Which way to sustainability?

Differing views on the purpose and progress of the sustainability conference

Mark Stemen stands in front of the university’s new parking structure.

Mark Stemen stands in front of the university’s new parking structure.

Photo By Tom Gascoyne

Today (March 1) marks the first day of the seventh annual Chico State/Butte College “This Way to Sustainability” conference, which brings together students, the community and a host of experts and speakers to discuss environmental issues and how to deal with them.

Chico State’s website contains this message from the school’s Institute for Sustainable Development: “At Chico State, we are dedicated to sustainable development as a means of balancing human social, cultural, and economic needs with the natural environment by respecting the finite natural resources of this planet and living in harmony with other humans and species now and into the future. We strive to become leaders in achieving a new vision of education, which integrates the principles of sustainable development into the academic programs, practices, and collaborations of our university.”

Sounds pretty good.

Included on the scheduled list of speakers is Mark Stemen, professor of geography and planning and one of the conference’s founders. He’s been celebrated for his efforts in sustainability, both in the Chico community and beyond. Stemen is also a critic of where the sustainability conference, which uses an image of a green highway direction sign as its logo, is headed.

“This conference started out as an exploration, but it has turned into a celebration,” he said during a recent interview. “I am all for celebrations, but given that every indicator—energy, waste, transportation—still says we are headed in the wrong direction, celebrating now seems premature, and maybe even counterproductive.”

Stemen points to the university’s still-under-construction parking structure on Second Street as evidence that the school is not practicing what is preached at these conferences.

“This parking structure,” he said while standing in front of the concrete formation, appears to be “a U-turn on the road to sustainability.”

The original reason for the conference, Stemen said, “was to really figure our way out of this mess: environmental problems, resource depletion, over-fishing, global warming, declining aquifers.”

He said the green highway sign was picked to symbolize where society needs to go. That first conference, he said, was in a sense exploratory.

“We didn’t know where we were going. Now seven years later you look at it and in some ways the sign showing this way to sustainability has become a roundabout. We are going in circles.”

He mentioned the recently constructed campus buildings that received the coveted LEED awards for their energy-efficiency, but noted they don’t have solar panels.

“The new rec center seems perfect for solar with those sloping roofs,” he said. “But they slope the wrong way. They went for aesthetics rather than sustainability.”

He says the goal of using less energy has not been achieved on campus. While it has gone down relative to use-per-square-foot, overall it is up.

And even though the school has won two awards for “reducing” waste, he said in fact, 1,100 tons of waste was collected on campus in 2004 and 1,300 tons were removed in 2009.

Chico State biology professor Jim Pushnik is director of the Institute for Sustainability and a scheduled conference speaker. He questions Stemen’s remark about how the conference has turned from an exploration into a celebration.

“I’m not sure how he would reach that conclusion,” Pushnik said. “The conferences focus on both identifying problems and how we can solve them. And I’ll be honest here. This is a candid conversation Mark and I have been having for years. Calling for change now is good, but not everybody has the same passion and focus or end goal.

“How do we balance the various needs?” he continued. “Mark is right in some ways. Sometimes we do get things wrong like the design of the buildings, but there are other factors at play, like building codes.”

The conference, Pushnik said, provides an opportunity to bring people to a common conversation and what is important is actually moving forward more than the actual speed of doing so.

“Our role is to make sure we are going in the right direction,” he said. “I’d like to go faster, but it takes time for the bulk of the people to appreciate what we are doing.”