Participants Respond to Sustainability Charrette

Last week, Swarthmore hosted a Sustainability Charrette, a discussion about sustainability and the future of the college with members of the Swarthmore community and seven of the United States’ top experts in the field. Following the event, members of the Swarthmore community shared their reflections with the Daily Gazette—compiled here.

The Charrette included lectures from the seven visiting experts as well as discussions for the community members. The goal of the Charrette was to produce ideas to present to the Board of Managers to begin implementing over the coming years.

Laura Cacho, Director of Sustainability and organizer of the Charrette, stressed that one of the event’s most important aspects was the variety of voices it encouraged.

“There can be a lot of disagreement about how to best address sustainability and issues like climate change,” said Cacho. “Prior to the Charrette, most of the sustainability events on campus I have organized or have been part of have had the same twenty or so familiar faces. The charrette was organized to allow voices that had yet to speak openly about their ideas to be heard and for disparate ideas to be shared for all to hear. For this reason, many of the Charrette exercises asked people to talk with and to listen to someone they had never met before or usually do not speak with.”

Following the Charrette, the ideas discussed will be published on the college’s websites. Some of the initiatives will also be discussed with consultants to establish an expected price and others will be discussed in greater depth with the community before any action is taken.

According to Gil Kemp, Chair of the Board of Managers, the Board will begin discussing the proposals that emerged during the Charrette this week with the goal to decide which ideas they will immediately begin implementing, which will take more time, and which they will not implement at their May meeting.

“Before the Charrette,” said Kemp, “I had not realized that 70% of the country’s fossil fuel consumption revolves around buildings.   With over 1.5 million square feet of buildings on the campus (and more square footage counting college-owned housing), we have lots of opportunities to continue and intensify our decade-long initiative to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Bill Browning, a leader in the fields of green building and real estate who served as a visiting expert in the Charrette, expressed the importance of sustainability initiatives not only for the future of college, but also the surrounding communities.

“Swarthmore has the opportunity and the resources to address the challenge of climate change as it relates to a college,” said Browning. “And to do it in a way that benefits both the campus community and other places such as Chester, North Philadelphia, and the surrounding town of Swarthmore.  The actions, investments, purchasing/contracting power of the college can be tools for positive change for the campus and other communities.”

Ralph Thayer, Director of Maintenance for the college, spoke about some of the initiatives and steps the maintenance departments has been focused on.

“The maintenance department has been the primary force behind carbon reduction which is a subset of sustainability,” said Thayer.  “We will continue to perform that role and have many proposed projects awaiting funding.  There is no question that there are many things that could be done which simply need money applied. That’s really the bottleneck.”

“We have to realize the juggernaut is in fact consumers,” Thayer continued. “Their expectation that ‘someone’ will fix the problem is a problem. Something that I try to keep in front of people is just how much of everything we use and how little effort on our part it requires. According to the Energy Information Administration, the United States (with five percent of the world’s population) consumed eighteen percent of the available energy in 2012 . That’s a formula that won’t work when applied world wide but it’s encouraging because that energy consumption is down from 2008 figures. I know Swarthmore College’s energy consumption is down from historical highs and I know we are not alone among colleges and universities in that downward trend. Eventually consumers will come to the realization that they are the ‘someone’ who has to make the change.”

Tim Burke, Professor of History at the College, along with expressing his interest in some of the ideas produced, expressed some of the drawbacks of the event and having an expert perspective.

“I’m not sure if the Charrette was helpful in terms of building working relationships,” said Burke. “Part of that is that frankly the invited guests, who were amazing, fascinating people, did perhaps end up taking up some of the possible room for concrete planning on the second day, and I also think they sometimes reinforced some of our own dogmatic tendencies rather than stirred the pot a bit or listened carefully to what we were telling them about who were were—there was a bit of a tendency to address us as ‘generic institution of higher learning #17.’ Sometimes we ended up exposing our existing issues without really moving forward on them.

