How To Make Our Campus Exude Carbon Neutrality and Sustainability

What would a carbon neutral U-M campus look like? Close your eyes and take a minute or two to think about it. Note the things that you see, hear, smell, feel, and taste. 

In your vision of this future, is there a gigantic array of solar panels in the shape of a block M? Are there goats on the Diag? Do vegetable gardens line every sidewalk? Are bikes the norm? Do electric buses run regularly to the Matthaei Botanical Gardens? Do you smell freshly cleaned laundry hanging to dry? Do classes and clubs regularly use the Arboretum as a meeting place? Would the taste of freshly picked okra, tomatoes, and kale from the Campus Farm linger on your taste buds? Would the smell of asters and other native plants alert you to the changing seasons? Would the sound of two classmates nerding out about a workshop on artivism (the powerful combination of social justice activism and art) be the norm?

These are just some of the things I’ve heard from students and staff when we’ve discussed what the future of U-M might look like. 

We’re Going Carbon Neutral… Now What?

In May, our University officially committed to going carbon neutral. Heck yes! And, perhaps unbeknownst to most people, this has spurred a LOT of planning and strategizing around how we can actually make this happen—and fast. Groups of staff primarily, but also some students and faculty, are figuring out the wiggly details of how to administer a revolving energy fund, acquire more renewable power, electrify our bus fleet, and develop new building standards. There are laptops on late at night and coffee mugs steaming early in the morning to figure out how we’re going to get our operations for 40+ million square feet of building space and 100,000+ people to be emissions free. 

A lot of that operational stuff requires intricate knowledge of engineering and U-M infrastructure. AKA it’s best if I don’t “stick my fingers in the pie” as my pop would say. I’ve read about revolving energy funds, dabbled with LEED training, and written about renewable energy procurement, but I’ll leave implementing those strategies to the experts. When it comes to campus life, though, and the more creative rather than technical side of enabling U-M to look and feel and exude an ethic of sustainability, that’s where I find my role. It’s also where I think anyone from the U-M community who is reading this blog could too—more on that in a minute. 

The Carbon Neutrality in Campus Life Workstream

I’m co-leading a “workstream” (think of it as a working group, but more fluid) who has been tasked with developing a campus-wide strategy to improve and expand opportunities for students, staff, and faculty to learn about and get involved in carbon neutrality and sustainability initiatives. The strategy will include mechanisms to educate, engage, and empower the U-M community with the goal of accelerating both individual and collective action against climate change. Put more simply, we’re looking at how we can incorporate carbon neutrality and sustainability throughout the entire life cycle for U-M students and employees—from orientation and onboarding, through graduation and retirement. 

Don’t worry, we’re not starting from scratch! The Campus Culture and Communications Internal Analysis Team, and the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality gave us launching off points and lots of ideas. But before we get too much further with ideating, our group needs to do a bit more listening to the various stakeholders across campus who are going to be a part of making this vision actually happen. The members of the workstream are reaching out to people throughout their departments to have conversations about what initiatives are already underway and what future opportunities lie waiting. How are we already incorporating sustainability into the student and employee experience, and what are the obvious ways we could and should be? These conversations should help in both relationship building, awareness raising, and identifying opportunities we never even would have thought of. 

So we’re reaching out to a lot of people, particularly those in positions who would be doing the implementing or making slight alterations to their programs in order to incorporate sustainability. But that being said, I can’t help but think of a quote from Ayana Elizabeth Johnson’s book All We Can Save about solving the climate crisis: “We need every solution and every solver.” In the hopes of living into the fact that our group is called a “workstream” and anyone is welcome to dive in and swim along with us on this journey, I wanted to make sure there was a way for more folks to do so. 

If you want to join in on the effort of the workstream, I ask you to think specifically about the programs your department, unit, student group, or school/college manages. Ask yourself: 

  • What are the ways in which your group currently communicates, interacts, and engages with students and employees?
  • What of your group’s current initiatives, work, or programming focus on carbon neutrality and sustainability?
  • What are the near-term opportunities to incorporate sustainability and carbon neutrality in your group’s efforts?
  • And, regardless of your group on campus, what are the most impactful sustainability changes we can make to shift culture at the University of Michigan?

As you think about these questions, if you come up with any ideas or insights, we’d appreciate you letting our workstream know in this survey form. We’ll compile your input with what we learn from our network assessment to present both near-term actions and longer-term opportunities to shift our campus culture and engage with the massive issue of the climate crisis. The scope and scale of this work is enormous and we need ideas, energy, and effort from everyone.

As the work moves along, be on the lookout for regular updates and opportunities to engage. If you can, share this blog and survey with a friend, a colleague, or a supervisor. We need both institutional and individual change for this to work.