By Daniel Schemer, August 2008
At the risk of stating the obvious, there is little doubt right now that concern over the human impact on the environment has never been higher. Rising fuel costs, climate change, resource consumption, grand-scale pollution, the ever-increasing accumulation of garbage, and all other related issues have become so embedded in the national psyche it is close to impossible to remain in the dark. It is this mentality and awareness that has drawn massive attention for the concept of sustainability.
When the Office of Sustainability was officially established last summer it helped ignite a sense of urgency amongst the entire community of UMass Dartmouth. Over the last year we have seen vital measures undertaken, such as improvements with campus-wide recycling, increased community outreach, numerous research studies regarding energy and consumption, the creation of a campus garden, and the integration of academics through the approval of a Sustainability Minor. Now, the Office of Sustainability, in conjunction with support spanning all across the campus community, will take on what is sure to be the most pivotal step in achieving climate neutrality for UMass Dartmouth: The Sustainability Assessment Initiative.
“Sustainability involves so many areas of our lives -- how we eat, how we power ourselves from place to place, the kind of offices we work in, and how we relate to each other -- that gathering information about it is a mammoth task” explains Susan Jennings, Director of the Office of Sustainability. Over the next school year the assessment will consist of determining, through numbers, surveys, research, scientific observation and other tools of reference, everything related to a gamut of activities and current condition of campus facilities. Examples of this would be how much energy and water is used in every building, how much waste is accumulated, how much greenhouse gas emissions are produced, the various distances students commute to UMass Dartmouth, the nutritional value of food served, and the kinds of products used in campus maintenance. Through this information improvements in campus sustainability can be achieved.
“Engaging in the collection of data is an opportunity for faculty, staff, students, and administrators to work together across disciplines, offices, buildings, and even across campuses,” said Ms. Jennings. It is the sheer magnitude of this project that has resulted in the formation of nine committees assigned to key areas of the assessment: energy, water, built environment, transportation, purchasing, land use, food, health and well-being, and academics and culture.
“As part of an academic experience, students graduating from here can come out with a knowledge of sustainability and a practical way of thinking about it. One way to begin the process is through this sustainability assessment, and it begins by benchmarking where we are,” explains Robert Peck, Dean for the College of Engineering and Co-Chair of the Initiative.
It is Dr. Peck who, according to Ms. Jennings, championed the assessment plan, going all the way back to late last year through meetings with the Office of Sustainability. “I was interested in the technical side of sustainability…. There’s a lot of opportunity in engineering, both in educational programs, as well as research programs. I’ve always had a long-term interest in environmental problems…so, I’m pretty aware of the contributions of engineering to environmental sustainability.” These contributions include building sustainable infrastructures for communities and businesses, as well as implementing conscious usage of natural and human resources for environmental preservation.
The Sustainability Assessment Initiative wouldn’t have even been considered if some important documents didn’t first come to fruition. The passing of Executive Order no. 484, by Governor Deval L. Patrick on April 18, 2007, lead the way by calling for a “lead-by-example” policy for all government and educational institutions, in regards to environmental protection and resource conservation. The next event came when Chancellor Jean F. MacCormack signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment in the Spring of 2007. The statement, signed by presidents and chancellors from colleges and universities all over the U.S., called for campus efforts to become carbon neutral. This legislation, combined with increasingly important issues regarding environmental and economic sustainability, and overall quality of lifestyle, lead to what Dr. Peck refers to as a convergence where “I tried to look for a way to bring all this together at UMD.”
“There’s a great deal more interest in sustainability now then there was even two years ago because of rising fuel costs and because people are now believing that climate change is a reality. And that changes people’s perceptions of how important sustainability is,” said Ms. Jennings.
Inspiration has come from other universities’ Assessment Reports; UC Berkeley, NYU, and the University of Maryland have created extensive reports that not only serve to give UMD ideas, but also help determine resource logistics. “I think those samples are good to look at, but we don’t want to spend time reinventing the wheel. They may or may not be applicable to UMass Dartmouth,” said Dr. Peck. He went on to explain that since many of these universities had greater resources, like grants and professional consultants, it has forced each UMD assessment committee to figure out how to work on a smaller level. “These reports vary in scope. You want to be creative in your approach to it. So, they are not blueprints, in that sense.”
Currently, the Initiative is working on finalizing the metrics that will be utilized for the report. Most of this Fall semester will consist of the actual gathering of all necessary data. The Spring 2009 semester will see all this information analyzed and synthesized for a completion date of April 1, so that Chancellor MacCormack unveil the report during Earth Week. After all that comes an aggressive plan-of-action.
No one involved with the Sustainability Initiative is the least bit worried. Susan Jennings sees this point of time as a huge, historical set of crossroads for humanity. “All those environmental crises really enable us to reinvent the way we do business, and the way we partner with each other and with the earth. It is both a really frightening time for people and a very exciting time because all the ways we assume we have to do things are called into question.”
The consensus right now seems to be that UMass Dartmouth is in the beginning stages of an environmental and ecological renaissance; this starts and ends with the will of the community. “In the 21st century, it is a form of literacy, in a sense, being aware of your own personal impact on the environment, resources, and consumption,” said Robert Peck.