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Beyond Sustainability, Part 2

How resilient is your campus? In part 1 of this post, I addressed some headwinds for the sustainability movement and suggested that resiliency may be a better alternative for many campuses.

Resiliency combines elements of the survivalist/self sufficiency movement and the sustainability movement. It addresses the issue of not just how to avoid crisis, but how to respond when crisis occurs. Some of the differences between Resiliency and Sustainability may seem subtle, but I think the differences can be critical.

A resilient campus plan would look at several simultaneous planning elements. Under this plan, you would take all practicable steps to:

  • Avoid the crisis.
  • Minimize the impact of the crisis.
  • Survive the crisis.
  • Restore order in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.
  • Rebuild long term in a way that is adapted to the new post-crisis realities.

One of the things that I like about this methodology is that I think it fits better into the existing framework of campus planning. Most campuses have an existing framework for long term planning and emergency response planning. How would the impacts of climate change, or other environmental or societal crisis impact that planning?

I also think that the focus on “Self” makes Resiliency something that is more likely to be adopted into the daily planning and operations of most campuses, not just an initial sustainability plan. What’s in it for my campus? How will climate change or other crises impact my campus’s fundamental ability to attract and retain students? How will climate change or other crises affect ongoing campus operations? What are my vulnerabilities? When viewed from that standpoint, I think many schools, especially those not currently sufficiently motivated by altruistic interests, will see the risks associated with climate change and other environmental disruptions and be more motivated to act out of their own self-interest.

Schools Surviving Crises

Some campuses may struggle to envision their future after a significant societal or environmental disruption, but for some campuses, they already have. I have worked for four schools that have survived the environmental calamity of the dust bowl era in the 1930’s, the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, and far too many blizzards, Nor’easters, and other storms to count. All survived WWI and WWII and three even pre-date some or all of the Civil War. All of those schools have already existed in a world without cars and without electric lights and one in which the vast majority of their food supplies came from within a 100 mile radius. Other schools have survived other crises, from hurricanes to floods to droughts to wildfires.

So knowing that schools have survived social and environmental upheaval before, the question is at what cost? I think this is where resiliency has a chance to make some impacts that the sustainability movement does not. As schools calculate the cost to adapt to a changing climate, will they find that trying to avoid the worst impacts will be their most cost effective option?

I also think that for some schools this Resiliency methodology may lead to action that Sustainability does not. Under a Sustainability model, if you do not think you can stop climate change, you may be paralyzed into inaction. The status quo that creates is only likely to worsen climate change and other crises (peak water, peak oil, etc.). However, in a Resiliency model, even if you don’t think you can stop the crisis, you are still forced into action to respond and adapt to the crisis. In the process, I wonder if many of those responses would spur the very actions that Sustainability is trying to create in order to avoid a crisis. If you are trying to adapt to a world beyond peak water, would you implement the same dramatic water conservation plans that you would implement to try to avoid or delay the crisis in the first place? Would the increased use of renewable energy, energy conservation, and biofuels that you would need in order to adapt to a world beyond peak oil, be many of the same actions that you would need to do to avoid or delay the impacts of peak oil and climate change?

Questions of Resiliency

What is your hierarchy of needs as a campus? How vulnerable are those basic needs to disruption? If they were disrupted, how quickly could you bounce back?

How do you attract and retain students? If those efforts were disrupted temporarily could you survive this disrupt in your incoming tuition? How much of a reduction in your population could you absorb? For how long? If climate impacts continue to impact communities, will it leave potential students able to afford the cost of tuition? Will your school be stuck in a trap in which costs escalate but the ability of students, their families, and even governments to pay those costs diminishes?

If I am a prospective student or parent the resiliency aspects of sustainability may be of more inherent interest than the altruistic. If I send my child away to your school, are you resilient enough that I feel comfortable that he or she is safe in a crisis? Do I feel comfortable that you are resilient enough to be there in ten or twenty years when he or she needs a copy of their transcript as part of a job applicaton?

How do you provide members of your campus community air to breathe? Are you dependent on air handling HVAC equipment to get air into your buildings? What is your backup plan? Is your HVAC equipment vulnerable to disruptions in the supply chain of replacement parts? Is it vulnerable to short-term or long-term disruptions to the power supply? Is providing low or non-mechanized systems utilizing natural air circulation not just a matter of getting a few points on a green scorecard but rather a key diversification to reduce your logistical vulnerability?

How do you provide them light by which to see? If your lighting is entirely dependent of fluorescent lighting, how impacted would you be by a temporary disruption of your electrical supply. If that power is dependent on fossil fuel that is seeing diminishing returns on supply, what does that do to you long term campus budget? If there was a supply chain shortage of the sulfur or mercury that make the bulbs function, how impacted would you be? As with the natural air example above, does natural lighting get increasingly adopted under a resiliency plan not as a green-building public-relations tool but as a core strategy to control costs and make your campus more resilient to disruption?

How do you provide the campus food to eat? If there was a disruption to the global supply chain, could you source enough food locally to stay in operation? Are the locations of your food supply diversified enough that they could survive a drought or disease crisis in a particular region?

How do you provide them the stuff they need to study? Are any of your books, supplies, and furnishings sourced locally or regionally, from locally harvested feedstocks, or would you be completely crippled by a disruption to the global supply chain?

Depending on the answer to those questions, you may want to look beyond sustainability. Sustainability implies the maintenance of the status quo. If your status quo has inherent vulnerabilities, it may become harder and harder to sustain that status quo. It may be time to look beyond sustainability to make your campus more resilient.

Written by

Roger Guzowski
Roger Guzowski

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