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September 7, 2011 / or4green

Sustainability Course

Last December, I mentioned I was putting together a sustainability course. It ran at the Coast Guard Academy last spring. The original plan was to write about it as it went along, but getting it up and running left me a lot less time for other activities like this blog. Anyway, the course was an interdisciplinary grab bag of sustainability topics, with a slant towards leadership. While there were some OR tie-ins, the main idea was to get students (who were from several different majors, including OR) acquainted with a number of sustainability challenges and to see how many of those were being approached.

I gave several lectures and led a number of discussions on readings. This was mostly on background material such as defining sustainability, energy/environment basics, early sustainability thinkers (including John Muir, Theodore Roosevelt, JC Kumarappa, Rachel Carson, etc.), and climate change. I incorporated a few quantitative assignments such as basic linear regression on global temperature data and solar panel system cost calculations (with and without the use of discounted cash flows, to highlight an omission in many of the online calculators out there). We took a couple of tours of local facilities including an impressive home outfitted with a geothermal system and solar panels. And we also spent some time in the decision analysis realm, with an exercise on criteria for a sustainable ship. This was based in part on material I was exposed to at the Soft Skills workshop at the most recent INFORMS Business Analytics conference.

Bob Day from U Conn and I created a carbon trading game that we played in class. The game, while fairly straightforward, led to some interesting results. Essentially, players were competing utilities, each with a fossil fuel and renewable energy plant. Any electricity generated at their fossil fuel plants required offsetting carbon credits, which were available via auction. Depending on the auction price, it could either be cheaper or more expensive to generate electricity with fossil fuel versus renewables. I hope to post more about the game at some point.

The heart of the course to my mind was a series of about a dozen guest lectures from individuals most of whom work on sustainability on a daily basis and have experienced concrete successes. Here are a few examples (with apologies to the many other excellent lecturers I am omitting for the time being):

Anne Korin from the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS) gave a highly compelling presentation about energy security. Her basic premise is that oil is a strategic commodity because of its essential role in transportation. And because much of its supply is controlled by a cartel (OPEC) that is generally unfriendly to US interests, this is a threat to US security. Solutions proposed by IAGS include flex-fuel vehicles, trade modifications and electrification of transportation. I would highly recommend her very interesting and readable book written with Gal Luft also of IAGS. If I teach the course again I will most likely use it.

Captain John Hickey, the Coast Guard’s sustainability “czar” delivered a tour-de-force lecture via web-conference. He highlighted an array of issues from environmental to economic in the opening half of his talk and followed this up with some of the things the Coast Guard has done to be more sustainable, many of those initiatives being ones he led (see this post for more on that).

Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx fame delivered a moving and inspiring talk on “Hometown Security”. To get an idea of what she spoke about, track down her TED talk on the subject. In a nutshell, it addresses the intertwined issues of sustainability and socio-economics, with an eye towards gainfully employing people to work in their local communities.

We used many sources including the books Cradle to Cradle, Cape Wind, and the Skeptical Environmentalist. The last of those is a controversial book written by Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg. Lomborg attempts to get a fix on the “true” state of the world, in contrast to the pessimistic take he finds in the work of most environmental commentators. Given his statistical background and the quantitative basis of most environmental claims, on the surface, this sounds like a good plan. At times, Lomborg’s critiques are incisive and refreshing. Other times, they are strange or misleading. Lomborg has generated a huge deal of controversy, which a google search will turn up. As an aside, Lomborg has a new movie entitled Cool It. J. Eric Bickel of the University of Texas worked with Lomborg on the film and also happens to be featured in a recent INFORMS podcast: Will Geoengineering Rescue Us from Climate Change?

It may not be easy to measure the impact of the course, if any. But one student who has since moved on to her ship is now working on developing a sustainability plan for it. So we will see what happens going forward.

There is a lot more I could say about the course. I encourage you to post any questions you might have in the comments or email me and I will follow up.



  1. Zach Ogden / Sep 7 2011 8:43 pm

    Personally, I think that if even one CG asset is positively impacted by the course (such as the ship you mentioned at the end), the course is a success. Hopefully CGA leadership recognizes this.

  2. Ashley Cordi / Sep 11 2011 8:17 pm

    I know the cadets benefited from the class – . There are many more that are hoping you will teach it again!

  3. or4green / Sep 12 2011 8:32 pm

    Zach & Ashley – thanks for the support! Hopefully it will run again sometime in the future.

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