Experts speak on conservation, awareness on college campuses

Two of higher education’s most respected environmentalists spoke at Lawrence Hall on Saturday, discussing the ways in which college campuses can reduce their energy consumption and their output of harmful gases into the atmosphere.

Professor David Orr, chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College, delivered the keynote address. Sarah Hammond Creighton, project manager of the Tufts University Climate Initiative, produced a short response immediately thereafter. Following the two lectures, audience members participated in their choice of three discussion groups that focused specifically on what steps the College might take to reduce its ecological footprint.

Orr opened the conference by discussing the general environmental problems currently facing our generation. Contending that “the era of fossil fuels is almost over,” he estimated that within 20 to 30 years the world’s oil production will reach its peak and begin to decline. He cited rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide as additional problems.

Turning his attention to what colleges and universities can do to be more environmentally-friendly, Orr explained that 40 percent of the world’s raw materials are used in the construction of new buildings. Appropriately, he spent much of his lecture discussing the Environmental Studies building at Oberlin, which was built to cause as little ecological damage as possible.

Oberlin took a number of steps to “green” the facility, Orr explained. The $7.1 million project, built with certified wood, was designed to promote natural ventilation. Many classrooms have sunlight from four directions, so artificial light is not always necessary. Motion detectors ensure that lights are not used when rooms are empty, and most of what electricity is required is generated by photovoltaic cells on the roof.

An added benefit of using natural light, Orr said, is that students tend to perform better in it than they do under fluorescent light.

Outside of the building, Oberlin “designed the entire landscape to reflect past and present native ecosystems.” The wetland that they have created attracts considerable wildlife, including frogs, songbirds and dragonflies.

Perhaps the most interesting feature of the building is the “Living Machine,” a purification system that uses plants to filter human waste. Entirely self-contained, the system reuses the water generated by the plants to power its toilets.

After establishing that it is possible to create environmentally friendly buildings, Orr turned his attention to why there is not more construction similar to Oberlin’s Environmental Studies building. “It’s not a matter of technology,” he said. “It’s a matter of politics and it’s a matter of leadership.”

Following Orr’s remarks, Creighton discussed her work at Tufts University, where their President has pledged to meet or exceed the requirements of the Kyoto Accords. Demonstrating that even existing buildings can be improved, she discussed several of the projects that she has overseen.

Creighton focused first on the Tufts Wildlife Clinic, a building which was using far more energy that it actually needed. Although some rooms in the building require 15 air changes per hour, the existing design of the building had every room – bathrooms and laundry rooms included – having its air changed that frequently. By identifying the rooms that require such frequent air changes, Tufts was able to dramatically reduce the building’s energy use.

Tufts has also invested $600,000 in campus-wide motion detectors to ensure that lights are not used when they are not needed. Although the financial investment is significant, Creighton explained that within three to five years, “the sensors will have paid for themselves.” And while the Tufts Climate Initiative is still in its infancy, Creighton said that it had already reduced the campus’s output of carbon into the atmosphere by 1,000 tons per year.

Several discussion groups followed Creighton’s address. “Planning, Design, and Construction,” which was moderated by Kai Lee, Rosenburg Professor of Environmental Studies, and Eric Beatty, Director of Facilities, Planning and Construction, discussed strategies that the College could pursue to discourage car use on campus. Suggestions included better van service, more bicycle racks, and a tuition credit for not bringing a car.

Also discussed was the possibility of renovating Baxter Hall to make it as environmentally conscious as the Environmental Studies building at Oberlin.

In “Educational Mission,” moderated by Visiting Associate Professor of Biology Lois Banta and Orr, participants discussed ways in which the College could produce more environmentally aware graduates. While adding a requirement to study the environment was criticized as not likely to gain faculty approval, Orr expressed hope that increased focus on interdisciplinary programs could make students more aware of environmental issues

“Campus Ecology,” which was moderated by Dining Services Nutritionist Virginia Skorupski, discussed ways in which the College could reduce waste. Participants wondered whether it would be possible for the Campus to reduce paper use and if the energy demands of heating and lighting are greater than they need to be.

Although it is difficult to abandon patterns of environmentally destructive behavior, Orr’s conclusion was that it cannot wait. “This is the work in the world that needs to be done,” he said. “If we do it right, people will look back and say that this was our finest hour.”