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Blue is green

For the fifth consecutive year, the University of Maine has been named a “green college” by Princeton Review for its exemplary commitment to sustainability in academics, campus infrastructure and programming.

The Princeton Review’s Guide to 332 Green Colleges: 2014 Edition profiles 330 schools in the United States and two in Canada that are the most environmentally responsible. Other featured universities in the past five years include Georgia Tech, the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

The annual guide, produced by Princeton Review in collaboration with the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council, surveys four-year colleges to measure their commitment to the environment and sustainability.

“The University of Maine’s sustainability focus is comprehensive and impactful,” says UMaine President Paul Ferguson, who, in April, was elected vice chair of the Steering Committee of the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). “Maine’s flagship campus has a statewide and national leadership role in sustainability and stewardship in keeping with the university’s five-year Blue Sky strategic plan. At UMaine, sustainability helps define the institution.”

UMaine’s sustainability initiatives range from the Black Bear Orono Express shuttle and the campuswide single-stream recycling program to UMaine’s overarching goal of achieving carbon neutrality by 2040.

Today, the university is in a “smart-growth” period, says UMaine Sustainability Coordinator Daniel Dixon. Even with essential new construction and necessary upgrades to older infrastructure, multiple building renovations and energy-efficiency projects have contributed to an overall reduction in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions since 2005.

The University of Maine’s sustainability focus is comprehensive and impactful. At UMaine, sustainability helps define the institution.”
UMaine President Paul Ferguson

Continued sustainability at UMaine is important because it can save money for the university, promote institutional leadership by modeling best practices and facilitate community engagement.

UMaine Today asked Dix­on, who also is a research assistant professor in the university’s internationally recognized Climate Change Institute, about UMaine’s sustainability legacy and leadership.

How do you define sustainability and why is it important?

Our most basic requirements —unpolluted air, clean water and fresh food — all come from our environment, as do the energy and raw materials needed for construction and transportation. We currently harvest the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate. Despite ongoing warnings from environmentalists and scientists, the business-as-usual approach remains. Continuing to operate this way will likely have serious consequences for our fragile ecosystem.

There are a multitude of definitions for sustainability. One of the most basic is “the ability to meet our requirements for existence indefinitely.” In 1987, the definition by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED – The Brundtland Report) was that sustainable development “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” WCED’s definition arose from concerns that unhindered population growth and environmental degradation would compromise the health, justice and prosperity of future generations.

In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency echoed a similar environmental concern: “Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends either directly or indirectly on our natural environment. Sustainability creates and maintains the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony, (conditions) that permit fulfilling the social, economic and other requirements of present and future generations.”

Regardless of the definition one chooses, several key concepts apply, including: The Earth has environmental limits; modern humans have the responsibility of preventing environmental degradation; and environment, society and economy are interconnected and interdependent. Realizing true sustainability is essential for the future of society and all other life on the planet.

What forms does sustainability take at UMaine?

In leadership, UMaine President Paul Ferguson is a dedicated champion of sustainability. In the classroom, more than 25 UMaine departments offer environmental and sustainability-related education opportunities. Our world-class sustainability-related research centers include the Climate Change Institute, Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative, the Advanced Structures and Composites Center, and the Forest Bioproducts Research Institute. Our dedication to public service is exemplified by University of Maine Cooperative Extension, a public doorway to the expertise of Maine’s land grant institution for over 100 years.

Sustainability initiatives across campus have been ongoing for decades thanks to dedicated collaboration between the offices of Administration and Finance, Facilities Management, Auxiliary Services and many others. Successes include: construction of LEED-certified buildings, the Blue Bikes Program, the Green Loan Fund, the campus master plan, the commuter car pooling program, hybrid-electric vehicles in the UMaine motor pool, the Green Campus Initiative, the Green Team, LED emergency lights, a campus anti-idling policy, a dishroom pulper, low-flow shower heads, green cleaning products, occupancy sensors in rooms and offices, high-efficiency lighting, “trayless dining” and locally sourced food for UMaine dining commons.

This list only touches on the plethora of UMaine’s sustainability efforts. It’s also important to note that several of the initiatives are strictly student-led endeavors. In addition, significant progress has been made in campus infrastructure and operations, resulting in an overall reduction in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions since 2005.

Where do we find UMaine sustainability initiatives statewide?

UMaine Extension puts university research to work in homes, businesses, farms and communities in every county in the state. Many of UMaine’s more than 1,000 faculty and staff dedicate significant time and energy to sustainability-related projects in Maine.

There are too many statewide projects to list, but perhaps the most visible is anchored about 2.5 miles off Monhegan Island. VolturnUS is a 1:8 scale 20 kW grid-connected offshore floating wind turbine, and is the first to be deployed off the coast of the Americas.

Why is sustainability leadership important for universities, especially for state flagship research institutions like UMaine?

