Promoting a Culture of Responsible Sustainability

 Before we explore the many benefits of on-campus green technology and energy efficiency, let’s first consider the role of art in daily life.

The relevance may not appear obvious at first, but the impact of art is far-reaching.

Art Teaches Us How (not) to Live

A popular cliché is that art imitates life, and yet too infrequently do we contemplate as a culture the lessons that can be learned from art.

I am thinking of Jay Gatsby, mysterious millionaire and title character of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, a literary creation that has come to signify the decadence of the Roaring Twenties.

I am also thinking of the strange life of Fitzgerald’s novel as a cultural product. The Great Gatsby was initially greeted in 1925 with indifference (in his 1925 review for the Chicago Tribune, H.L. Menken called it a “glorified anecdote”), but it later struck a chord with the public, first when readers increasingly identified with the novel’s demystification of the American Dream; and of course, in the decades thereafter, it would not only become required reading in high school curricula everywhere, but it would also be adapted for film and television, inspiring unauthorized sequels, computer games, and staged versions in the forms of theater, ballet, and opera.

As for Gatsby, the character’s fate serves as a cautionary tale, a warning to readers of the pitfalls brought on by extreme wealth, especially when one’s moral compass has lost its way. If you know the novel, no doubt you can recall Gatsby’s lavish parties and his remarkable estate, which Fitzgerald positions along the affluent northern coast of Long Island. Gatsby’s lifestyle indicates nostalgia for a past in which British aristocrats could rule their estates like feudal lords.

One of the key lessons that Fitzgerald imparts is that Gatsby’s values, his inherent selfishness and greed, are at odds with democratic America. Gatsby’s tragedy is that he fails to learn this lesson before it’s too late.

Embracing the Future: Bill Gates, the Anti-Gatsby

Unlike Gatsby, who uses his vast wealth to recreate an aristocratic, insular, and oppressive past, one can locate in Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft, a real-world example of an individual with incredible wealth who instead has embraced the future, and who has done so by prioritizing the welfare of others, as well as that of the planet, ahead of his own long-term interests.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is the largest private foundation in the world, equipped with $46.8 billion in assets. The primary goals of the foundation, globally, are to enhance healthcare and to reduce extreme poverty, and in the U.S., to expand educational opportunities and access to information technology.

Gates is also affiliated with Carbon Engineering, a company he played a part in funding, and one that aims to decarbonize the global economy by extracting global-warming carbon dioxide straight from the air, using arrays of giant fans and patented chemical wizardry; and then using the gas to make clean, carbon-neutral synthetic diesel and petrol to drive the world’s ships, planes, and trucks.

Gates’ philanthropy and his investments in green technology have the power to change innumerable lives for the better, and there is even compelling evidence that he is inspired by art—specifically, by The Great Gatsby.

On the ceiling of Gates’ home library is a quotation from Fitzgerald’s novel, one that describes Gatsby’s wonder at a green light he spots across the water. It is a light that Gatsby imagines will guide him in the direction of all that he desires: “[Gatsby] had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.”

One can only speculate about Gates’ motivation to display the quotation, but perhaps it is a reminder to use his wealth wisely, to pursue the greater good as opposed to his own immediate gratification.

Xanadu 2.0: A Model for Green Technology and Energy Efficiency

If Gates is the anti-Gatsby, the location of his home serves as a fascinating counterpoint to Gatsby’s fictional estate. Xanadu 2.0, as it is called, is located not on the affluent north shore of Long Island but instead along the eastern shore of Lake Washington, in the affluent city of Medina, Washington.

Xanadu 2.0 (named after the fictional home of Charles Foster Kane, the title character of Citizen Kane) represents the future, one uninhibited by budgetary limits, and with eco-friendly, energy-efficient technology and design. Its design, one can well imagine, is an extension of Gates’ values, his desire to unify cutting-edge technology with natural elements, and not merely to preserve the surrounding landscape but to cultivate and enhance its beauty.

Present in the home are eccentric features that one might expect of the super-rich: the option to press a button to change artwork on each wall; a swimming pool with its own underwater music system; a library of 2100 square feet that includes Da Vinci’s Codex Leicester manuscript.

