It Saves Trees

Public glass waste collection point in a neigh...

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A funny thing happened on the way to going green …

Many faculty and staff have gone completely paperless in their day to day activities on campus. It is part of the INCREDIBLY SLOW process of greening the campus that began with a few students refusing to use plastic utensils in the dining hall and a few professors, like yours truly, schlepping paper home and bottles home to recycle half a million years ago. Now that basic changes can been seen all over campus, a lot more people feel really excited about the greening efforts. My social activism courses all participate in one way or another in the process by thinking up ways to link campus dining with local farmers (and ensure fair wages for day laborers), working on congestion studies to determine if campus buses, walkways, and bike lanes can be expanded or made safer options than the gas guzzle commute, and even in volunteering to take the recycling out to our over taxed and underfunded recycle center when it tends to overflow in the dorms. It all sounds great doesn’t it? And in many ways it is.

However, a recent class discussion reframed the efforts in ways very few on campus had considered. Pov U is a commuter school, many of its students are first generation college kids who drive through two or more towns to come to class. They drive beat up pick up trucks and jeeps that help them get their farm work done or are simply sturdy enough to get them from place to place in their unimproved stretch of the N. American landscape. They resent the ease with which the media discusses hybrid cars as if the price falling to the moderate range means anything to families who have kept the same car for two or three generations by switching out the parts and ignoring the rust in the floor boards. They cannot bike and bussing it would take half the day one way, a train, if we had one that connected to some of their small towns, would cost a small fortune as would the grey hound that does reach some of them. Many of them cannot carpool either because they have kids who have to be dropped off at school on the way in or husbands, boyfriends, or partners who have to be dropped off at work or the day laborer center on their way in. Many of them have to pick groceries up on the way back as well, and transferring from bus to bus with groceries and kids over 3 towns is something that only feels novel to people who CHOOSE to do it, not those who have to.

This is the part of the story we should all recognize. The limitations in transportation that green discourse does not consider or simply demands be dealt with by the poorest among us “if they really care about the planet”! But it is also the part of the conversation that many involved in decolonized discussions of transportation and mobility have been working to change. From plans involving green, fast, and accessible transit to expanding safety features and late night routes to the push to decrease the cost of green cars, plans have gone into places to make green transportation a reality across the class divides even as local politics may continue to fail people in rural areas or from working class and subsistence areas.

But what about on campus? Most of my colleagues no longer pass out syllabi on the first day. Many have gone electronic with their packets, their textbooks, and even their exams and handouts. In fact, many items are turned in electronically as well. The mantra is “it saves on paper [trees]”. The reality is that it also saves on budget for cash strapped departments with limited access to free copying as well. I for one have been at the forefront of putting my materials online. All of my courses have Black Board, a listserv, and an e-reserve. Having finally been allowed to use a smart classroom once in a while, I have also taken to putting the syllabus up on the screen and going over key points rather than bringing in hard copies. I can literally highlight the key points in any color of my choosing on word as I speak, and ask them to do quick expectations oriented assignments while referring to a large print version of the syllabus in front of them. I’ve teched out y’all and happily patted myself on the back for greening my classes.

Until … one of my students had a melt down. She pointed out that she has no computer and probably never will. She has three kids she has to pick up in one of those beat up trucks I was talking about and even with her own transportation it takes over a 1.5 hours to get to and from campus not counting if they stop to do errands. Her husband needs the car for his second shift, so her time on campus is also limited. For her, the adage “there are always computers on campus” has little meaning. There is no library in her town and the nearest one has only one computer that is too old to access the latest version of Black Board or download pdf files. For her, “it saves on paper” translates to “you learn nothing”. She is not alone. Many students on our campus have limited access to computers outside of campus and some do not have the money it takes to print the articles and syllabus to take with them when they leave. As we become more and more “green” these students struggle with the standardized expectation that they have access and funds and the stigma of admitting they do not. In fact, if some of the self-reporting that occurred after my initial student spoke is any indication, the stigma of being working class or susbsistance level on campus has increased considerably as a result of the “it saves trees” plan.:

  • They come to class confused because the syllabus changed in the middle of the night on line but they are still working off the one they printed on the first day.
  • They have less time than other students to consider the essay questions or the exam questions because they can only access them on campus inbetween trips to daycare, job, etc.
  • They appear to not have done the reading because they either did not have enough time in their on campus window to absorb the material online and they couldn’t afford to print it, or they printed it and some of the pages were missing because someone else in the lab accidentally took them, the printer broke, or the pdf was wrong and by the time it was fixed they were already gone

In other words, they appear to be checked out, confused, or inconsistent students when in fact they are doing their best to keep on top of a system that is supposed to be saving the planet for a better life for everyone on it, including them. When they get called out for not doing their homework, most are already too embarrassed to say the problem is finances. They look at the students in the front with laptops open, raising their hands, and wonder if college is even for them.

