This article was originally published in the April ’14 issue of the Central Circuit.
Seattle Central Community College has received a bronze rating in the Sustainability Tracking and Rating System (STARS), an assessment of institutions of higher education and their commitment to broad environmental and social sustainability.
The rating was part of a Seattle Community College District (SCCD)-wide assessment which awarded North a silver rating and bronze ratings to Central (which, in the assessment, included Seattle Vocational Institute) and South, making the SCCD perhaps the first district in the nation to achieve ratings in all of its colleges. The ratings, according to SCC Sustainability Coordinator Ian Siadek (who conducted the assessment), are meant to serve as a benchmark for a school’s sustainability and a roadmap for improvement in the future.
In most areas of assessment, SCCC received only a fraction of all possible points; its climate rating, for instance, is 1.25 out of 16.50. Siadek was quick point out, though, that the scoring system is in reference to sustainability ideals rather than norms that other schools have already achieved, so a seemingly-low score is not necessarily indicative of especially unsustainable practices.
In addition, the assessment does not only measure policy decisions made by administrators, but tries to look at the broader behavior of the entire campus. For instance, one of the highest-scoring areas of the assessment was Student Commute, which is based on how many students commute alone in a car vs. how many use “sustainable” transportation like busing, bicycling or carpooling.
Siadek pointed out that North was allegedly able to improve its rating to silver (from bronze two years ago) by using its earlier assessment as a guide to improvement in combination with a campus-specific sustainability coordinator. He hopes that similar improvements will follow at Central, though political will and institutional support will be needed.
Part of that institutional support takes the form of Student Leadership’s Sustainability Committee, which “works with college administration to examine and improve sustainable practices on campus and to educate the Seattle Central Student Body about the environmental and philosophical concept of sustainability.” According to Associated Student Council (ASC) Executive of Administration Leah Remsen, the committee is currently only comprised of students, though it’s open to staff and faculty. She says that their main emphasis this year “has been a survey of students, staff, and faculty on Central’s waste management system” and considering a proposal to add a secure bike storage to the parking garage on Harvard. Other projects include trying to add compost bins to the Atrium cafeteria (the cutlery and plates of which are already compostable, according to Siadek) and coordinating an Earth Awareness event and other workshops and lectures.
Sustainability has become an increasingly urgent concern in the past fifty years. Many credit Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which documented the effects of toxic pesticides on local ecosystems, as launching the contemporary environmental movement. More recently, climate scientists have warned that air pollution is permanently changing atmosphere of the planet, leading to crop failure, rising oceans, and violent weather. Authors including Pulitzer Prize-winner Jared Diamond have shown how earlier civilizations such as the Romans and Maya collapsed by overextending resources, and argued that our civilization could follow the same path. (For instance, the global food supply maxed out about a century ago, and has only been able to support continuing population growth through use of artificial fertilizers.) And a recent NASA-funded study argues that over-use of renewable resources is compounded by economic inequality, since “elites” are able to insulate themselves from (and therefore ignore) early effects of resource depletion and social collapse.
The practical obstacle underlying all of these larger problems is what political scientists call a “collective action problem”: how is it possible to coordinate sustainability efforts broadly enough for them to be effective? Siadek and Remsen’s work can be seen as a small step toward tackling this obstacle.
The Sustainability Committee meets at 3pm most Mondays; Leah Remsen can be contacted at email@example.com. Ian Siadek can be reached at Ian.Siadak@seattlecolleges.edu. Both exhort students to contact them and get involved in improving campus sustainability.