Note from the Director, May 2020

Mike Evans, Interim Director.

Happy May!

I hope this note finds you and your family healthy and doing alright in these challenging times.

In the face of all the uncertainty and worry around COVID-19, I’m finding that mustering optimism is more essential than ever for me.  Personally, I need that outlook both to help me stay upbeat with my 2nd-grade “co-workers” and to help me focus on creating positive impacts where I can.

COVID-19 has upended so much, including our perspective and approach to sustainability.  With fewer factories producing full tilt and fewer cars on the road, the skies are once again clear in places where smog and masks have long been the norm.  Air pollution levels have dropped precipitously all over the place, including in some of the more notoriously smoggy cities such as Beijing, Delhi, and Los Angeles.  Similarly, greenhouse gas emissions have declined (for the moment), though the dip is a seemingly small one compared with what we might expect when the world is basically on lockdown. While transportation has decreased, the world is not using drastically less electricity, the usage is just being shifted to different places, and a number of other emissions-generating processes still continue.  Waste-related issues, on the other hand, have experienced some serious backsliding. Reusable bag bans are on the rise because of concerns that these bags might serve as vectors for germs from homes into shared spaces.

Moreover, as the jobless rate climbs, the number of those experiencing food insecurity has been climbing as well.  The term “essential workers” has come into greater focus as grocery store employees and farmworkers have been added to our list of newfound heroes, headlined, of course, by healthcare workers.  Unfortunately, the past month-plus has highlighted the dearth of proper worker protections – PPE (personal protective equipment), safer working conditions, and policies – in countless companies across the country.  This frustration culminated this past Friday on International Workers’ Day with the May Day Strike where people protested and raised their voices in support of increased protection and pay for frontline workers.

And at Williams, what does sustainability look like during COVID-19?  As it usually does, sustainability still involves cross-departmental operational problem-solving, planning and policy work – as well the continuation of most of our student interns, whose research has been able to pivot to being conducted all over the world instead of just centralized in the Purple Valley.  I’m grateful to folks in Facilities Operations who are not only bringing a heightened level of attention to cleaning student residence halls, but who are also looking for operational energy savings when campus is largely shut down. Other members of that team have been working hard to store, pack, and ship belongings back to students.  Others are preparing to transport items that students set aside for donation through a modified Give It Up! program, which will get these items to the local Congregational Church and other charities.  Now more so than ever, I appreciate the folks in Dining Services, who are preparing meals for students still on campus and trying to figure out how to do so in a way that meets current safety requirements while still not increasing the amount of items sent to the incinerator.

You may remember that the 2020 emissions reductions goals are coming due at the end of the year.  The partial shutdown and shift to remote learning means that the college is seeing emissions reductions through building-level energy savings and a reduction in air miles, though of course, this is not the way that we were hoping to lower emissions.  A full accounting of the impact of COVID-19 on our carbon footprint will happen at the end of the fiscal year, and we are checking into how the shift to working and schooling from home might be able to be appropriately captured.

It’s also easy to forget that for the first two-thirds of the school year, the campus community had been devoting lots of time and energy to the strategic planning process, the conclusion of which has been pushed back but which is still aiming to be finalized by the end of the spring.   If you had an opportunity to look at the sustainability working group draft, you’ll know that the working group has proposed new emissions reductions goals (reduce emissions to 15-30% below 2022 baseline and maintain carbon neutrality) and more targeted cross-departmental emissions reduction strategies to achieve the new goals.

The coronavirus pandemic, while devastating, provides us with a chance to push ourselves to think outside of the box. With the dual challenges of all of us learning to work and study remotely and the financial challenges that are just beginning, the crisis is providing us with an opportunity to think about how to return to a measured amount of travel – and reduce our scope 3 emissions.  We’re not just passively observing – our Facilities Ops team is making adjustments to our buildings like adjusting temperature set points in order to realize energy savings now, and that team and other staff are working on identifying other operational energy savings that can be sustained beyond the end of the lockdown.

Additionally, we want to ensure that the college continues moving towards zero waste.  We’re in the midst of a comprehensive campus-wide waste assessment that will help us identify opportunities for waste reduction, diversion, and aversion by going beyond infrastructure and signage to address procurement and materials management as well.

The urgency we feel during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is real, immediate, and destabilizing, is the same urgency, of course, that we need to summon to deal with the slower moving crisis that is climate change. As we forge ahead into whatever the new COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 eras look like, at Williams, we will continue to ask the college as an institution and our community as departments and individuals to keep climate change mitigation and sustainability as the priorities that they need to be.  And as we work to increase sustainability at the college, we must keep another eye on our spheres of influence beyond the Purple Valley.   Both now and post-COVID-19, let’s together advocate to protect our fellow global citizens and our future by not only slowing greenhouse gas emissions but also more intentionally decarbonizing our economy.

Looking forward to seeing you all again in person at some point.

All the best,

Mike Evans is the interim director of the Zilkha Center for the 2019-2020 academic year.