How Green Is Harvard?

GUEST COMMENTARY

. Harvard is still a long way from reaching its environmental goals.

How green is Harvard? What has been done to reduce that impacts that we as an institution have on our environment? April 22, 1990, saw the twentieth anniversary of Earth Day. On that occasion, Harvard realized that environmentalism was not a fad and was, in fact, taking an important place on national and international policy agendas.

On March 20, 1991, the Harvard University Working Group on Environment, HUWGE, chaired by Professor Lewis Branscomb of the Kennedy School of Government, presented its report to then President Bok. It summed up a year of study on the state of environmental education and research at Harvard.

Among its findings and recommendations were that "Harvard's efforts [were] fragmented" and that "the curriculum an student support issues [needed] immediate attention." it is ironic that although this report has been said to have been a strong influence in the subsequent creation of the concentration at this time. The ESPP, however, only fulfills the needs of the College and even this only partially.

The Law School, for example, has still not met the repeated calls by their students to increase the number of environmental courses, and the centerpiece" of the HUWGE report--" a new program of cross-disciplinary fellowships"--has yet to emerge. This leaves the curriculum at the majority of the University's schools exactly where they were in 1991. President Rudenstine did, however, act on the report's recommendation to create a standing committee by forming the University Committee on Environment, chaired by Professor Michael McElroy and coordinated by Geraldine Kaye.

The HUWGE had a very narrow focus and kept its study well within those bounds. What has remained in need of review is the physical impact of the University itself. The Environmental Action Committee(EAC) published in 1991 what was the first effort to address these impacts, the State of the University 1991-1992 Harvard Environmental Audit. The included recycling, solid waste, radioactive and chemical waste, the "Ecolympics" (know known as the "Green Cup"), landscaping, the dining service, water quality and academics.

The 1992-1993 edition brought lead paint, the Green Lights Program (an electricity use reduction Plan), environmental dialogues (via HSERT), Harvard's investments and paper purchasing to the table. The ensuing dialogue on campus was and continues to be heavily influenced by this series. Much of the information in this commentary comes from the audits, and I am indebted on its authors.

Although I hold that it is the continual pressure from the student groups which serves as the primary motivation for action, it is not my intention to completely overlook the efforts of numerous members of the administration, staff, and faculty who have played significant roles in bringing Harvard to where it now stands. Many of these initiatives, however, remain in an embryonic state.

The emergence of recycling has probably been the most visible "green" campus activity over the past five years. Rob Gogan, a former student of the School of Education and now the Waste Management Supervisor at the Facilities Maintenance Department, has guided the evolution of this program. Recycling is now up and running or on the way in most offices, classrooms and dormitories, but only on this side of the river. One need only look at the state of recycling at the Business School and the medical area to realize that it is Cambridge law which drives this improvement. In light of the fact that a statewide landfill ban on recyclable paper, glass and metals will go into effect on January 1, 1995, the University would benefit by taking the time now to work out a comprehensive recycling program before being pressured to do so. Although some debate exists over whether this ban will be enforced, the current landfill ban on yard waste serves as a good indicator of the state's resolve.

Michael Berry, the dining service director, is to be commended on the Shared Responsibility program which is leading to a reduction of waste in our dining halls. The elimination of paper cups and the recent campaign to educate students on the amount of food waste they generate are but two examples of this program's efforts. Questions still arise, though, about necessary improvements in the "water to waste" cooling systems. These systems use several thousand gallons of clean water each day in the process of cooling and dump the end product down the drain.

The Green Cup has been enthusiastically supported by Michael Lichten, director of the FAS office of Physical Resources, and has led to significant reductions in energy and water use by heightening student awareness of resource conservation. Spin-offs on this idea have include the recent conversion of all the fluorescents, saving an estimated 93,600 kilowatt hours annually which translates into $17,000 in utility charges.

These few examples represent the advances Harvard has made in the past years. But, returning to some of the topics of the Audits, one will find much that remains unchanged. As Harvard is one of the elite research institutions in the world it is unlikely to reduced its production of radioactive and chemical waste, but we need to remain vigilant to ensure that proper disposal methods are utilized. We also need to remain open to new options of reducing this waste stream.

One lost opportunity has been the abandonment of microscale organic laboratory techniques in the teaching labs. The primary benefit to these methods was to reduce exposure levels and, subsequently, the amount of chemical waste generated. All the chemicals used in the teaching labs go straight to the waste stream. I am aware that there was criticism about the program which concerned the quality of the techniques, but Harvard has tried only one of several competing programs. Other microscale programs have been successfully integrated into a large and growing number of schools.

Landscaping creates problems not immediately obvious to the casual observer. What prices do we pay for the lush green lawns of Harvard? What are those little warning flags scattered around campus hiding? A conversation I had with Facilities Maintenance a few years ago informed me that Harvard conducts only "spot treatments" of herbicides and pesticides. We need to ask ourselves if an occasional weed is that much of a threat. The "green stuff" sprayed each year contains an apparently benign mix of seed, fertilizer, fiber and food coloring (the reason it's green). Is the coloring really necessary? Are any of us fooled by this camouflage? Do we know what our lawn care products are doing to our area? Rain washes many of these chemicals off the lawn. Last August the algae bloom near the Boston Museum of Science turned the water lime green. Algae bloom are frequently caused by large amounts of nutrients in the water (read: fertilizer). An algae bloom can quickly use up the dissolved oxygen in the water, causing widespread death for the fish and other species living in the area.

Harvard's vaunted decentralization places obstacles on the way towards a more efficient use of resources. Estimates on the number of purchasing offices around the campus approach 100. This means that there is little ability to centrally control, for example, the purchase of paper.

The result is that if we want to supply the campus with recycled paper (and by that I refer not to the "recycled" paper so labeled under lax regulations, but rather to paper with a considerable post-consumer waste content), it is not possible to make volume deals which would both reduce our cost and improve the market by generating sizable demand. President Rudenstine has made the environment a test case for interschool cooperation at the University, but to be effective he must expand this cooperation beyond the curriculum.

How often have you heard tales of Harvard's $5 billion plus endowment? How many companies can you name in which Harvard holds stock? The list has included: General Motors, General Electric, Amoco, Dow Chemical, DuPont, USX and Atlantic Richfield.

A call for Harvard to divest from any company which pollutes the environment would fall on deaf ears. The purpose of the Harvard Management Company is to make money for Harvard. But divestment is not the only option. A current strategy is to try to get companies to respond to pressure from their stockholders to address environmental issues. Harvard's position could be used to affect a wide swath of corporate America.

This leaves only one more of my topics: student participation in environmental issues. Although there has been a palpable ebb in student involvement since that excitement of Earth day 1990, I believe that more students today are conscious of the environmental issues at hand.

What needs to be addressed in how we are applying this knowledge. We have to realize that is isn't necessary to join the EAC or any other group to make Harvard greener. Look around your room and take a measure of your impact. Do you leave you computer on all the time? How many of those 300 watt torchiere lamps do you own? Do you leave the lights on when you go out? Little things done by a few thousand of us have a huge impact.

Many issues remain to be addressed, this commentary has only touched on a few of them. There is always room for improvement and always a student group which can focus your enthusiasm. If you can't find one that suits your desires, create your own and make a difference.

Damon German is a resident tutor in Winthrop House.