this issue, but this investment should not be in the form of money and personnel thrown at the Office of Sustainability. Rather, a mostly educational shift amongst all of GW’s power bases: academic, facilities, etc., is necessary. At the same time, the University should ensure that officials charged with reducing GW’s environmental footprint have the power they need to do the job.
The end goal of this investment will be a serious culture-shift. When residence halls are vacant, it may be necessary to continue running the air conditioning units for structural integrity reasons – but it is also an energy policy that needs to be questioned and evaluated on a building-by-building basis. When the school year ends, the University puts resources toward a green move-out, but there is no equivalent for the often wasteful process of moving in. From top to bottom, Knapp to student, an organic shift toward environmental consciousness should be the goal.
GW is well positioned to be a leader of urban environmentalism amongst its peer institutions. We have the advantage of being a physically small university, having a student body that largely utilizes public transportation and the resources to make recycling a serious priority. If we are serious about making a difference, then the challenges must be overcome.
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