Like grant proposals through the hands of USAID, these are the projects of my life!

Peace Corps Response 2011-2012
Peace Corps Response 2010-2011
University for Peace! 2008-2009
Supercross08! 2008
Peace Corps! 2005-2007

An obligatory disclaimer: Everything I have written, has been written by me. All of my own views, expressed hereinafter, are my own views. If you needed to read this disclaimer to know these things, you're a silly goose!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Sustainability. Are We Really Sustainabilitized? Yes or No? Who Are We to Judge?

I've been enjoying my job since I got home. It was a bit of a blow to my ego to go back to the same job I had before I built myself stronger with the Peace Corps, world travel, and a master's degree... but it's a rough job market right now, and I was happy to accept the first thing available. But since July, I've been able to explore this position with new perspectives than I previously had. I work in the same position, but at a different facility, and here, I am afforded much more responsibility and opportunity for growth. I really lucked out - one, to have a job; and two, I am doing really great work to ensure responsible environmental practices! This job is becoming less like a stepping stone and more like a sling shot as I become more ingrained in what I'm doing.

I recently had what I considered a grand opportunity to listen in on a conference call at work. The conference was organized and facilitated by Oregon State's Sustainability Coordinator within the Department of Administrative Services. The purpose was to gather Oregon's state agency sustainability coordinators and staff to talk about their implementation of Green Teams in an effort to become more sustainable.

I was extremely excited to participate in such an event because these are the types of jobs I want to end up doing; and to be able to hear what these people are doing in these positions was sure to be exciting and inspirational! I couldn't wait to get insight into what I should prepare for!

There were 20 to 30 people in attendance and 20 to 30 people on the phone (including myself). The first speaker was from the Department of Administrative Services Executive Building. Kinda the same as the facilitator, but still great!

After introductions, the first speaker led with her most proud Green Team project: a green Thanksgiving potluck, which promoted waste reduction. Promoting waste reduction during an event that traditionalizes heavy consuming seemed quite odd. But, perhaps there was something I wasn't seeing. Something that would illuminate great possibilities that I had never before considered! Nope. She explained that the theme was a BYOD (Bring Your Own Dishes) potluck, and that was pretty much the extent of the projects her Green Team initiated... There were details of assembling a mess kit, and even selling mess kits as a fundraiser - but that seemed to defeat the purpose of bringing your own dishes...

The second speaker was from the Department of Justice! Surely she would have something groundbreaking to present! She began by telling about how she had assembled a team of attorneys to ensure that their department would be the greenest in Oregon! Great! So what did her green attorneys come up with? Well, concepts like recycling and reduction, of course! She said they put recycling containers in offices that had none, and programmed their copiers to print double sided! Look out, Planet! You're about to be saved! Okay, that was a bit sarcastic. She did continue to say that they also created a sustainability webpage on their intranet! Woo woo!

The third speaker was from the Portland State Office Building. This was, by far, the most thorough presentation. He told stories of how his Green Team had four successful projects! 1) After hours, they did a sweep of the building to turn off lights that people had forgotten. 2) They initiated a "Take The Stairs" campaign. 3) They began a composting service in the cafeteria. 4) They ran floor by floor competition to see who could save the most energy! Wow!

The final speaker was from the Oregon State Library. He spoke disheveledly about his projects, but clearly mentioned that one of them was asking management for a refrigerator that was Energy Star compliant to be put on a floor that had no refrigerator to begin with. Not sure how that actually reduces energy consumption. He went on to add that his Green Team sends email reminders to educate the staff about the importance of recycling. The most effective thing that I thought he presented was a project about early morning audits to see who wasn't turning off lights and equipment the night before. Repeat offenders had their budgets penalized!

Maybe I'm just an idealist, recent grad school graduate, but I couldn't believe what I had heard from whom I considered sustainability leaders! Their focus was on green issues, which is roughly a third of what 'sustainability' encapsulates, and their green efforts were virtually worthless! Are you kidding me?! Recycling and reduction?! Turning off lights that people forgot to turn off?!?! These are concepts that were common knowledge in the 1980s, more than 20 years ago!!! Why are 'green leaders' able to tout that they're jumping on the 1980s bandwagon??? I mean, this is the Oregon government! If they wanted to make real environmental impacts, they could pass laws that limit driving, increase fuel efficiency, prohibit sales/use of toxic garden chemicals, establish high end mandatory recycling standards, etc. The possibilities are so great - and these folks were focused on such small potatoes. I am in utter disbelief that the projects mentioned were new projects! These people really had no clue. It was so preposterous that it felt like a political science major was trying to teach chemistry.

