The Why of Sustainability

For those of us committed to greening Yale, the reasons for doing so have always been self-evident. Who could argue with the benefits derived from using less energy and resources to fulfill one’s job responsibilities, especially in an age of austerity when reducing costs is paramount to maintaining the pre-eminence of this great institution?

Julie Newman
© Michael Marsland
Julie Newman

In some quarters, however, it has always been fashionable to assert that we can’t afford to conduct business sustainably, and those cries are now even louder given the downturn in the economy. I say, tell it to President Levin, himself a distinguished economist. Over the past 10 years he has forcefully argued that environmental citizenship must extend beyond the university’s academic enterprise and that Yale as an institution must adopt policies and practices that will contribute to a more sustainable planet. Five years ago, he boldly committed the university to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 43 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, at a cost of less than 1 percent of annual operating expenses. And just last year he formed a Sustainability Task Force that has developed a three-year blueprint—just released—for transforming how Yale handles its waste, transportation, food, water usage, energy and greenhouse gases, land, procurement policies and compliance with environmental health and safety initiatives.

The university already finds itself well-positioned to realize this ambitious strategic plan because of its scholarly infrastructure in the environment. For over a century, F&ES has been second to none in sustainable management, policy and science, and, in fact, F&ES master’s students helped in preparing the university’s sustainability strategic plan. I’m sure readers of this magazine, who have sustainability written into their DNA, welcome the administration’s embrace of their most cherished values and are encouraged that the pace of change here is accelerating. In a recent letter to the Yale community, even President Levin betrayed an environmentalist’s sensibility when he said, “This plan is not just about improving Yale’s environmental footprint—it is intended to enhance the quality of life on campus while streamlining systems and processes to save resources, as well as time and money.”

But even with the force of the president’s office behind such efforts, the task ahead is daunting if only because of Yale’s sheer size. The Yale campus is composed of approximately 400 buildings, with 16.2 million square feet of space spread across 1,088 acres, supporting 26,000 students, staff and faculty year-round. The biggest challenge won’t be finding the resources and expertise, but changing the hearts and minds—and familiar habits—of the professors, researchers, staff and students—the lifeblood of the university.

Without the impassioned commitment of the Yale community, how will we integrate land use, water use and runoff, transportation and utilities infrastructure to create a built environment that is innovative, comfortable, safe and livable? How will we decrease Yale’s municipal solid waste by 25 percent below the 7,500 tons that is now generated? How will we increase recycling rates by up to 25 percent? How will we facilitate a smooth transportation network when plans are to simultaneously erect more buildings and encourage fewer single-occupancy cars coming into New Haven? How do we reduce laboratory waste and energy use and promote the use of safer research materials?

Without the vision and perseverance of the average worker here, how will we reduce energy consumption by 15 percent, given that the number of computers now in use—24,000—is on the increase? How will we decrease the 240,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent generated from heating, cooling and electricity demands? How will we decrease the 600 million gallons of water that we drink every year?

I could go on, but you get the idea. A successful plan will require that Yale employees not only accept new ways of doing business but also fundamentally rethink their relationship to the environment. This will take more than a convincing practical argument from the plan’s supporters, including me. One of the biggest challenges that I have had during this exhilarating process has been to justify why we should be engaging in this effort at all, as if we still live in an era of cheap abundant resources that can be consumed or exploited at will.

In a community as diverse as ours, the moral argument for sustainability can be elusive. So I turn to the words of my sage colleague Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, for the “why” of sustainability: “To move from an ethic of sustainability that can be measured to assisting the flourishing of life is our challenge. Our deepest relationships emerge from love and not just from sufficiency. This flourishing is about experiencing the life around us in a way that we can feel reciprocity with the elements—earth, air, fire, water. As we build with the elements, we will understand our dependence on these building blocks of life. We will establish new mutually enhancing relations with the Earth.”

Julie Newman is the director of the Yale Office of Sustainability and a member of the Sustainability Task Force. You can view the Sustainability Strategic Plan 2010-2013 at

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