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Sustainability goals show promise

BY ZACH WAHLS | NOVEMBER 10, 2010 7:20 AM

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Lost in the commotion of last week's elections, and the furor leading up to them, was a significant announcement: the unveiling of a major University of Iowa commitment to sustainability. The UI became the first university in Environmental Protection Agency Region 7 to actually put to paper serious sustainability goals and targets.

The ambitious Vision 2020 is, in many ways, the culmination of an Earth Day speech President Sally Mason gave in 2008 outlining the need to pursue sustainability and promising to make that pursuit a core operation of our school.

After two years of ambiguity about what that operation would look like, it has become starkly clear. A sustainability-studies and civil-engineering major myself, I harbored hesitance at the depth of the UI's commitment to sustainability; all promises and rhetoric up to this point had been either indefinite or easily within reach.

That is no longer the case.

Built upon three key goals — to reduce overall energy use despite projected growth, to boost renewable-energy use to 40 percent of all UI energy consumed, and to reduce waste by 60 percent, all by 2020 — it's hard to dismiss university efforts as "greenwashing."

This commitment embodies the kind of mentality the United States needs right now. Our growth as a nation is falling behind. By nearly any standard, this is still the greatest country in the world. But, as Brazil, Russia, India, and China continue their astonishing growth, we stand the risk of losing that honor.

This is not the time to shy away from setting goals and deadlines. This is not the time to say, "Well, maybe we should wait." To argue that this recession, the worst economic crisis we've faced since the 1930s, is unrelated to the unsustainable nature of the American economy is ignorant at best and revisionist at worst. A recovery without reconfiguration would be dangerous and would set ourselves up for failure.

And while "sustainable" often has exclusively environmental connotations, it's important to realize that there is more to sustainability than being "green." Indeed, it's hard for any institution, society, or business to be sustainable if it's running up huge deficits year after year or to operate effectively if it does not treat its members or employees equitably.

Even as "sustainability" has become one of the most popular buzzwords of the 21st century, however, it seems most organizations have yet to put their money where their rhetoric is. It's fantastic to see the UI ante up.

Furthermore, the university's Office of Sustainability is hailing this commitment as more of a floor than a ceiling. Of the seven listed goals, four are targets with specific numbers — promises, it seems, most institutions are unwilling to make. When tracking a number, progress can be measured and evaluations can be made; we can say, "Yes, we did." The other three goals all read well on paper, but measuring them will be more difficult.

Nonetheless, the UI is now poised to move into a prominent leadership position not only in our state but in the Big Ten. The Sustainable Endowments Institute recently gave the UI a "C-" in college sustainability — the worst grade of any Big Ten school. There was, however, a silver lining: an "A" in investment priorities.

The UI's sustainability goals are a good start. There is an effective blueprint for sustainability-focused investments, and now is exactly the time to be making them. It's now on the administration to follow through, make the investments, and really take up the sustainability mantle.

This is a multibillion-dollar public institution. The decisions made by the people who lead it have far-reaching and long-lasting consequences. Please, make those decisions with the future in mind.


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