The University Record, April 5, 1999

'Sustainability' focus of forum

By Diane Swanbrow
News and Information Services


"Why we can't go on like this" was the basic theme of a March 18 forum on environmental sustainability sponsored by the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE), the Business School and University Housing.

The environmental buzzword of the moment--"sustainability"--is being applied to development, construction and renovation, to farming and capitalism. At the U-M forum, organized by SNRE graduate student Mike Schriberg, experts gathered to discuss why sustainability is so important, and how it is being encouraged and practiced at the University and in the world at large. There were no hand-outs, except for a simple agenda printed on recycled paper.

"As I was getting ready to come over here this morning," said Bill Zeller, director of University Housing, who introduced Schriberg, "I reached into my desk for my car keys, then realized it would be better to walk."

A presentation by Donella (Dana) Meadows followed a short film on world population. Meadows is an author and systems analyst who resigned a tenured professorship at Dartmouth College to devote more time to environmental organizing around the world and to practicing what she preaches at home in New Hampshire.

Meadows sketched in the "big picture," explaining how the global ecosystem works and why change is imperative. Using planetary sources of energy and wealth, including fossil fuels and the resources of the oceans and forests, generates waste, pollution, low-grade energy and heat loss, she explained. There are absolute limits to how much of this "through-put" the Earth and its atmosphere are able to absorb. "If the biogeochemical systems stop, all our wealth means nothing," she said.

Our use of fossil fuels already is producing more carbon dioxide than the atmosphere can absorb, creating global warming. To stop this potentially catastrophic process, according to Meadows, we need to cut our fossil fuel use by about 80 percent of 1900 levels. "The good news is that we are so wasteful," Meadows said. "There's lots of room to reduce our use of energy."

For the past 25 years, Meadows has lived on a small, communal organic farm where she works to incorporate sustainable resource management in her own life. "When I moved in, my farmhouse was old and drafty, with no insulation and no dampers," she said. "Now three times as many people live there, and we use one-third as much energy. We feed ourselves and 100 other families on three acres."

Meadows is expanding her practice of sustainability to incorporate neighboring farms and acreage, eventually planning to house 22 families in an eco-village, where environmentally responsible practices and procedures are developed through group consensus. This, she noted, presents additional challenges. The use of composting toilets, for example, was initially viewed with horror by some residents, who saw the devices as glorified out-houses instead of state-of-the-art examples of sustainable waste management.

Thomas N. Gladwin, director of the Corporate Environmental Management Program (CEMP), also holds faculty appointments in SNRE and the Business School.

"Most sustainable thinking stops with natural resources and neglects the social resources--all the messy areas of human values and human welfare," Gladwin noted. "But sustainability is not just a scientific enterprise. We have to get our minds working to be people-centered and nature-based." Most of us are living as if the Earth is in the process of liquidation, he added. "There's something very disturbing about what we're doing. We're dis-investing in both people and nature."

SNRE graduate student Peter Reppe gave a brief presentation on the "green" renovation of the Dana Building. Reppe, who has been coordinating the project, outlined the key issues involved in the renovation work to date, including an assessment of the embodied energy and pollution in materials used in the renovation, efforts to minimize the impact of construction and demolition, and the re-use of materials instead of dumping them in area landfills. He also discussed the importance of obtaining community input in the design and renovation process--another aspect of adding a human element to environmental sustainability.

Before adjourning for a vegetarian luncheon buffet, Schriberg summed up models provided at other universities for sustainable campus practices. He also noted that he was finishing a report analyzing the use of energy, water, waste, grounds and pest management and other systems in West Quadrangle. The report, including recommendations for change, will soon be presented to the Housing Division, followed early this summer by a second sustainability forum to discuss the report's findings and suggestions.