Posted by: ericgrimsrud | April 22, 2016

St. Olaf College’s opportunity for intergenerational leadership

Uffda!! Once again (see my May of 2015 post entitled “The disconnect between modern climate science and St. Olaf College, for example”), it appears that I am about to pick on St. Olaf College as an example of an institution that could provide more leadership in an era when bold and revolutionary changes are needed – if we want future generations to enjoy opportunities that are anywhere close to those my generation had.  Born in 1944, my spouse, Kathy, and I are about to celebrate the 50th anniversary of our graduation from St. Olaf College with the class of 1966.  My classmates and I lived in what could be called a “Goldilocks” era of the USA.  With the Great Depression and WWII behind us, we had carpets of opportunity laid out before us in all directions and most of us prospered with relative ease.  When the industrial forces of America turned from the production of war materials to commercial goods in the ‘50’s, we helped out by becoming good and even insatiable consumers of those goods.  For the energy needed to propel those lifestyles, we had literally unlimited supplies of cheap fossil fuels and still do.  Meanwhile the total population of the Earth continued to rise exponentially – at seven billion today, it is expected to be nine billion by midcentury.

Before even mentioning our now obvious global warming problem, let’s first recall that back in 1968, just after the graduation of my class at St. Olaf, Stanford Professor Paul Ehrlich published a best-selling book entitled “The Population Bomb” in which he warned us about the detrimental effects of our increasing population on the physical conditions of our planet. While his dire predictions of starvation in the ‘70s and ‘80s did not come to be due to subsequent improvements in agriculture, Ehrlich’s prediction now does seem to be bearing down on us for a different, but related reason  –  that is, the changes in climate caused by the greenhouse gas emissions of all of those people.  While the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere had not exceeded 290 ppm for about three million years, about 100 years ago it started to climb and is now over 400 ppm.

So we were warned about problems such as these way back in 1968 and in more recent decades have been warned countless times by a countless number of climate scientists that we have now reached a limit of planet sustainability because of our past and continuing emissions of CO2 via the combustion of fossil fuels.

So the obvious next question is: what have we been doing about it? And the answer is:  relatively little, as is directly evidenced by the only score card that matters – our background level of CO2 in the atmosphere.  It is now rising even faster than ever –  by more than 2 ppm in each of the last two years.  It has never previously risen so rapidly.  Thus, our background CO2 level is now approaching 404 ppm, a level not seen for over 10 million years. The only thing we have going for us at the moment is the thermal inertia of the Earth – its takes a decade or two to see the full effects of changes in the magnitude of the Earth’s warming by the greenhouse gases.  We have to get our CO2 level down ASAP, not let it continue to increase.

In order to turn things around, national and international leadership of a revolutionary nature is now required. There is no longer adequate time for testing incremental changes that might have been helpful if tried 30 years ago. Building more wind and solar mills will help, of course, but by far, the more important low-hanging fruit that we know will work and absolutely must be harvested ASAP is related to huge CONSERVATION changes spelled here with all caps and not simply “conservation” of the incremental and ordinary sense.  Note that solving the global warming problem means cutting ALL greenhouse gas emissions to ZERO within the next few decades. That goal cannot be accomplished by “all of the above” energy policies and requires that we go “cold turkey” on all fossil fuel use – thereby leaving it in the ground where it belongs and does no harm.

OK, now let’s get back to St. Olaf College – again, this is because it is my own alma mater with which I am somewhat familiar and also because it represents what’s happening at hundreds of other colleges and universities in the USA. Most of these colleges, like St. Olaf, might think they are “doing their part” in combating climate change mainly by increasing energy efficiencies on their campuses. Their remaining problem, however, is that they also choose to be an integral part of the USA’s non-sustainable system of fossil fuel consumption via some of their educational programs and endowment investments.  For example, one of St. Olaf’s most prized programs is its “studies abroad” programs – by which a sizeable fraction of its students take courses involving travel to all corners of the Earth.  No argument here:  there are great benefits to these hands-on, first-hand experiences.  The only problem is that fossil fuels are used to get those students and their teachers to and from those places.  In addition, St. Olaf College regularly invites its alumni to similar experiences abroad involving extensive fossil-fuel-driven transport.

Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of these fossil fuel intensive activities is that they send the wrong message to students and alumni. Does St. Olaf College not recognize that there is no “good” or “ethical” CO2 emissions: all are equally bad.  If a college feels that it must offer these experiences to its students and alumni, they should tell the airlines involved that they will use their services only if their aircraft are powered by carbon neutral biofuels (even though biodiesel is more expensive than regular diesel).  In addition, is there any reason, other than increased expense, why the transport of St. Olaf’s student-athletes to other colleges in the region could not be provided by biodiesel-powered busses, vans and cars.  Is it right for St. Olaf College to have future generations pay for its fossil fuel intensive programs?  If you need something now, shouldn’t it be paid for now, as you use it, instead of passing that bill forward to your grandchildren? At any ethical level, I should think the answers to those two questions are no and yes, respectively.

Therefore, I would like to encourage St. Olaf College to take the opportunity it now has to significantly increase its leadership role on the most important issue of our time. In a recent publication from St. Olaf, the college was able to boast about its involvement some 50 years ago in the civil rights movement of the American South. Some of my own classmates jumped into the midst of that conflict. The forces on the other side of that racial issue were strong and determined.  Considerable courage was required of those St. Olaf students.  One St. Olaf graduate was killed in Selma.  In terms of the future well-being of mankind, the dangers posed by global warming are at least as great as those posed by racial inequality and the courage needed to fight the former is just as great as the latter.  Nevertheless, I hope that in 50 years hence, St. Olaf College can again boast about a leadership role it played in preserving physical conditions on this planet.  By that time the ravages of global warming are sure to be somewhere between substantial and horrific. In the meantime, the only variable mankind has any control over is its cumulative CO2 emissions and St. Olaf College could provide a better example to its students, alumni and other colleges of how to better address this central point.

In order to facilitate the endorsement of these ideas at St. Olaf College, I have done my best to contact its President, its Board of Regents, its Environmental Science faculty and its student newspaper.


  1. Eric, today I received our annual invitation to the St. Olaf alumni basketball players golf fundraiser to be held August 15. Are Tim and you in with Andy and me? We had fun last year and all four of us played well. Cost per player is $100. Money goes toward the varsity men’s basketball team summer travel to Europe. It’s done ever three years. In the past, the teams have gone to Greece and Italy. I don’t think college and university sports teams understand the concept on conservation and picking the low hanging fruit. Good luck. Maybe best to enjoy the party while it lasts.

    [Response from EPG: Dave, perhaps the players and their coaches do not understand the concept of conservation, but I hope that at least the Presidents of those institutions do]

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