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Progress towards sustainability admirable but delayed

Staff Editorial | Friday, September 19, 2008

Earlier this year, the University of Notre Dame received a grade of C from the Sustainable Endowments Institute for its efforts to become more environmentally friendly. The 2008 College Sustainability Report Card averaged grades in eight different categories, including “Administration,” “Climate Change & Energy” and “Investment Priorities.” With one A, three Ds and four Cs, our campus sustainability G.P.A. rose from last year’s widely publicized D-.

What changed in the span of a year?

In terms of the report, in 2007 the University was awarded an F in “Administration,” “Green Building,” “Climate Change” and “Endowment Transparency.” Those grades have risen to C, C, D and D, respectively.

Notre Dame’s highest grade in 2007, a C in “Investment Priorities,” rose to an A, with the report citing the University’s goal to “optimize investment return” as well as current investment in renewable energy funds as a reason for the grade increase.

On campus, the changes resulting from the D- are obvious. Recycling bins are more widespread and visible now than ever before. Programs for the Opening Mass were locally printed with environmentally friendly ink. This year’s Academic Forum, one of President Rev. John Jenkins’ big initiatives since taking office, will focus on sustainable energy, with the goal of continuing dialogue and research across campus well after the Forum on Sept. 24th. Father Jenkins has also repeatedly connected sustainability with Catholic values, such as the stewardship of natural resources.

While the administration’s efforts at change are admirable, it’s surprising that this topic went without notice for so long. Until last year’s report card, “sustainability” was hardly the hot-bed word it is now. “An Inconvenient Truth” had already permeated American and world culture, and global warming has been a topic of concern for years.

Even the discussion of Catholicism and the environment is hardly new.

Rewind over two decades to November of 1987, when Pope John Paul II oversaw a symposium on the environment through the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The Holy Father remarked then that “[the environment] merits most careful attention and is truly one of tremendous importance at the present moment in the history and development of our modern world.”

Why, then, have environmental issues received so little attention at Notre Dame until now? The administration seems to be taking a reactive, rather than proactive, approach to these problems. Our peer schools have been focusing on sustainability issues for years. In 2007, the Observer reported that Harvard University received an A- from the Sustainable Endowments Institute, as well as Dartmouth College, Stanford University and Williams College.

It’s clear that the administration is working to expand the potential of Our Lady’s University. One has to ask, however, if the current focus on sustainability is really motivated by a sense of our environmental responsibility.