Legend tells us sometime in the early 20th century, The Times in London sent a message to a variety of well-known authors asking, “What’s wrong with the world today?” Noted author G. K. Chesterton reportedly replied as follows:
For the first several weeks of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, I wanted desperately to blame someone. It was hard watching the massive flow emanating from the ocean floor. Someone had to be held accountable. BP CEO, Tony Hayward, seemed an appropriate target with his flippant remarks and underestimation of the devastation caused by the spill. Pile the sins of progress and energy consumption on him and beat him out into the desert. That will surely bring us atonement.
Yet, somewhere along the way I admitted to myself that I actually caused that spill, and I am very sorry for the result. New York Times columnist, David Brooks, in a column titled “Drilling for Uncertainty” (May 27, 2010) offered this assessment:
. . . the real issue has to do with risk assessment. It has to do with the bloody crossroads where complex technical systems meet human psychology.
Over the past decades, we’ve come to depend on an ever-expanding array of intricate high-tech systems.These hardware and software systems are the guts of financial markets, energy exploration, space exploration, air travel, defense programs and modern production plants.
These systems, which allow us to live as well as we do, are too complex for any single person to understand. Yet every day, individuals are asked to monitor the health of these networks, weigh the risks of a system failure and take appropriate measures to reduce those risks.
He concludes, “This isn’t just about oil. It’s a challenge for people living in an imponderably complex technical society.”
This is my fault because deep down I want it all. I want to come and go as I please, maximizing my comfort and convenience. I want products entertaining me constantly. I want to dispose of the things that no longer interest me without regard to the broader consequences. I want . . . I want . . . I want . . . You see the problem. Society is simply giving me what I want. The creation of all these systems, the management of so many high risk technologies, and the collateral damage to the environment and our lives is because of me. I need to change – both for me and the environment. I must contribute to a more sustainable future.
Our Common Future, also known as the Brundtland Report, from the United Nations World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) was published in 1987. The report defines sustainability as “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The word “want” doesn’t even appear. This is going to be tough.
I have been inspired by our students and faculty, already teaching me a new way forward. It’s the concept of a billion things. It’s taken a billion little actions on the part of billions of people over a long period of time to get us into this situation. It will, therefore, take a billion little actions, on the part of billions of people over a long period of time to get us to a better place. Here is my list:
- I am going to drive less. I recently oiled my bike chain and pumped up the tires. I ride from our house to the office as much as I can. Let’s fill the bike racks on campus. If we run out of bike rack space, we’ll get some more.
- I will not be using a tray in Central Market. I need to eat less (for obvious reasons) and not waste food. Over 600 trayless colleges reduced food waste by an average of 20 percent, saving budgets, waste disposal and water to wash the trays (an average of 1.8 gallons/tray). Will you join me in going trayless?
- I am going to take shorter showers. At 50, I find some parts of my body seem to wake up faster than others. While a shower brings my waking body into alignment, I can do better by waking up through more exercise and using less water.
- I will seek to buy more local food. As people who like to garden, Tammy and I enjoyed learning more about the organic garden at Central. Grounds at the president’s house include a perfect space for an organic garden and maybe some rain gardens. We may need some assistance to make this a reality, but if anyone helps us develop an organic garden at the house that complements the produce from the existing organic garden, we will gladly share the bounty.
- I will stop using bottled water. I think if I told my grandparents years ago that I had this great business idea to bottle water and sell it to the public, they would have laughed at such a ridiculous scheme and questioned my sanity. Yet here we are. I’m done sucking bottled water.
- I will reduce my use of electricity. Unplugging chargers, turning off lights, and limiting gadgets seems so simple, yet so hard to remember. If you catch me wasting electricity, let me know.
The blame game is over. It’s now about choice.