Better Door Than Window; Better Wall Than Door

There are currently three documents in force at Penn State related to sustainability, assuming that the photo of the binder containing the Energy Strategic Master Plan displayed at the September 12 Energy Forum was of a dummy document filled with blank paper.

All three are masterworks of jargon-filled fluff, investing student labor and a $600,000 funding pot to social research projects, and leaning heavily on the straw man of “complexity.”

To date, Penn State’s approach to sustainability ignores the difference between complex problems and difficult problems. A complex problem makes it hard to know what to do. A difficult problem makes it hard to do what you know has to be done.

Energy conservation – sealing building envelopes and rationing electricity use – is not a complex problem. It’s a difficult problem. It doesn’t require more study. It requires more money for supplies and for physical, rather than intellectual, labor. For example, money spent on Sustainabilty Institute staff and programming would have far greater energy conservation and climate impacts by being spent on building retrofits and supporting local farms.*

The three guiding documents are also masterworks of cowardice. Setting measurable goals makes it easy for goal-setters and observers alike to distinguish failure from success. Setting abstract goals makes it impossible to hold yourself accountable, or be held accountable by others. [Prior coverage of the toothless PSU Administrative Directive 64 – Energy Conservation Policy is here.]

All this evidence supports the conclusion that Penn State at this time is not a credible partner in community-wide efforts to reduce energy use, increase food security and build community resilience to energy, economic and environmental shocks.

Two concrete recent examples add more evidence to the pile, and also illustrate the community process of establishing relationships of trust or distrust by asking specific questions to get specific responses. In the relational test posed by requests for collaboration on tangible projects, people identify themselves – in their actions and through their words – as allies or obstacles.

  • Nancy Franklin’s response to a set of questions  about whether the Sustainable Communities Collaborative could support a community kitchen project in State College. 10.14.13 Franklin Email
  • Ian Salada’s response to an invitation acceptance from two community members to set up an appointment to review Energy Strategic Master Plan documents. 10.4.13 Salada Email [Incidentally, if Salada is correct in characterizing David Stone’s EPA petition as “litigation,” then the ESMP will probably be a discoverable document for the plaintiff if he pursues the matter through the courts.]

To sum up – Penn State’s sustainability and physical plant leaders are not trustworthy. They’re obstacles, not allies.

Yet the constraints on food, energy and finance are here and will only intensify, with or without Penn State’s involvement in community efforts to prepare.

It’s time to proceed not only without their participation, but without any reference to their interests. Until Penn State’s leaders figure out how difficult our societal predicament really is, I think it’s best to regard the physical campus as nothing more than a large salvage yard in the making, and the educational programming as a temporary ananchronism: a throwback to more prosperous times.

I’ll post a few specific recommendations next post, and then I’ll drop Penn State as a Steady State College subject – and discontinue my personal efforts to reach across College Avenue – unless there’s a clear change of direction at the university.

*While useless for constructive purposes, ill-conceived programs like these can be ridiculed to draw attention to their complete inadequacy to the demands of the historic moment. Some students are considering submitting a pre-proposal application to seek funding to conduct a rigorous energy strategic plan and alternatives analysis,  through the “Reinvention Fund,” since the Office of Physical Plant leadership hasn’t seen fit to undertake such analysis independently. One activist notes that “the state will even provide a matching grant for a ground-source heat pump system analysis.”


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