This “Household Words” column appeared in the Summer 2007 issue of Macalester Today.

By Brian Rosenberg

Macalester and environmental responsibility

Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” written around 1851 though not published until 1867, is often seen as helping to usher in the distinctive melancholy and looming apprehension of what has come to be called the modern age. The poem begins peacefully enough–“The sea is calm tonight. / The tide is full, the moon lies fair / Upon the straits”–but soon exposes the anxiety and dangers lurking just beneath the superficial tranquility of the landscape:

…for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain….

Arnold seems unhappily prescient in foreseeing the conflicts and deadly challenges of the ensuing century and a half. And nowhere does he seem more accurately predictive than in his anticipation of the literal and growing threats to the environment. Indeed, of all the ways we have proven ourselves capable of wreaking havoc on the planet and on one another, none may turn out to be more devastating than our ongoing disruption of the longstanding balance of the air, sea and land. Our environmental mistakes and the urgent need to address them will be the preeminent challenge to humanity in the 21st century.

For this reason I believe that colleges and universities cannot remain neutral on the issue of environmental responsibility. As I have said before, colleges must typically avoid the temptation to stake out positions on controversial issues so that they can remain places within which conflicting views can be freely expressed. I also believe, however, that we are long past the period of reasonable disagreement about the need for higher levels of environmental stewardship.

At Macalester we are taking a number of steps to make real and concrete our commitment to this critical aspect of responsible global citizenship. We have signed on as members of the Leadership Circle of the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment, an effort that will lead the college to take steps to reduce in the near term our emission of greenhouse gases and to achieve in the long term the goal of climate neutrality. This goal will affect the products we purchase, the staff positions we create, the behavior we encourage and the spaces we build.

On that last subject, it is important to note the steps we have taken and will take as we continue the process of renewing the campus infrastructure. The new Macalester Athletic and Recreation Center was redesigned to reduce its energy use, and the old building was not demolished but deconstructed so that 90 to 95 percent of its materials can be reused or recycled.

The renovation and expansion of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Complex will be similarly attentive to sustainability. And in building the new home for the Institute for Global Citizenship, we have set as our goal achieving LEED Platinum certification for the building. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is the most widely accepted green building rating system in the world. Only a handful of buildings worldwide have received a platinum rating, the highest possible.

Most significant of all have been the many student-led environmental initiatives that have begun to alter the way we think and behave as a community. In April I was joined by St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman at the dedication of the college’s second student-led green roof project, this one atop Kagin Commons. Macalester students have inspired the development of a Clean Energy Revolving Fund (CERF) that will help fund future projects focused on sustainability and act as a viable financial model for other institutions. Indeed, a pamphlet by Macalester sophomores Asa Diebolt and Timothy Den Herder-Thomas entitled Creating a Campus Sustainability Revolving Loan Fund: A Guide for Students has been published by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (see Student membership in the Macalester Conservation and Renewable Energy Society (MacCARES) is growing and the group’s activities are rigorous and intense.

It would be misleading to pretend that it will be easy to transform the campus into a more energy-efficient and environmentally responsible place or that we have reached consensus on how to proceed. Some of the costs and trade-offs will be difficult; certain alterations in expectations and habits will be slow. But I fear that failure will leave us collectively in the position of the anguished speaker at the conclusion of “Dover Beach”:

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.