I want to change the world. It has been a rallying cry for folks entering the environmental field for a generation.
As I near 25 years in this field, I realized something. That I have seen more programs fail, not because of a lack of big ideas, or great ideals, but because of mundane details. Because someone didn’t know how to write a benefit-cost analysis to justify their idea. Because someone didn’t do the monotonous task of testing something before they bought it. Because someone didn’t submit a bid on time. Because someone launched their green business without enough capital reserves so they went bankrupt just as the business was about to take off. Because someone didn’t check the fire code or building code before they bought and installed their product, only to find it was illegal. Because someone didn’t understand safe lifting techniques and a project got derailed by worker safety issues. Because someone pitched a great product without thinking through and budgeting for how it would be maintained. Because someone didn’t sufficiently understand markets, or recycling grade specifications.
Let me give you an example from two schools that I used to work with. Both had goals to use recycled-content paper, which at that time was a pretty revolutionary concept.
One approached that goal conservatively, almost skeptically, so much so that some advocates were questioning their commitment to using recycled paper. They tested nearly a dozen brands of recycled paper for mundane features such as cut, brightness, and opacity. They tested for linting, double sided copying, etc. They did “blind taste tests” in which they took the wrappers off both recycled and virgin papers so customers couldn’t be biased about the papers they were using to see how the recycled papers performed in a variety of printers on campus. It was probably only a year of tedious testing, but for advocates and folks involved, it took seemingly forever for them to start using the paper on a widespread basis. However, the end result was that they found several brands of paper that worked for them, in all of the machines on campus, and have been reliably and continually using recycled-content paper for decades ever since.
The other school took a much loftier and aggressive goal. They were going to use recycled paper. Period. No skepticism, no doubt. Advocates praised them for their strong commitment and leadership. They were determined to use a higher-recycled-content paper and use it campus-wide. They bought a warehouse full of recycled paper to supply all their paper needs. Everything was good to go. Except that they didn’t go through the mundane task of testing it first. And wouldn’t you know it, the darn stuff curled up like a medieval scroll as it came out of the copiers. The finished product looked awful and the sheets of paper just wouldn’t lie flat. In some machines, that curling caused the copiers to jam like crazy. The result was a full retreat from buying recycled. A bunch of that already-purchased paper went unused, the campus went back to buying virgin paper, and it took literally almost a decade before anyone on campus would try recycled-content paper again.
For those of you who lean more toward the green building world, I can give another example. A school was absolutely pioneering in its commitment to using recycled carpet, back before LEED was anything more than a vague idea. They were set to re-carpet an entire prominent area on campus with recycled carpet, and bought the carpet, at a significant expense. Except that, whoops, no one ever thought to check the fire codes and building codes. And wouldn’t you know it, the carpet they were going to use wasn’t rated for the area in which they were trying to use it. The entire project had to be scrapped, there was a scramble to find secondary uses for the recycled carpet off campus, and decades later, I still don’t think there are any green flooring options in that area.
I have seen too many great green businesses fail. I have seen too many wonderful campus gardens and community gardens plowed under. I have seen too many solar panels languish unused or get taken down off of buildings. We need more than great ideas and great ideals. We need to embrace the mundane details.
So as some of you reading this prepare for your last semester (or last few semesters) before going out into the world to make your impact, I guess my challenge to you is to use that last bit of time in school to embrace the mundane. Most of your post-collegiate career will be spent slogging through a quagmire of tedious details to bring your great idea to fruition – or it will involve watching a lot of great ideas stall and fail.
Consider taking a basic philosophy class. Understand how to make a valid argument (you’d be amazed how many people can’t string together a sequence of assertions and inferences to justify how they arrived at their conclusion in order to either sell that conclusion to others or see the weak links in their own arguments).
Take an economics class and make sure you know how to make do a sufficient benefit-cost analysis. It’s amazing to me how many environmental and conservation programs are viewed only as a cost because advocates cannot sufficiently sell the benefits of those programs in tangible ways. Take an accounting class, even if you have already taken economics classes. I was trained as an economist, and to this day it amazes me that in any organization I have worked, how often I and a financial manager can look at the same set of numbers and draw different conclusions based on the differences between economics and accounting.
What about other co-curricular learning? I’m not sure any class you take will have you study local building and fire codes, but I’m not sure anything else will be more of a thorn in your side if you don’t have at least a remedial understanding of them. If you are thinking of doing anything with recycling, or heck even if you are going into a field that will generate recyclable wastes, download and read ISRI’s scrap specifications circular. Understand just how many different grades of material there are and how those materials have to be prepared for a mill to actually recycle them. Tour a MRF (often pronounced “murf”) to see how recyclables are processed. If you have the opportunity, take a trip to a paper mill or steel mill to see how materials are actually recycled back into new products.
Find a mundane student job or internship to better understand how things happen. Work as a custodian picking up trash, or work on a curbside recycling truck to see what they have to do to actually collect stuff. If you are going to do anything, with energy, try to do an internship or get a student job for a semester with your electrical shop or HVAC shop, not to preach to them about sustainability, but to see first-hand how everything functions (both mechanically and logistically) so that you understand the details and barriers to your future great ideas. If you want to get involved with sustainable agriculture, don’t just start a campus garden, spend some time working a basic foodservice or restaurant job so you understand what is involved in using the sustainable foods grown in those local gardens and farms. In my own career, I cannot even count how many times I managed to implement or sustain a program because of some small detail that I learned from my college custodial jobs scrubbing floors for beer and pizza money or doing routine maintenance work for an HVAC shop.
Understanding those barriers and tedious details will help to ensure your great ideas actually get implemented. It may take longer than you’d like and progress may be infuriatingly slow at times. But there is no worse feeling that watching a great idea crash and burn because you overlooked a mundane detail, and no better feeling (at least none that are not immoral, illegal, or fattening) than looking back at a program that has been working successfully for decades and knowing that your hard work and determination made that program happen.