No Easy Answers

With Earth Day weekend fast approaching, the calendar is filling up with all kinds of events to mark the observance: conferences, lectures, summits, fairs, and film screenings. Spring is late in coming to the Finger Lakes this year but, if we’re lucky, the weather forecast might hold up and the warmer temperatures will continue and maybe, just maybe we’ll even get some sunshine in time for the celebrations.

Cayuga Power Plant

It’s no little irony that at the same time we recommit to becoming better stewards of our life support system otherwise known as “the environment,” we are faced with the dilemma of how to respond to the news that Cayuga Power Plant is seeking to shift from coal to natural gas. While many are touting natural gas as a cleaner burning alternative to coal, recent reports coming out of Cornell and elsewhere suggest that the methane emissions released during the life cycle of natural gas production and distribution, not just combustion, make it as dirty or perhaps even dirtier than coal.

So what to do? Cayuga Power Plant supplies over 300 megawatts of electricity to the grid and is not easily replaced. It also is a key source of property taxes for both the town of Lansing and Tompkins County. Shutting it down would have a major impact on the area’s economy.

There is no easy answer and there will be huge trade offs regardless of what course we take. If nothing else, the Cayuga Power Plant stands as a stark reminder of just how deeply embedded we are in the fossil fuel regime and just how difficult it will be extricate ourselves from it.

The debate over how to move forward has the potential to be a crucial teachable moment in the life of our community, reminding us that there are always consequences to our decisions, whether conscious or unconscious, intentional or unintentional. Perhaps one of the best ways we can observe this year’s Earth Day is to recognize there are no easy answers, only complexities and challenges that we must confront and work our way through.

A Drought in Common Sense

Thousands of people from across the U.S. marched past the White House on Sunday, February 17, calling on President Barack Obama to reject the Keystone XL oil pipeline and fracking, and take other steps to fight climate change.The record attendance at the rally in Washington, D.C. highlighted the growing movement in the U.S. among ordinary citizens who sense that the point of no return for runaway climate change is fast approaching.

Coming on the heels of President Obama’s State of the Union address, in which he challenged Congress to deal with the issue of climate change, the outpouring of people at the rally was good news indeed. As the president put it, “For the sake of our children and our future, we must do more to combat climate change.”

Perhaps anticipating the demands of the thousands who would flock to Washington a few days later, President Obama struck an unusually combative tone in his annual address. If Congress refused to act, the president warned. then he would exercise his executive authority “to reduce pollution, prepare our communities for the consequences of climate change, and speed the transition to more sustainable sources of energy.”

It remains to be seen, of course, whether Obama will remain true to his word. But all signs indicate that he better do so, for our sake. Just one recent example: reports of a thin snowpack in the western mountains suggest that the High Plains, West, and Southwest are likely to experience a third summer of withering drought.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) latest three-month drought projections, which the agency released February 21, promises little relief. Forecasters predict that drought will continue in the Rocky Mountain and Plains states, expand throughout northern and southern California and return to most of Texas, which has suffered a severe drought since 2011.

According to USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service National Water and Climate Center, the February streamflow forecast predicts a decline in nearly every state and basin in the West. The winter snow season still has two months left, but “if the remaining season turns out dry, water supply conditions could end up in the 50 to 70 percent of average range.”

Those dry conditions and poor snowpack have also increased the risk that the Mississippi River could drop to levels later this year equal to or worse than last fall’s record dip, once again seriously disrupting barge traffic on the nation’s busiest waterway. According to Time magazine, if conditions do not improve soon, “the stoppage could last for months.”

We are fortunate, thanks to the abundance of water in the Finger Lakes region, not to have this kind of severe drought looming on the horizon. But we will not be unaffected by developments west of the Mississippi. One wonders what kind of national economic disaster it will take to finally force Congress to act on climate change, but perhaps the shutdown of a river that sees $180 billion of goods travel along it each year will do the trick.

Sustainability Thinking and Entrepreneurship at Ithaca College

Academic entrepreneurship, in its narrowest sense, involves the creation of new business ventures by university and college faculty, administrators, and students. More broadly, academic entrepreneurship seeks to establish connections across disciplines, between student and academic affairs, and between the campus and community. It draws on the spirit of innovation, creativity, and opportunity that animates entrepreneurial activity in the business world to provide the richest learning experience possible for students.

Academic entrepreneurship has been part of Ithaca College’s institutional DNA since its founding in 1892 as a music conservatory. Ithaca, an independent, predominantly undergraduate college of 6,400 students in the Finger Lakes region of New York, offers a diverse curriculum in more than 100 degree programs in business, communications, health sciences and human performance, humanities and sciences, music, and interdisciplinary studies.  The music program’s original emphasis on performance and hands-on learning spread throughout the curriculum as the college grew and influenced other programs in theater arts, physical education, physical therapy, radio, and television.

As a founding member of Associated New American Colleges (ANAC), a national consortium of about twenty small and mid-sized institutions, Ithaca is committed to Ernest Boyer’s vision of undergraduate education, one that combines liberal and professional learning with a strong emphasis on experiential learning and civic engagement. This marriage of pragmatism and idealism equips Ithaca students with the ability to solve real world problems in ways that advance the college’s core values: intellect, character, creativity, community, and global citizenship. The recent campus-wide sustainability initiative is but the latest manifestation of Ithaca’s distinctive brand of undergraduate education.

Ithaca College has been exploring and applying the concept of sustainability for several years. Our sustainability initiative involves three dimensions: 1) the curriculum, 2) college operations, and 3) community outreach. The framework supplied by sustainability thinking—with its emphasis on interconnectedness, the dynamic nature of complex systems, and the importance of taking the long view—has much in common with the strategic approach adopted by the college’s institutional plan. Indeed, the move towards sustainability has emerged organically out of the priorities established by the institutional plan.

Sustainability thinking and entrepreneurship, then, have become inextricably linked at Ithaca College. The institution’s long history of innovation and pragmatism has furnished a fertile seedbed for the growth of the sustainability initiative, which in turn has helped to facilitate the integration of a liberal education and professional studies, with a strong emphasis on civic engagement. As a result, Ithaca is helping to forge a unique approach to undergraduate learning, an approach that represents the cutting edge of U.S. higher education in the twenty-first century.

Note: This is an abridged version of an essay that first appeared as “Sustainability Thinking and Entrepreneurship: A Case Study,” Peer Review, Vol. 7, no. 3 (Spring 2005): 18-20.