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Bringing Sustainability into Your Institution

Monday, November 19, 2012 - 11:52

Sustainability is a complex issue with a large array of consequences ranging from local to global and from scientific and economic to natural and spiritual. As astronomers, we usually apply the same standards of inductive reasoning that we use in our daily work to discern cause-and-effect relationships and to make predictions of the impacts of both natural and human-generated environmental changes on this planet. As we might with the Hertzprung-Russell Diagram or the Hubble Law, or the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, we interpret the tight correlations between, say, CO2 and global warming, and, with the help of our colleagues in climate science and related fields, we reach conclusions, many of them quite strong, about how fundamental characteristics of the Earth such as climate have already changed and are likely to change in the near- and long-term future. How best to bring those professional scientific perspectives and our personal time and energy to bear on environmental policies at our own institutions?

The Sustainability Committee of the AAS aspires to engage every AAS member in its activities in our professional lives and at home. Here we open a newsletter discussion about how AAS members are well placed to foster changes with vital yet modest efforts in the workplace.


There is a green school near you. It might be your own! The Sierra Club identified the 20 “coolest schools” of 2011 in the U.S.,1and the Sustainable Endowments Institute issues “Green Report Cards” for more than 300 colleges in the U.S. and Canada.2  Meanwhile, presidents of more than 650 colleges and universities have signed the President’s Climate Commitment,3 pledging to reduce to zero their schools’ greenhouse gas emissions. Few of these schools were pioneers; all shared best practices and then implemented what they could. No doubt that all of them did this through faculty-student-management teamwork, commitment, and close coordination with city and state agencies and utility companies.

Your institution can use your help. And where students are available, your students can learn to become agents of institutional change with your encouragement. National labs and observatories from NASA to NOAO may not have students, but they have much simpler administrative structures than most universities of the same size. If that’s where you work then you are already in close contact with directors, engineers, programmers, and infrastructure leaders who know how to implement complex management programs. That makes decision making much clearer and faster. (Do not laugh. It is true. Many faculty members have never even seen their provosts.)

It may take patience and persistence, but you can take the lead in local sustainability efforts in your institution. Chances are that a group already exists and would appreciate your help working on committees such as food service, transportation, or building operations. Joining such groups is a friendly gesture, astronomers are always welcome, and you will make new and interesting friends quickly.

Speak with your colleagues and green leaders at other institutions. Then work with your professional colleagues and administrators to put a plan together to improve environmental sustainability. This generally turns out to be both fun and rewarding. If there is no “Green Team” or Sustainability Committee at your institution, start one: identify a few allies—especially some higher-ups if possible —and call a meeting to brainstorm and identify an initial project or two that are highly likely to succeed and build momentum.

Start by imagining some highly visible baby steps, for example, the installation of motion-activated light switches (two-hour timers) in conference rooms and lavatories. Think about opportunities for water conservation measures. Can you imagine new bike and pedestrian trails near your office? Learn how available compostable plates, cups, and plastic-ware have become, or replace disposables with reusables (ceramic or metal plates instead of paper). Ponder the pros and cons of replacing desktop computers with far more energy-efficient laptops. Are classroom lights left on all night? Replacing poorly designed and excessive outdoor lighting with fully-shielded and appropriate lighting has the double benefit of reducing waste and helping bring back dark skies.

Here are a few examples from the experiences of members of the AAS Sustainability Committee at their home institutions:

  • Although the University of Washington is located in a soggy environment, water usage is a serious issue. A faculty-administrative team there called the Environmental Stewardship Committee learned to cut UW’s water consumption by 35% over three years and re-invested the savings. Faculty and administrators worked nose to nose, and became good friends in the process.
  • At Smith College, the Committee on Sustainability —founded by Professor Emeritus Dick White, who retired early from the Astronomy Dept. to pursue a second career in climate change education, and then chaired by his replacement, astronomer James Lowenthal—convinced the College to invest several million dollars in dozens of energy conservation measures that have already paid for themselves in savings. The COS wrote the College’s Sustainability and Climate Action Management Plan and has sponsored several climate change teach-ins such as “Focus the Nation” and “” Undergrads at Smith have their own Green Team, operate a Bicycle Kitchen, and started a campus community organic garden, all with COS support.
  • Pat Knezek chaired a new Recycling Committee at NOAO that implemented improved practices for recycling paper, plastics, batteries etc. in Tucson, all extendable to the La Serena, Chile offices as well as the observatories. The committee encouraged use of electronic rather than paper files, and provided info on reducing consumption of material at home and in the workplace. All offices and common spaces were provided with receptacles for recyclable materials, and metrics were established to measure success.
  • At the Gemini Observatory in Chile, Bernadette Rodgers helped launch a significant “green initiative” in 2008-2009 to nearly immediate positive effect. The observatory implemented recycling programs at both sites, energy saving initiatives, and travel reductions, and put metrics in place to track performance. These green actions were documented in the December 2009 Gemini Focus—just before then director Doug Simons was a speaker at the first AAS Splinter Session on Sustainability in January 2010. The initiative enjoyed strong employee support, and in general the observatory found that the first major reductions were “easy,” reducing its carbon footprint in some cases as much as 23% in one year without significantly impacting operations. Late improvements have been more incremental; long-term quantitative monitoring is essential to ensure that backsliding does not occur after the initial enthusiasm and attention fade.

No matter what your visions and intentions, any large institutional project will need a business plan once your administrators are involved, usually with a full cost-benefit analysis. Managers are usually good at making these; it is their job, and it’s how ideas are translated into action at all institutions no matter how small.

After a while you may well find that your college or observatory has become a viable demonstration model and is inspiring other similar efforts in your area. The local notoriety is very useful for making additional friendly contacts. Share best practices, including with the rest of us astronomers!

Bruce Balick and James Lowenthal are both members of the AAS Sustainability Committee.

Learn more at the committee’s webpage:


Bruce Balick
University of Washington, Seattle