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Byrne lectures on sustainability

byrneslane
2009-05-01

Sustainability.

The word means designing a human future for a diverse planet, a safe, healthy, clean and efficient system with more resilience and less vulnerability to system stress or collapse.

Speaking on the topic “Vulnerability and Resilience in Turbulent Times— in Pursuit of a Sustainable Future,” Jack Byrne of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., explained the theory of sustainability, but he moved beyond that to give practical lessons from his experiences as director of sustainability integration at one of the nation’s benchmark colleges.

Byrne was invited to Wofford through the college’s Gold, Black & Green Lecture series. He also visited the new Glendale Environmental Studies Center and met with members of the college’s sustainability task force.

In his lecture on Thursday, April 30, Byrne began by discussing a method of measuring human consumption of the available resources, often called “the ecological footprint.” Prior to the Industrial Revolution, human population was small enough and scattered enough that wasteful and destructive practices had little impact on the Earth’s long-range future. Now, however, the footprint is approaching the size where the planet’s resources cannot sustain it indefinitely.

“We are living beyond our means,” Byrne says. “In the future— pessimists think it might be as soon as 2016— growth of the global ecological footprint could accelerate into a runaway stage. At that point, it would become incredibly difficult to stop or reverse the trend by top-down international or government strategies.” The challenge then becomes trying to adapt to constant environmental change, with unpredictable consequences.

Byrne says that the main focus at this time should be seeking to implement sustainability concepts at a local level, particularly in more developed countries. He said that college campuses are particularly important in that process. Institutions of higher education are cultural leaders and responsible citizens in their communities, and they educate not only young men and women with technical knowledge, but also enlightened leaders who can bring about change.

Byrne outlined three areas where Middlebury has taken the lead nationally, and where Wofford has launched similar initiatives: (1) waste diversion and management, including recycling; (2) purchase of locally grown food and other products, reducing transportation costs and stimulating the local economy; and (3) carbon reductions as signatories to the Presidents Climate Commitment (PCC). Middlebury has a major initiative underway to achieve “carbon neutrality” in its operations, largely by systematically reducing the burning of petroleum products.