The lights are on but nobody’s home

With sustainability initiatives taking shape across campus, it’s time for student groups to speak up.

By Maroon Editorial Board

As the Maroon reported today, work began on March 25 to replace light switches in the Regenstein Library book stacks with automatic occupancy sensors that will turn on overhead lights locally as long as someone is present. The Office of Sustainability and the Capital Project Delivery of Facilities Services have undertaken the project as a part of a larger initiative to improve energy efficiency, and it is one of over 30 such projects currently in progress across campus. Past projects of a similar scale have included retroactive weatherization and lighting upgrades in some of the older buildings on campus, such as the Social Sciences Research Building and Kent Chemical Laboratory. These renovations were also accompanied by poster campaigns that encouraged users of each building to adjust their energy-use habits in accordance with these renovations. Such efforts are notably missing from the Regenstein upgrades, whose core idea seems to be to remove the human element from conservation efforts entirely. The responsibility should lie with environmentalist student groups to devise publicity and awareness campaigns that coordinate with visible sustainability renovations on campus, so as to reinforce the important principles that underlie them.

The University should undoubtedly be commended for the waste reduction that will result from recent major sustainability projects. The light upgrades in the Regenstein, for instance, are set to reduce the University’s energy consumption by 738,000 kWh per year, which will translate to $66,000 in annual savings. This project is a part of the Office of Sustainability’s long-term, ongoing Strategic Sustainability Plan, which “outlines the steps necessary to develop the University’s sustainability infrastructure and integrates sustainability metrics with broader University outcomes.” The plan is especially welcome following reports from last year that identified UChicago as one of the most prolific producers of greenhouse gases in all of Chicago. In addition to retrofitting buildings with sustainable technology, the plan requires all new buildings whose construction costs over $5 million to be LEED certified.

However, the fact remains that a long-term sustainability movement at our university—indeed, at any university—will never truly be instituted until it comes to life among students. Increasingly commonplace, smarter building and energy consumption technologies will soon be the minimum expected of large institutions such as UChicago. What will be most valuable moving forward is a culture of conservation—something that cannot be purchased and installed, strictly speaking—and that can only emerge from a campus that cares. Ongoing problems that stem directly from student habits, such as the massive food waste in campus dining commons that the Maroon reported last spring, are clear indicators that students do not feel compelled to behave as accountably as they ought to with regard to environmental issues.

And that’s a problem that must be corrected from the ground up, rather than from the top down. While the Office of Sustainability does invite some students to serve on the Sustainability Council or as SAGE ambassadors, there remains a certain distance between larger institutional efforts at improving sustainability and student groups dedicated to fostering a culture of environmental responsibility. Just last month, the leader of the UChicago Climate Action Network, one of the few environmentalist student groups on campus, told Grey City, “The University doesn’t feel comfortable reaching out to us.” This is unfortunate, but student groups should not be deterred: Those that pursue and support sustainability initiatives on campus and elsewhere should take it upon themselves to use the University’s larger plans—plans whose execution and products are highly visible to other students—as an excuse to promote discussion of the environment and conservation tactics among the student body. The idea that a truly sustainable campus is something that can be achieved without students is a patently absurd one. More absurd, however, is the idea that environmentalist student groups, with their collective influence and resources, have not yet created and seized opportunities to work toward it.

The Editorial Board consists of the Editors-in-Chief and the Viewpoints Editors.