Giving back environmentally

Sent by two Oberlin seniors to college newspapers across the country, a letter entitled, “New Threats Demand New Leaders,” which appears in this week’s online edition of the Record, immediately directed my thoughts toward a couple of questions that I have often pondered while at Williams. Why do institutions of higher education such as Williams exist? What is the fundamental purpose of intellectual communities and places of learning and what is their larger role within society? It strikes me that the Williamses, Amhersts, and Middleburys of this country must have some higher purpose than to set their students on the path to a good job, material success, and the inquisitive life. I think we can confidently say that most people would sum up the guiding purpose of institutions of higher education as the pursuit of knowledge.

Williams students are not merely here to prepare themselves for future careers, but also to actively participate in a process of furthering human understanding of the way in which the physical world works and the way in which human beings interact with one another within that world.

Armed with their research, scientists at universities across the world are informing us of the higher maximum temperatures, rising sea levels, more intense precipitation events, increased flooding, and increased drought that will likely accompany the ongoing accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Social scientists at these same universities are projecting the severity of the impacts of a changing climate on agriculture, fisheries, and human health.

Furthermore, in his recent lecture in Chapin Hall, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman highlighted the oft-forgotten connection between oil and authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. He, along with many other analysts, also pointed out that our appetite for oil has already gotten us into one war in the Middle East and has left us entangled in the frequently violent geopolitics of that region of the world. On a side note, Williams College consumed 783,723 gallons of heating oil and 92 million cubic feet of natural gas in 2000.

We have accumulated a body of knowledge that demands we act; yet we stand idle. The failure to act on this body of knowledge is a tacit rejection of the knowledge itself. It is at some level a rejection of thoroughly substantiated and peer-reviewed science. Continued inaction amounts to nothing less than discarding knowledge that we know to be true, simply because it challenges our current modus operandi and requires us to think in new ways. Out of all societal institutions to run from a challenge posed by the acquisition of new knowledge, I would hope that an institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge would be the last to do so.

I by no means seek to criticize the College. Williams deserves praise for the efforts it has taken to date to curtail its greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings and Grounds has added two hybrid-electric cars to the College fleet and installed in the College heating plant a co-generator, which will use excess steam from the plant to generate electricity.

The willingness of College administrators to support further investigation into the possibility of erecting windmills on College-owned land atop Berlin Mountain has been phenomenal as has been their willingness to consider various environmental technologies in the Baxter renovation.

Although praiseworthy, these efforts remain uncoordinated and pitifully inadequate given the magnitude of the response required. In 2000 Williams College released 35,502 equivalent tons of carbon dioxide. However, we have yet to put a measurable dent into that quantity. What is urgently needed now is an explicit Williams College commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Such a commitment would unify these various isolated efforts under a common quantifiable objective. The effect of establishing a specific reduction target and a deadline for meeting that target would be to inspire more innovative and effective solutions to this problem.

If such a commitment is to be made, the College need not be viewed as swallowing an enormous financial sacrifice for some nebulous greater good. In fact, it would be inaccurate to do so. The co-generator will significantly reduce the College’s energy costs in the long-run, as would the windmills, which are projected to pay for themselves in four to eight years and would actually serve as a source of revenue for the College because they would generate enough electricity to meet 140 percent of campus needs.

Last year the Town of Williamstown joined an international coalition of cities that have adopted emissions reduction targets. Many of those cities have already made substantial progress toward meeting those targets. In the near future the Williamstown Board of Selectmen will decide upon a greenhouse gas emissions reduction target for Williamstown. Next Monday I’ll be presenting to the Board the results of a town-wide greenhouse gas emissions inventory I completed this summer for the Town Department of Inspection Services.

Comprising a quarter of the town’s population, the Williams College community contributes approximately a quarter of Williamstown’s total annual greenhouse gas emissions. Given our enormous presence in this town, it seems only reasonable that Williams College announce a reduction target of its own or formally commit to assisting the Williamstown community in reaching whatever target it ultimately adopts.