Universities act as role models for society, and in all countries they have an explicit obligation to educate the leaders of tomorrow. As the hub for advanced learning, research and public service in the state, the University of Maine exerts a defining influence over a significant number of people. The moral values expressed by UMaine representatives throughout the world reflect directly on the principles of our campus community and, more importantly, the state of Maine.

UMaine’s primary vehicle for advancing sustainability is education. UMaine offers over 70 classes that fulfill the Population and the Environment portion of students’ General Education Requirements. Those classes are offered in more than 25 academic departments.

In any given year, there are over 10,000 UMaine students enrolled. The hope is that the majority of them will carry on our culture of sustainability, returning home with an understanding of the importance of environmental stewardship and equipped with the tools to take action.

How do we continue to heighten awareness and make sustainability a way of life in the UMaine community?

Our goal is to inspire the core principles of sustainability in all our graduates, fostering a “sustainability state of mind” in successive generations of educators, leaders, innovators and informed citizens. If our community members make informed decisions using the knowledge gained through academic advances in the understanding of sustainability, we stand a good chance of limiting the environmental disruption that will inevitably result from a business-as-usual approach.

The UMaine Terrell House Permaculture Living and Learning Center is a good example of a small community working together to achieve sustainability. Student residents at Terrell House, located just off campus on College Avenue, share responsibilities through regular meetings, planning sessions, design and garden work, and experimentation with a variety of systems and approaches to communication, education and economics. The Terrell House provides an opportunity for interdisciplinary learning and research, and a chance to see sustainability in action.

How do we know when we have achieved a culture of sustainability?

To achieve a culture of sustainability, all members of a society must be in agreement with — and actively working toward achieving — the core principles of sustainability. We must become acutely aware of the consequences of our actions. A sustainability state of mind means we should be asking ourselves: Which of my options does not damage the environment? Which option will benefit me and those around me? Am I doing things as efficiently as possible? Are my efforts improving the world in which I live?

On a daily basis, these questions of sustainability are difficult to pose and more difficult to answer. For many people today, the reality is that the less sustainable alternatives are more viable because they are cheaper. Also, many of the impacts of an unsustainable lifestyle are not readily apparent, so “out of sight, out of mind” often unconsciously rules the day. A culture of sustainability has been achieved if members of society consider questions of sustainability automatically — if concern for the environment and all life becomes second nature.

In recent years, UMaine’s sustainability legacy has been punctuated with LEED buildings, local food and free alternative transportation. What’s next?

Perhaps the biggest challenge for the university will be discontinuing or at least significantly reducing fossil fuel use. There are several approaches we can take to achieve this goal, the most likely of which is converting our Central Plant to burn renewable fuels, such as biogas, biofuel and landfill gas. We also need to acquire our electricity from renewable sources. This can realistically be achieved using a large-scale solar photovoltaic installation, hydropower or a combined heat and power installation at the Central Plant (powered by renewable fuel).

How does your science background inform your work as UMaine’s sustainability coordinator?

I have spent more than a decade studying the effects of climate change around the world, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to train at one of the world’s foremost climate research facilities. I have peered into the Earth’s past over timescales of hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands of years, and I can say with certainty that climate change is real. It is something that we should all be taking very seriously. My knowledge of — and firm belief in — human-induced climate change provides me with a strong sense of purpose.

I feel a real sense of urgency to communicate the importance of sustainability and the ways to approach it. If we do not act soon to stop the environmental degradation we are causing, the consequences for the future of society are likely to be dire.

A decade from now, what will we point to as further evidence of UMaine’s sustainability leadership?

My hope is that a decade from now — if not sooner — efficiency, recycling and composting will be second nature to each and every member of the University of Maine community. More than ever, students will be drawn to UMaine for its national reputation as a hub of environmental consciousness and sustainability innovation.

All our graduates will go out into the world with a sustainability state of mind. Their decisions will be based not only on what is good for them, but what is right for the community at large and the world population in general. They will work to spread the knowledge they have learned and help to bring about a new era of health, justice and prosperity.

Image Description: Drawing of UMaine

Image Description: Alumni Hall (Illustration by Robin Moline)

Image Description: UMaine Greens hoophouse and the adjacent advanced composting facility;Maine Bound, home of the Blue Bikes Program; and Hilltop Dining Commons

Image Description: New Balance Student Recreation Center

Image Description: Central Steam Plant

Image Description: Stevens Hall

Image Description: Advanced Structures and Composites Center and Bryand Global Sciences Center

Spring 2014


Contact Information

UMaine Today Magazine
Department of University Relations
5761 Keyo Public Affairs Building,
Phone: (207) 581-3745 | Fax: (207) 581-3776
The University of Maine
Orono, Maine 04469
A Member of the University of Maine System
The University of Maine - UMaine Today Magazine - Blue is green