“We are inclined to being very cautious institutionally on one hand, but also students and faculty with the strongest views on this issue (or many other subjects) aren’t terribly interested in genuinely talking with people who have other perspectives. I also am a bit worried that the 150+ proposals made this fall will get lost in the shuffle—I was a bit frustrated that the Charrette didn’t use the pre-existing proposals more effectively, there are a lot of very good and really quite concrete ideas in there already.”

Hunter Lovins, one of the thought leaders invited to the Charrette, felt similarly, saying she thought the first day of the Charrette was a waste of time and that the reflection section of the second half was the most useful. She felt that the leaders and the rest of the participants should have had more structure and been given more specific parameters around the conversation. “When you do a Charrette, you have a building with an owner, who has a purpose and then assembles all the respective players, from the people who are going to work in the building to the people who are going to paint the building, and you have parameters. We came into this thing saying ‘Oh the sky’s the limit!’ No, the sky is not the limit, you always have limits, we just weren’t given a good sense of what they were.”

Lovins also felt there were self-interested players at Swarthmore who fundamentally counteracted the mission of sustainability, such as the Chair of the Investment Committee, Christopher Niemczewski ‘74. “It appears that the chair of your [Investment] Board has a huge ownership stake in fossil fuel companies. And if that’s true, if I were a student, I would be furious. If you have someone who is in a fiduciary responsibility who is behaving in a self-interested way, that borders on illegal. It’s certainly unethical.”

Ben Goloff ’15, while expressing his overall excitement with the discussions sparked during the event, discussed his concern with the inclusivity of the event.

“A sustainability charrette is going to attract a certain kind of student,” said Goloff. “Students who are focused on other aspects of social justice within the curriculum who are implicitly not invited into that kind of a space. I’m also worried about the people who think that sustainability is not really an important thing. We need to be careful in using sustainability as a catch-all term that is endlessly inclusive and change-making.”

In addition to the members of the college community present at the Charrette, Tim Kearney, the Mayor of Swarthmore, was also in attendance.

“The great part of the Charrette is that it made people consider the issues in a more nuanced way, in a way that tended to shake you out of self-satisfied comfort that we might feel about sustainability, and gave concrete, sensible ways to deal with the issues,” said Kearney. “The college has communicated the understanding that initiatives under taken on the campus will be more successful if they include the local community as partners.”

“The College is to be commended for their willingness to ask tough questions and consider unconventional solutions. The borough looks forward to walking with the  College on this much needed sustainable path,” said Kearney.

When asked about Swarthmore’s prospects, Maurice Eldridge ‘61, Vice President for College and Community Relations and Executive Assistant to the President, also felt optimistic: “This conversation both needs to go on and lead to actions, again individually and institutionally there must be action.  We are making progress and there remains much to be done and that includes getting more of us in the broader community engaged, again personal responsibility and community action.[…] I am always by nature hopeful even when in the throes of despair. We can do better, we often seek to do better, we are all here to teach and learn…and that means hope to me.”

Sandy Wiggins, the lead facilitator for the charrette and his wife, Tracy Bowen.
Sandy Wiggins, the lead facilitator for the charrette and his wife, Tracy Bowen.

Finally, the lead facilitator of the event, Sandy Wiggins, spoke about what he thought Swarthmore needed most when moving forward with these initiatives: “Curiosity, transparency, inclusiveness, action.   These are the qualities that I see being called for by each of Swarthmore’s constituent groups in order for the College to grow and emerge as the kind of leadership institution that our world desperately needs. By curiosity I mean curiosity about others’ points of view.  This is a habit that we can all cultivate in ourselves. Curiosity enables us to unpack the other’s considerations and divine a course that leads to the change we are endeavoring to create.

“By transparency I mean that there should be no secrets.  This is frightening territory for some but absolutely necessary as a foundation for trust and constructive dialogue.

“By inclusiveness I mean that we are all in this together, and every voice should be heard.  Sustainability is unachievable without cooperation.   It is unachievable if we do not care for each other.

“By action I mean that we must move beyond talk to action, even when we lack certainty, even when we are uncomfortable, even when we might fail.  The risk from inaction is far greater than the risk from acting.”

The College community will continue to discuss the ideas presented at the Charrette and work towards implementing some of these suggestions in order to make the college more sustainable.


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