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Staying Connected

Sustaining Sustainability

Empowering communities to live within their means.

By Melissa Everett

I’m a dreamer. I run a regional organization aimed at creating a “sustainable” economy in New York’s Hudson Valley. Taken seriously, that means a carbon-neutral, zero-waste, renewably powered, self-reliant, community-friendly, equitable economy. It’s a stretch.

Our actual projects include a green building materials directory for the construction industry, a “local-first” economic strategy for 10 towns and villages, and a social marketing initiative to support elected officials wishing to reduce their global warming impacts while improving quality of life through local energy conservation, non-motorized transportation, and enhancement of green spaces within the region’s working landscape. Though different, these all embody a redesign of local systems of production and consumption to reduce energy and materials waste and cost, while capturing social and environmental benefits. If we define sustainability as living within our means as a society, then these system redesigns are tools to move toward that goal.

I’m a dreamer and recent adjunct professor at Rensselaer, where I’ve been teaching leadership to undergrads and guiding upper-level students in Public Service Internships with Troy community agencies. I naturally look for connections between our regional goals for sustainability, and the capabilities of Rensselaer’s community.

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I begin with some dreams. They aren’t just mine, but arise from conversations I’m regularly part of, in the Hudson Valley where there is hunger for more technology know-how to address real-world challenges. For our local governments and industries, sustainability starts with survival. But the connection between survival and innovation is getting clearer in our communities.

  • The volunteer head of a town economic development committee has a vehicle inventor tinkering in his garage. Who can evaluate the invention?
  • A county extension agent describes the race to find the right enzymes to make cellulosic ethanol production work environmentally and economically. Nobody around here seems to be working on the R&D, although everybody wants the magic bullet of biofuel capability.
  • The building manager for a 27-building industrial complex, constructed half a century ago and now half vacant, talks about his wish for a university architecture team to overhaul the structures for daylighting, energy improvements, toxics reduction, and more.

For “change the world” applied research, there is no greater opportunity than taking sustainability seriously. This is what Rensselaer already does in respected interdisciplinary programs like Ecological Economics, Values and Policy, and Product Design and Innovation. Like many schools, it has waxed and waned in its overall commitment. Now, there is momentum — and some choices.

To take an ambitious, even flamboyant approach — perhaps creating another campus building project that follows on EMPAC — or to work more incrementally?

To try for a coordinated, even centralized effort, or to let a thousand flowers bloom by empowering everyone to do their part, their way?

To focus on curriculum, physical plant, research, technology commercialization... or some combination of these?

Well, boldness is in the air where campus sustainability is concerned. For example, the National Association of Environmental Law Societies last year held a series of conferences advancing their vision of the climate-neutral campus. That’s right, a campus that dramatically tightens up its operations, weans itself from fossil use, and offsets whatever emissions it cannot eliminate. Pace University is working on credit-bearing research opportunities for graduate students in law and policy figuring this out.

The ambitious goal of climate-neutrality can only be met by paying attention to physical plant, transportation, waste minimization, food, and water — all the resource inputs to the institutional metabolism, and how that metabolism itself is tuned up. It takes a village, in the form of high-powered graduate students and faculty — to begin the process. Realizing the vision will ultimately require a much bigger village — that is, the whole institution.

It points to a model of research, curriculum, and physical changes addressed as a coherent system, with sustainability as the integrating principle. It suggests an approach that is incremental — concrete and clear, bold yet systemic.

At Rensselaer, then, the next steps would be to convene and support the academic departments, administrative offices, clubs, teams — the whole community — in developing their own vision for sustainable operations and contributing to a sustainable campus. Such a conversation would reveal that a lot is already going on — including years of creative effort by the student club EcoLogic and by engaged research in the Ecological Economics, Values and Policy program. The School of Architecture, which hosted a well-attended “2030 Challenge” teach-in, is already on the path. There is interest at the Lally School, too, where one of the three finalist teams for the Tech Valley Business Competition is focusing on a new organic insulation product. Assessing needs and opportunities in each discipline, the chemists might work on enzymes for ethanol, while Humanities and Social Sciences might work on empowering communities for change. Oh yes, and the Architecture school might make my day by sending a team to look at those 27 post-industrial buildings that need just a little upgrading to become the eco-park of the future...

Melissa Everett, Ph.D., is executive director of Sustainable Hudson Valley and author of three books.

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Rensselaer (ISSN 0898-1442) is published in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter by the Office of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY 12180-3590. Opinions expressed in these pages do not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or the policies of the Institute. ©2007 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.