I was sort of intrigued when I stumbled across the Sierra Club’s 2010 “Cool Schools” ranker yesterday, which uses a detailed questionnaire filled out by undergrad colleges to determine how “green” they are – asking questions about energy use, efficiency, food, transport, waste, etc. – and then ranks them.
But of course, I can’t look at anything without a critical eye anymore thanks to all you smartypantses out there, so here’s where I see this trendy green ranker coming up quite short.
While I applaud the decision to make “energy supply” the heaviest weighted category – which is really what prevented Emory University from ranking higher than #42 (50% coal/50% natural gas) – key questions about urban form are COMPLETELY omitted.
More specifically, while secondary considerations about recycling at sporting events and lists of sustainability classes get their share of white space, key questions about on-campus living and the average daily student commute are no where to be found. Pardon my skepticism, but I’m not sure it matters how many LEED-certified buildings you have built or how much “cow power” you use to keep the lights on, if most of your student population lives miles down the road and drives to class everyday, you’ve got some work to do!
Would giving heavy weight to student/faculty commutes dramatically change these results? Probably. You’d most likely end up with a bunch of big city colleges that no one THINKS of as “green” at the top, mixed in with the bio-fuel burning, rural colleges like Green Mountain and Middlebury.
But that’s how it should be. Because even though it doesn’t LOOK all that “green”, city living is a much more efficient way of life. Rural schools have no choice but to take up all kinds of new technology in order to begin to offset the country lifestyle, which almost requires an automobile. City schools, which already have students walking to class and living in apartment buildings, shouldn’t be denied points just because it’s always been that way.
Just to be clear, I support everyone of the initiatives referenced in the Sierra Club’s college survey. But without addressing the non-flashy basics (on-campus housing isn’t nearly as sexy as Middlebury College’s biomass gasification plant seen in the pic above), we’re stuck thinking about sustainability initiatives inside a mindset of consumption instead of taking in the whole picture.