What Sustainability Means for CMC
In a recent email to the entire college, President Pamela Gann listed eight items that the Board of Trustees had agreed to review in May. Number eight was the seemingly all-encompassing: sustainability.Of course, her actual charge — the endowment — has been anything but sustainable after it fell an estimated 35 percent. My friends, I venture that this sustainability plank of the platform is not only ill-defined, but worse has certainly had a defining influence on our time at Claremont McKenna.
At first, the inconvenience was limited to water faucets that barely dispense water at the Athenaeum, Collins, or Claremont Hall. Equipped with motion sensors or touchpads, these faucets do not dispense enough water to wash their hands for the medically approved 15-20 seconds. This was an annoyance during the school year, but with the much publicized H1N1 virus, it is a public health threat. (I doubt the lost productivity of sickness of students and faculty was factored into the cost-savings.) Unfortunately, this is just one of the many ways in which “sustainability” ruins life on campus.
Contrary to what many of its supporters — among whom I include some members of the Board of Trustees — claim, I find little evidence that its version of sustainability actually saves costs. The most egregious instance of this occurred last year. In the name of sustainability, the school spent between $3100-$3900 each on four solar-powered trash cans. Was this a sustainable purchase? Now that the trashcans have been put in the shade, as if to add insult to injury, they can’t even power their own operation. (Humorously, a representative of Big Belly Solar informs me that the photovoltaic cells used to compact cans will be be a “revenue” stream – which means that it would take 70,000 cans to pay for just one machine, at $3500. I hope we don’t drink that much.)
Along those lines, do the many empty parking spots that remain unused in our parking lots serve our community as well as allowing some freshmen, somewhere to have access to their own vehicles? But Dean Huang, in an email to me, admitted that part of the reason freshmen were banned from having cars on campus was “environmental” and to wait until the college’s master plan was released. Now that it has been, we see that the stated mission of “sustainability” may even harm the environment. In a school with limited funds, why build parking lots that you aren’t going to operate at capacity?
Last Friday night at around 3 AM, I counted twenty empty spots in the South quad lot. Why didn’t the college try to strike some kind of deal with Scripps College, which has a mostly vacant parking lot just a block from our campus? Surely Scrippsies benefit from the parties we throw and would benefit from the money that freshman CMCers would-be drivers would provide. Scripps endowment fell between a quarter and a third last year. Are we really to believe that they wouldn’t sell parking spots? Even worse, these allegedly “sustainable” policies have unintended and harmful consequences. By curtailing freshmen driving, the colleges make drinking that much more attractive. You don’t need to be an econ. major to understand that the college has changed the price of a night on the town. Instead of driving into LA with fellow freshmen for a night on the town, it’s much easier to buy some booze from a willing upperclassmen and wind up making some poor decisions.
Decisions — there’s that word again. Part of being out on your own and away from your parents is newfound freedom and responsibility. For the most part, you can choose what classes to take, when to eat, whom to sleep with, what clubs to join, and who you want to be. In fact, the college seems to promote more libertine policies — multiple days for free sexual disease testings, free condoms, and a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on alcohol. But part of those choices is whether or not you want to live a supposedly sustainable lifestyle. You’re supposed to be able to choose. From compelling students to install poorly illuminating light bulbs that make it difficult to read and do homework to now monitoring what its students eat, however, the college is overstepping its bounds.
Because a few students have wasted food, the Claremont colleges have decided that we are not responsible enough to decide what to eat. But if the colleges were really insistent that Claremont students waste food, why not allow them to self-police, as other colleges have done? The school could even set targets for the students to reduce their waste, if it were so inclined. Instead, they have undemocratically decided that Claremont students — among whom are some of the smartest students in America — must be treated as animals, incapable of choosing the portions and amount of their own food. As children we learn what to put into our bodies, but as college students, we apparently have lost that most elementary of lessons. While the college used to sell itself on the conversations students had over dinner and on the lessons they learned from each other in the dining room, one wonders how wise a policy it is that makes community that much less enjoyable. Never you mind the fact that eating disorders are apparently a real problem from young women — or so, at least, we are told at freshman orientation.
Worse yet, now that the college has done away with trays, it has simply makes life harder for the already overworked dining hall staff, whose pay has been frozen and whose hours have been artificially elongated by the extra cleaning they must do. The food that once fell onto trays now falls on the floor, on the table, and on chairs and must be washed. According to some of the dining hall women I interviewed at three of the dining halls, they spend an average additional 30 minutes each day cleaning the floors.
Pitzer and Claremont McKenna College have now offered a “reusable” container. The Claremont Portside and the Forum reported that the containers will be purchased by our Dean of Students, Dean Huang, for an untold sum of money. Now it appears as if Collins will be providing these containers gratis to each student on a meal plan. But this raises more questions than it answers: If the school — or Collins– is going to go to the effort of buying a whole bunch of takeout containers, why can’t they spare $1.75 for each student to have their own tray, weigh the remaining food refuse, and then charge the students who waste the food more? Remember, the supposedly environmentally friendly containers at the other colleges cost between $3 and $6. This cast doubts on the supposed savings that trayless dining is supposed to bring. Anyone who has worked as a dishwasher knows that it is a lot easier to wash a flat tray than a weirdly shaped takeout container. So not only will the college have to pay the initial costs of purchasing these containers, the perpetual costs of their cleaning will have to be sustained as well. How sustainable.
But “sustainability” was never really about the environment, after all. It’s about signaling. Gann signals to the Board of Trustees that she’s reducing costs and to the campus what values she thinks we ought to be promoting.
And the rest of the campus signals its apathy by going on its merry way.