Friday, February 26, 2010

Calling All Gristians: The Role of Media in the Future of the Environmental Movement

Yesterday, Chip Giller, CEO and founder of Grist, a cutting-edge environmental news site around since 1999, came to campus to deliver a lecture co-sponsored by us, GU Center for the Environment, and Lecture Fund. The talk had the facetious title "Tweet Huggers: Media, Sustainability, and the Future." Although I didn't see many people hugging tweets at the event (Alas, I can't seem to get Twitter on my phone anymore---or, at least I have not since the 3 months ago when I last tried. How does one "hug" a tweet anyway?), there was a riveting discussion about the future of environmentalism.

In his introduction, Chip presented an interesting parallel history between the environmental movement and modern journalism. Both saw their beginnings in the late 19th to early 20th century, with press icons like William Randolph Hearst and environmentalist forefathers like John Muir. For most of the 20th century, both were highly centralized in form. The press was concentrated in large newspapers that had broad reach and an unquestioning audience, and the environmental movement placed most of its efforts at change on the macro, federal level (such as the Clean Air Act, Superfund, etc.). However, just as the 21st century has seen a decentralization of the media with blogging, tweeting, citizen journalism, and the like, the environmental victories we see today (on sites like Grist, among others) are becoming more localized. Just go on their site or Tree Hugger's, and you will see the great initiatives and innovations being taken in different communities across the country (and the globe).

What is particularly interesting about juxtaposing environmentalism and journalistic media is that both are so tightly linked to the concept of information. At the core of environmentalism is the desire to learn and to recontextualize: to know from where our food comes, to know from where our energy comes, and to place ourselves in a more globalized worldview so that we can see how all of our actions have consequences. Journalism was born to do the same: to inform, to search for the answers to these budding questions, to put issues into perspective. The only way to know about an environmental problem--or an environmental solution--is for someone to write about it.

Moreover, Chip focused on the importance of the tone created by the environmental movement. He designed Grist to have an irreverent twist--to make puns, to crack jokes, to be an equal opportunity satirist, and never to take itself too seriously. Environmentalism is often viewed as being too preachy, and a moralizing rant will not win over hearts and minds--but a shared laugh can.

Since we had a somewhat small group, we were able to have a very interactive Q & A session after the talk.

One question that I had been pondering was the role of credibility in the world of new media. Just as the decentralization of media can bring many benefits, it can also bring pitfalls. "ClimateGate," for instance, shows how easily misinformation can spread across the blogosphere, and once something is out there in the public space, it's stuck.

Jessica Lioon (MSB'10) asked about the business model of Grist. Grist runs itself as a nonprofit, getting its funding from foundations as well as generous readers. Grist does an excellent job at putting fun into fundraising--back in December, I remember seeing their "friends with benefits" campaign (You be their friend, and you'll get some benefits.)

Tripti Bhattacharya (SFS'10) asked about reaching out to wider audiences. When new media is becoming more niche, does one end up only preaching to the choir? This is one of the main issues that faces any advocacy organization: how do you connect with those that may not agree with you or just may be unaware? Chip noted that, although most of their readers will agree with their perspective, they can arm their readers with the information needed to explain the issues to others. He compared this to the way in which evangelical churches have grown, by bringing in converts---Gristians, in this case. A good environmental website is not preaching to a choir: it is teaching the choir the songs to sing and how to sing them.

Many people, even if they do not see themselves as environmentalists, care about a lot of the same issues. They care about the food they eat, the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the ways in which what we do now will affect our children. However, the word "environmentalist" to too many people connotes an unshaven crunchy hippie who doesn't shower. (Believe me, environmentalists shower.) The word "green" has been reduced to a corporate buzz word, ripe for branding and selling products to idealistic consumers. Moreover, I wonder how many people actually understand what the word "sustainability" even means. The important task, then, is to help people to connect the dots--to see environmentalism for what it is: a passion for caring for all life--both our own, that of our global neighbors (both big and small), and that of our future generations.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Committing to Sustainability?

In late January, DeGioia signed the Sustainable Campus Charter, along with other members of the Global University Leadership Forum (GULF) in Davos, Switzerland. The pledge involves a commitment to three principles: demonstrating respect for nature, ensuring long-term sustainable development, and alignment of the University’s ‘core message’ with sustainability. The 25 university presidents in the forum agreed to set ‘measurable goals’ to achieve these goals.
Now for some perspective. Is this just an example of what the policy wonks at Georgetown might call a toothless international agreement, or does it represent a real step towards sustainability (whatever that concretely means) for Georgetown? We called on two seasoned Eco-Actioners: our current President Kristin Ng, and Mike Durante, a former board member.

Kristin Ng: Empty Promises?

When Tripti sent me the link to this article, the first thing I replied with was “lol.”
Not a great gut reaction. Georgetown’s pledge to “support sustainable practices in campus development and operations” is all good and well, but I feel that it’s mostly a fluff piece.
The signing of this charter means Georgetown will commit to three principles:
1) Respect for nature by considering sustainability when planning buildings on campus. This is already implemented, so Georgetown signing this doesn’t mean anything. We’ve ALREADY committed to getting LEED certification for all new buildings – why? Well, besides that we’re saving money on energy costs, it’s a GREAT talking point to recruit new students. Just the other day I heard a tour guide talking about the solar panels on the roof of the ICC. Come on, now. Let’s be honest. Those account for a small fraction of the energy used by the ICC at any given time.
2) Long-term sustainable development with environmental goals. As far as I can tell, this is just planning with the environment in mind. We already do this. As a confined campus in a major metropolitan city, we already have limited resources. There are no numbers here, no targets, no dates. Weak.
3) Aligning the university’s core mission with a living laboratory for sustainability. I don’t even understand what this means.
Mike pointed out, and with relatively good reason, that the President’s Climate Commitment didn’t really have any teeth either. But I still think the PCC is better than the Sustainable Campus Charter. Though there are no sanctions à la the United Nations, there are currently 667 signatories. This gives the PCC a bit more influence than the SCC. The PCC doesn’t give hard and fast dates, but they do aim to be carbon neutral, a much more concrete goal than “planning sustainability.” The PCC offers instead guidelines for dates.
Though I’m glad to see that Georgetown administration is getting more involved in sustainability, I hope that they commit to something more and something truly comprehensive.