And I find myself wondering why any of us thought that cost saving paperless options meant those costs just disappeared. If we don’t print the handout for students, then each student bears the burden of printing, ie paying that cost. And yes, I just assumed those who didn’t want to pay that cost read the material online but that requires a computer and reliable internet both of which are hard to come by in many of the communities our students come from and we know it. Saying we have labs all over campus ignores the demand we have created for those labs, the work and care giving schedules of many of our students, and even the basic things that we all know go wrong with overused printers and copy machines. More than that, how exactly does “it save trees” if we know full well someone else is printing the material when we are not?

And so I find myself rethinking campus greening in a lot of ways. From the push to ban cars on campus and to reclaim campus provided parking lots, which is suppose to discourage driving but will result in exorbitant parking fees and possible fines for most of our long range commuters, to the farmers to table programs that students report has decreased meal plans for on campus diners but increased the price of individual meals for most commuters. Where is the class analysis in our efforts to go green? And why are class discussions so often poo-pooed as so many straw men and naysayers?

My cousin, who called me in a rage about her grocery bag tearing open on the bus and yuppie teen bus riders who ride for fun,laughing at her in front of her two young boys the other day, all because the Mayor of her town has decided that plastic bags are the biggest sin on earth and thinks everyone can afford those $12 designer bags he apparently shops with, said something that is now ringing in my ears “It takes green [$] to go green.” Isn’t there something wrong with that? What do you all think? And do you have any class-sensitive or class-inclusive community level greening tips that you want to share?

5 thoughts on “It Saves Trees

  1. This is such a good post; thank you for writing it. I also work at a university that is pushing sustainability initiatives, and I’ve been troubled by similar issues. MyU is not accomodating for commuter students at all and very much maintains the privilege of the “traditional” model of university student (young, full-time, residential, dependent upon parents) — which is a whole other class issue, and has probably muted many of the problems you refer to by driving away those students entirely. : (

    One of the things that has bugged me here, though, is the effect of greening issues on employees. Our payroll office stopped issuing paper paychecks: all pay must be deposited directly in a bank account, and all pay stubs (showing hours worked and benefit accumulation, if any) are available online only. This is great for all of the middle-class office workers who already have checking and savings accounts and constant computer access. For most of the housekeeping, maintenance, and janitorial staff, who are usually part-time and work shifts starting at 5 a.m. (before computer labs may open), it was, well, awful. Many of these staff members work two to three jobs to make ends meet, at odd hours; they frequently do not have computer, internet, or printers at home, and have never used computers anyway; their on-campus jobs are mobile and do not give them computer access; and many did not have bank accounts and used check-cashing services. The university made some efforts to set staff up with no-fee checking accounts, to provide computers and computer training, but the housekeeper for my building still comes to me every two weeks and asks me to print his pay stub for him so that he can make sure he was paid for the right number of hours.

    It’s green, but we’re leaving people behind — and as you pointed out, what exactly was the point of going green in the first place, if not to make people’s lives better? Are we? Who counts as “people” in green initiatives?

    • wow! pov u is so large that any mandatory paperless check initiative would backfire on multiple levels, yet we do have incentives to go paperless with payroll as well. Having the option to get paper means most of us, myself included, never considered how the greening of payroll impacts the same or similar vulnerable populations on campus … thanks for adding that piece!

      As in all social justice work, I think we need to start with that question you posed at the end

      Who counts as “people” in green initiatives?

      and then make sure any initiative we engage in results in the answer “everyone”. And if we find out we missed someone even after considering the most vulnerable among us, then the priority should be to revamp or start again until the answer is “everyone”.

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  3. I just wanted to thank you for this. I attend a university that prides itself for “going green”. It’s also a commuter campus that brings in people from quite a few neighboring communities, some of which are an hour or two away driving. Even the in-city commuters, who generally rely on public transit, can be over an hour away from campus.

    Interestingly, I am in a “Sociology of Higher Education” class. People thought I was nuts when I pointed out some of the issues you discuss in your post, and my professor totally missed the point, instead taking it as an attack on his personal policies. This was dismaying on many levels, not the least of which is that he works with many first-gen students (he was a first-gen student himself, returning to get his degree when he was in his late 40s).

    So anyway, I appreciate the post and it has served as a discussion point in the group projects I’ve worked on this term. Sadly, I’m not surprised at how many people just. Don’t. Get it.

    • I am sorry that your professor and others saw it as a personal indictment rather than a call to think more intersectionally about environmentalism. I know that I have had been constantly challenged to be more inclusive in my environmental efforts as a result of writing this post and the conversations that have sprung from it. Glad it was useful to you and that you are bringing it into your studies. 🙂

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