November 8, 2010

Lean, Green, Big Red Machine

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The Student Assembly’s passage of a resolution to phase out the sale of bottled water on campus is a progressive move that is part of a broader campus commitment to sustainability. While the removal of bottled water from campus eateries is far from becoming a reality, the student push to ban the environmentally-wasteful drinks is indicative of an environmental consciousness that is necessary to ensure a sustainable future. The fact that there is ample support for sacrificing convenience for the sake of environmentalism — among both students and administrators — only strengthens Cornell’s increasingly impressive sustainability track record.

While the removal of bottled water would only marginally affect the University’s environmental footprint, other high-profile initiatives show a commitment to investing in and conducting research on the long-term solutions that will have a significant impact on our environmental future. These initiatives — most notably the massive, $80 million donation made by David Atkinson ’60 to create the David R. Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future — give Cornell the opportunity to make sustainability a defining aspect of the University. The center will draw on Cornell’s existing strengths in the agricultural field, and serve as a hub for a variety of programs and departments that are working on green issues. A center such as this goes beyond the individual actions that promote environmentalism (recycling, composting and banning bottled water on campus, among others), and aims to solve the daunting, complex issues that are most responsible for the uncertainty of our environmental future.

Environmental consciousness at Cornell is already ahead of the curve, but that is no reason to ease the pace of progress. The University received an A- grade on the College Sustainability Report Card, good for 19th in the country, and third in the Ivy League behind Yale and Brown. The report card also illuminates the areas Cornell can still improve in. The University scored lowest in “Food and Recycling” (B), “Endowment Transparency” (B) and “Shareholder Involvement” (C). It appears that Cornell is aware of its own shortcomings — the University requested that its survey responses for the “Endowment Transparency” and “Shareholder Involvement” sections be withheld from the public. Cornell should strive to polish its record in these areas to the point where it has nothing to hide, though the lack of transparency makes it difficult for outsiders to weigh in and offer potential improvements.

Although the University is not necessarily putting its endowment money where its mouth is, it has still taken impressive institutional-level steps toward a sustainable future. Cornell’s Climate Action Plan was widely praised as one of the most comprehensive such blueprints created by a university, largely due to the University’s outreach to student and community leadership when drafting the plan. The national focus on sustainability is not going away anytime soon, and Cornell must continue to take a leading role in using its vast resources to help solve these global problems.