Mike Durante: Reason for Hope?

On the opposite spectrum end of the spectrum from Kristin, my initial response to President DeGioia's signing of the Sustainable Campus Charter was (and I quote), "very cool!!"

Now I wouldn't call myself exactly ecstatic over Georgetown's moderate commitments to sustainability, but I do think we're headed in the right direction, and the president's public support for our efforts is helpful for several reasons. First, it gives student activists something to rally around in the future. Second, it broadens Georgetown's commitment to sustainability, which now mainly focuses solely on operations. The Charter text mentions the importance of dedications to environmental sustainability in research and curriculum, which tend to be more lacking than campus operational improvements. The universities involved also agreed to set measurable goals for sustainable development, though those have yet to be announced. This statement seems like a cop-out of sorts, but I think it makes more sense for each university to create tangible, meaningful, and attainable goals for the short-term future, rather than dedicating themselves to a goal like carbon neutrality in 2050, which is certainly desirable, but not necessarily helpful in making relevant progress.

The Presidents' Climate Commitment would, as Kristin notes, be a stronger step in the right direction for DeGioia and the University. It does state the ultimate goal of climate neutrality and sets out steps to plan for it. However, there isn't much in the Commitment that Georgetown isn't already doing. We have performed a greenhouse gas emissions inventory, we have an institutional structure dedicated to reducing our carbon footprint (the Sustainability Action Committee), we've made a LEED building commitment, and we've taken steps to promote waste minimization. Again, there is so much more we can do, but Georgetown is clearly headed in the right direction. I'd argue that - especially considering the President's Climate Commitment has little to no accountability (except for progress reports... as if universities don't get annual green report cards anyway...) - Georgetown's actions and this recent commitment set us on a course towards climate neutrality as well as the average PCC-signatory school

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Trashpicker's Perspective

Last Wednesday, EcoAction embarked upon a recycling raid. This has become somewhat of an annual tradition for us ("annual" in that we do it every year, "somewhat" in that it is not attached to any time whatsoever.)

You thought only pirates raided, huh?

We broke into two teams to canvas the public buildings on campus. Team A, of which I was a part, focused on Lauinger, and Team B did ICC and Leavey.

The lesson from Lauinger is very simple: Isolated trash cans are a disaster waiting to happen.

This is an issue which we have raised in the past, especially in the context of the trash cans in classrooms. As the idealist that I try to be, I believe that people, if there is a recycling bin and a trash can next to each other, will make the appropriate and intelligent decisions when disposing of their waste. However, when making such a decision requires extra time and effort, the success rate will not be quite so high. If there is a trash container next to your cubicle in Lau, where you have been for hours writing a paper, you will probably put your Odwalla bottle or Coke can in it out of pure convenience. Centralization of trash/recycling facilities is a must.

Also, one of the other major issues is a general lack of awareness of what can and cannot be recycled. For many years, people did not even believe that the University recycled at all (an urban myth, of course)--but that is a whole new blog post in and of itself.

Anyways, with the new blue receptacles that are in all indoor locations, one can recycle more than one could in the past. Here are a few notes about common misconceptions:

1) After you get your coffee fix at UG, Midnight, or MUG, you can recycle the lid (made of plastic) and the clutch (made of cardboard). Unless the cup appears to be waxed or lined, you can recycle that, too.

2) You can recycle anything plastic (short of plastic bags-which are treated differently). So, that means that your smoothie cup or your Panebella wrap container can go in with all of the other plastics.

3) Solo cups can be recycled--no need to waste when wasted.

If you ever have a deep, burning question about recycling, just ask us, and we'd be happy to answer or, if we don't know, find out.

Stay tuned for a smattering of new blog posts on interesting developments this week!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Greening Graduation

As this weekend is Parents' Weekend, Jostens set up cap and gown pick-up/purchase in the bookstore, and I was pleasantly surprised/intrigued to see Jostens injecting some environmental responsibility into their messaging.

Here are the points presented:
1) Fiber from renewable, managed forests
2) Fabric proven to decompose in soil
3) Eco-Zip coil zipper
4) Earth-friendly plastic gown packaging
5) Student give-back program

What makes a zipper eco-friendly? Apparently, it is made with 100% recycled PET plastic.

I think it is cool that the fabric will decompose, but I am not planning to test that out.

However, what I would recommend testing out is the Student give-back program. I still have my gown from Commencement, but if you are buying a new one, go to the Jostens website. Fill in the code from the hang tag, and Jostens will donate $1 to the Green Belt Movement or the Nature Conservancy.

(Note: The attached photo is the graph of aforementioned donations--currently at $121.)

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's the most important environmental issue for administration to focus on? (Re: First General Meeting, Spring 2010)

As we discussed at the meeting tonight, we want to hone in on issues for administration to focus on. So what do you think are the most important things? What are things that may not be major overhauling issues but things that can save a lot of energy? What are things that we as students can't do (whether because of access or physically), but we can get the school to do?

One example brought up at the meeting: leaky sinks in VCW

Leave your thoughts in the comments, and we'll bring them up at the next Sustainability Action Committee meeting!