We care about the planet at Stanford. From being a leader in renewable research to funding student environmental projects via sources like The Green Fund; from SESI, the new project that will replace our old cogeneration by saving the waste heat of energy production, to solar panels all over campus and from the various gardens on campus and local food purchases to the tens of student groups on campus with environmental focuses (which the school graciously funds), there is no denying that Stanford is a university that cares about sustainability.
But it’s more than just an administrative concern: Students reaffirmed that they value our planet (with an overwhelming majority of over 78 percent on the ASSU ballot), calling for Stanford to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies, whose products contribute significantly to global climate change.
However, there are also times when simply carelessness or thoughtlessness cloud student minds, causing us to be wasteful. Moreover, this attitude permeates to a deeper level than simply the student body, reaching through the core of our university in one very clear way: As much hard work as the administration and maintenance staff do at Stanford University, we students fall short in a very clear area — the physical appearance of our university.
What comes to mind most strongly now is how our university has dealt with the ongoing drought across California. None would argue that the situation has been severe: in fact, it’s been economically devastating to many industries and has had a serious impact on the way people live their lives. When one knows that they might lose their water at any moment to rationing, it is quite scary.
The fact is, though, with all the money Stanford University has, this threat is non-existent. We can buy our way out of any environmental problem. But it is exactly this problem-solving mindset that is our university’s greatest environmental problem. Stanford is rich enough to be apathetic. So while the rest of the state begins to look like a desert, Stanford quite literally remains a green oasis. While the university has made serious efforts to cut water usage, promoting an education campaign for students to use less water and making various upgrades in water efficiency, our university has failed in a very serious way during this drought, and that way has been in how we separate what we do from what we say.
While we have shut the fountains off around campus, the grass (the maintenance of which is highly water intensive) stays green and in the mornings, we can often still see puddles and mud. While there are electric and biodiesel Marguerite shuttles, there are also giant trucks that rip out all the grass in front of Stern, plant a piece of modern art, and then continue to place down new turf to keep everything looking green. This behavior is dichotic and should be recognized as such. And this dichotomy damages the entire ethos of our campus, making us, to a degree, environmental hypocrites.
When one sees sprinklers freshly spritzing in the afternoon to nourish a newly planted lawn, it does not send the message that there is a drought. And when our campus remains an oasis while we put up notices in bathrooms about how to conserve water, the message students imbibe is mixed.
Our campus’ collective care about the earth is clear at times, but sometimes, this concern wanes. Especially at times when students are stressed, the slight extra effort involved to “be green” on campus can be too much. This negligence is understandable and reasonable: we cannot all be perfect always, of course. But Stanford tries to look perfect, and without reminders around us about the degraded state of our planet, it can become easier to fall into this rut and be negligent ourselves.
President Hennessy has stated before that sustainability should be a part of everything we do on our campus. But in order for that message to be sincere, we need to have an image that matches it. Of course, aesthetics are important (well, some of us engineers don’t particularly care about that), and we should maintain a beautiful campus; yet when we maintain beauty with lawns and temperate plants on a land that is naturally chaparral, the message is not one of stustainability. The message is instead that we are a gilded cage, protected from all (much to the chagrin of any naturalist philosopher). It is true that our university has money, but that does not mean we should be exuberant.
In a way, Stanford’s drought response reminds me of the global political landscape on climate change. Poor, developing countries cannot afford to be concerned with the environment when they lack basic infrastructure. But more developed, affluent countries already have the basic necessities and can afford to act differently: They can work toward using less and revamping their infrastructure toward more sustainable modes. The same holds true for affluent universities and individuals. But on the whole, all three groups have failed to live up to their capabilities to be leaders and to take responsibility for their own actions. The only places that can truly afford to make changes are the ones choosing not to.
While it is complicated for a research university with many vested interests, Stanford has verbally made the message to be sustainable. Yet, like the countries which signed the Kyoto Protocol more than 15 years ago, we have maintained a business as usual attitude, caring more about our appearances to attract people to our campus, striving to catch up to Harvard’s endowment when our returns are already likely in excess of a billion dollars per annum, and competing in an imaginary cold war with every other university.
Stanford’s administration actually has a bit of its own duck syndrome, working like mad men to keep every plant painted chrome and every blade of grass green, while all our research (and our school website) tells us it is unnatural to have grass at all in chaparral environments, that affluent consumerism creates unsustainable footprints and that climate change is eminent and dangerous. But the sprinklers stay on and the alumni events still use bottled water.
Of course, our university cannot change overnight. But over decades, we’ve remained the same. And as our natural environment drops hints with once-in-one-hundred-year droughts, we need to listen now.
Imagine the message our university would send if the grass turned brown. The divestment vote was nonbinding, but what if we went carbon neutral and divested from fossil fuels entirely, too? I think that then, the message we would be sending would align with our research and with President Hennessy’s statement. And if that were to happen, the collective consciousness of our university would shift, too. Students could not take a 20-minute shower without remembering that there is a drought. Nor could they drive to Lag Late Night because it was too far to bike or walk from Manzanita without thinking that their actions would be contributing, if only a little, to the climate change that makes our droughts more severe.
We all play a role in our campus culture, though, and so while our university can drive our thoughts, we too must be active. That is where student leadership comes in, where our voices and votes matter, and where we can be the ones to move Stanford where it needs to go, so that it can be the leader that only Stanford can afford to be.
Contact Joe Troderman at jtrod93 “at” stanford.edu.