April 18, 2014, BY Matt Hughes

Money tree Origami by Paula Cogan Myers.
Origami by Paula Cogan Myers.

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For an institution as large and multidimensional as Bucknell, the noble goal of sustainability cannot be achieved without careful thought, planning and investment. As scholars from diverse disciplines gathered in late March to imagine a world both prosperous and sustainable, President John Bravman announced a significant investment in Bucknell's future.

Introducing the keynote speaker at Bucknell's second annual Sustainability Symposium, Bravman announced a substantial increase in funding for sustainability projects on-campus and the creation of a new body, the President's Sustainability Council, to tackle large-scale sustainability initiatives at the highest administrative level.

"It is my hope that by challenging ourselves to view sustainability holistically across the entire University, we can continue to construct a vibrant liberal arts learning environment that fully embraces the many challenges and opportunities of the 21st century," Bravman said.

Bravman said that over the next two years he would increase ten-fold the funding available for greening projects that achieve a financial return on investment. It's a model that has already shown success at Bucknell. Over the past two years, the University's Green Fund, which offers start-up funding for sustainability projects suggested by students, faculty and staff, has grown by more than 50 percent from an initial $10,000.

The President's Sustainability Council isn't without precedent either; it builds upon initiatives like the Sustainability Working Group, and Bravman compared it to the President's Diversity Council he convened 18 months ago.

"As with diversity, sustainability must be everyone's work in some way or another," Bravman said. "The council is intended to coordinate and strengthen our efforts at understanding and pursuing sustainability in broad areas such as student life and engagement, operations of the University, teaching and learning, research, planning and administration, and others."

Dina El-Mogazi, director of Bucknell's Campus Greening Initiative, said the council will coordinate and unify the persistent efforts towards sustainability many on campus have been making.

"The president's announcement points the way toward a more unified front on campus sustainability issues, and with that the potential for progress on a new order of magnitude," El-Mogazi said. "I believe that the president's announcement projects the message that the University is proactive in caring about the future of its students, their children, and generations to come."

Money Tree Origami by Paula Cogan Myers.

Securing a vibrant future was the focus of the Sustainability Symposium, which was sponsored by the Bucknell Environmental CenterEnvironmental ClubCAP Center, Office of the ProvostDepartment of Economics, and the Managing for Sustainability Program. The event brought together 15 faculty, alumni and community speakers to reflect on the theme: reimagining prosperity, as well as more than 30 students who presented their own sustainability research. 

"The idea of reimagining prosperity is about how we construct the idea of prosperity as a culture, and how that works with or against the idea of a just and sustainable world," El-Mogazi said. "How can we reimagine the world so that the goals of sustainability and social justice are aligned with the goals of prosperity?"

Doing so involves rethinking the way we live our lives at every echelon, including the individual, corporate and government levels. Professor Katsuyuki Wakabayashi, chemical engineering, cited recycling as an example. Wakabayashi said the United States has the ability to recycle many more materials than it does currently, and while part of the reason for that is economic, it is also tied to cultural and individual attitudes.

Most people are happy to protect their fingers from hot coffee recycled cardboard sleeves around their cups, but would they use a cutting board made from recycled materials, Wakabayashi asked the audience. What about a toothbrush? When told that Toyota uses recycled materials in vehicle interiors, or that The North Face uses them to make high-end fleece jackets, do owners of their products feel content, or do they feel cheated?

"It's not about technology; we have all the technology we need to recycle things," Wakabayashi said. "But our attitudes have to change, and the question is, can our society do it?"

Companies and governments will also face tough economic policy choices if they hope to lessen the impact of climate change. Keynote speaker Juliet Schor, a Boston College sociologist and author of Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, noted that to follow the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's carbon budget for curbing global temperature increases, companies would need to leave $22 trillion in known fossil fuel reserves — out of $28 trillion total — in the ground.

"What it means is that we've got to think very differently about economics," Schor said.

Thinking differently, for Schor, involves questioning the most basic economic theories and truisms, including the idea that growth is both positive and the solution to all macroeconomic problems. For reasons that include outsourcing and labor-saving technology, growth in production has been decoupled from growth in employment, she said, noting the financial crisis, which the government declared over in 2010, as an example.

"We have had four years of growth in output with no improvement at all in the fraction of our population that is employed," she said.

Instead of endlessly pursuing growth, companies could use increases in productivity to shorten the workday of employees, which Schor said would lead to both gains in employment and reductions in carbon emissions. A shorter workday would also give employees time to pursue sustainability in their own lives.

"Living in an ecologically sustainable way actually gives us an enormous amount of wealth, although maybe not wealth as conventionally defined," Schor said.

Far from campus and close to home, Bucknell is actively seeking to reap that wealth.