But other features suggest what’s possible with green technology: an “earth-sheltered” house, meaning that it’s built into its surroundings to regulate temperature more efficiently; a 40-year-old maple tree that’s monitored by computer, and that’s automatically pumped with water when it becomes too dry; an artificial stream stocked with salmon and trout; and, like something out of an Astounding Science Fiction anthology, a high-tech sensor system that allows guests to alter a room’s climate and lighting as they move from room to room.

Private universities and colleges should take note—after all, every institution, regardless of the capital at its disposal, can learn key lessons from the innovations utilized by Gates in the green-oriented functionality and energy-efficient design of Xanadu 2.0.

Green Technology and Energy Efficiency at Private University and College Campuses

Columbia University has managed in recent years to cut its energy costs by more than $700,000 annually by using innovative green technologies. The institution upgraded its water chilling system, which reduced energy consumption by 3.5 million kilowatt hours (kWh) per year.

It added eco-friendly insulating roofs to many of its buildings to reduce heating and cooling costs, and it likewise revamped its labs to use less energy and lighting. New long-lasting, energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs have been installed around campus, while timers and sensors in classrooms and multipurpose facilities have helped to prevent unnecessary lighting usage.

When Columbia renovated Knox Hall, one of its housing facilities, it added 2,000-foot-deep geothermal wells to provide heating and cooling power from the earth’s ground water. This effort alone has led to savings of up to 60%.

The University of Pennsylvania has reduced its energy costs by replacing HVAC systems and adding more energy-efficient lighting to dozens of buildings around campus. Its Operation Command Center monitors temperature control and energy usage throughout the campus, which saves the institution more than $5 million in electricity each year.

UPenn also purchases more green power than any other higher education institution in the country. In 2013, it committed to purchasing over 200,000,000 kWh of wind energy annually for five years. This offsets more than 50% of the emissions from the institution’s overall electric usage. Efforts to purchase more green energy has led to awards from the EPA’s Green Power Partnership program.

Colby College, located in Maine, has 12 LEED-certified buildings on campus and has implemented a policy to receive LEED certification for all of its future construction buildings. LEED-certified buildings include a variety of eco-friendly, cost-effective features, those such as geothermal heating and cooling systems, energy-efficient windows, green roof additions, heat recovery systems, and underground geothermal walls.

Colby College also uses a photovoltaic solar system (a power system designed to supply usable solar power by means of photovoltaics), which produces approximately 33,000 kWh of power each year.

Pomona College of Claremont, California, has several LEED-certified Gold buildings on campus as well as two on-site resident halls built to LEED Platinum standards. Its solar hot water system is on pace to supply 80% of hot water to new residence hall buildings, and its newest buildings feature rooftop solar panels and energy efficient windows.

Other Tips for Achieving Energy Efficiency

There are several other ways to implement green technology and energy efficiency on campus.

Certain strategies require adjusting how we navigate on-campus spaces—for instance, adopting green transportation practices by walking or riding a bicycle to class, or by taking a bus or carpooling.

Promoting an energy-efficient club is another option, in which our institutions encourage student organizations or even different dormitories to compete for energy efficient savings, and with a reward of some kind for the winners.

But there are even more immediate actions that can be taken to assure that green technology is an integral part of our on-campus culture. Requiring students who live on campus to use ENERGY STAR-label mini-fridges would be a great start, since these use less energy than a 60-watt light bulb. Another possibility is to provide students with LED bulbs for desk lamps. LEDs can last over 25,000 hours, or 25 times longer than traditional light bulbs.

While it would be great to have the deep pockets of an anti-Gatsby philanthropist like Bill Gates, the vast majority of private universities and colleges are far removed from such a reality. But what we can do is invest in green technology and energy-efficient products, and in the long-term, save money while also working to promote a culture of responsible sustainability.

About the Author
David Vinson, PUPN staff writer, has a PhD in English with specializations in transatlantic literature and cultural studies. He is a committed scholar, teacher, husband, and dad. If you ever meet David, avoid the subject of soccer. His fandom borders on the truly obnoxious.