It's crucial that the sustainability movement be comprised of efforts from public, private, and nonprofit sectors - and if this is all government has to offer for effort, maybe we should continue investing in oceanfront property in Arizona.

I've heard politicians and CEOs talk about sustainability, and I'm usually pretty unimpressed at the fact that none of them seem to know what they're talking about. They simply throw around a few key words and hope people give them "green points" of approval. This is unacceptable!

I would hate for the term 'sustainability' to become the new 'recycling'. Do you even know how things are recycled? We hear every day that it is such a good thing, but do we hear about all the noxious chemicals that are released from the processes? Are you aware of how much energy is consumed through current recycling technology? The concept of recycling has become a 'feel good' project. Something everyone can do to participate in saving the world. Something so trivial that even if everyone did it, it still wouldn't matter! Environmental issues are far more complex than recycling can handle, yet we're taught that if we all recycle, we'll all be saved. Poppycock! This new eco-term, sustainability, is a term that I haven't heard anyone use correctly in a while, and it's being thrown around like everyone understands it. The danger with this is that the people who don't understand it will convince other people who don't understand it to think that they understand it. Confusing? Just ask yourself how well you understand recycling! The world needs effective action, not catchphrases or feel-good propaganda. I can certainly see the importance of streamlining green practices, but when sustainability is the focus, socio-political and economic aspects are equally as important as green! This is the key mistake I see people making: Spending $3,000 on a solar power system that charges two 50-pound lead-acid batteries, which provide energy to run 4 100-Watt bulbs is a stupid idea, for example. Yes, solar power is great; but this is not a responsible use of its potential.

After I expressed my disappointment to a coworker, he said, "You know, the only thing to come out of meetings is plans for the next meeting." How unfortunately true that was today...

I am still aiming to acquire a position as a sustainability coordinator, but I'll be damned if all I do is implement paper recycling projects! Mike Tidwell wrote an interesting article, To Save the Planet, Stop Going Green, that emphasizes society's dwelling on meaningless, feel good efforts to save the world. It may be that peoples' hearts are in the right place - we just need their efforts to be practically aligned with what really has potential for effectiveness! Perhaps instead of me being slingshot into a new position, I need to be slingshotting new positions into something useful!


Barry said...

Your friend with the pithy comment about meetings has some ignorance. Can he swing a hammer? Try telling him that the only thing a hammer is good for is bruising your thumb! Just because HE doesn't know how to use a tool doesn't mean it's useless.

I think your key take-away from these "shocking" realizations is this: people just don't freaking care! The presenters you were so unimpressed with are lawyers and office workers and parents. They have their own lives and careers, and only signed up to be their group's Sustainability Coordinator for a extra bullet point on their annual review. It may even have been an assignment they didn't ask for. At best, they signed up with good intentions and then found they had no time to devote to the project, or that management wouldn't support any drastic changes.

If you want to drive real change, you have to stop being shocked by massive ignorance and bone-deep indifference. Those same people are your work force, and you'll never find a better one. Meetings, as futile as they can be, are your only real tool - the single, clumsy lever you have to engage the gummy, stripped gears of group action.

You'll never find a good reception by speaking poorly of their current efforts. Blog posts like this one will sideline you, and prevent you from accomplishing anything. If you really want to the kind of changes you're talking about, YOU have to become Super Effective Meeting Guy, and lead it.

A guy who complains without doing anything constructive is still less detestable than the guy who complains about others' attempts to be constructive.

Andrew! said...

Thank you, Mr. Gandhi! That was almost a direct quote!

I thought that was what I was alluding to, but perhaps my writing got in the way? Anyway, you're right about the Green Team members - they are volunteers, for whatever reason. But the Sustainability Coordinator is a job in and of itself. I want to use that position to be a beacon of leadership - and I'm taking smalls steps towards that, as fast as is currently possible.

Perhaps I was a bit too negative in my criticisms, but if an organization is just now starting to recycle paper and turn the lights off when they leave the office, then they are quite simply way behind the times.

Jackie said...

Andy, Andy, Andy...still trying to save the world, huh? :) Well, good for you! A little bird told me you were asking about me. How the heck are ya? I don't Facebook, but my husband does and I saw you had a blog. So do I...just WAY different purposes, I guess. :) Sounds like you are doing well, hope you are enjoying the possibilities of your new position. You can take a look and see the activities the fill my life now. :) Can't believe that Clark was a DECADE ago...makes me feel old. :) Take care!