I would not like people to think that universities are unaware of the country’s dire economic circumstances. Aside from the real value of salaries slowly floating down like sycamore leaves and pensions being recalibrated, in the last recession we took the bold step of banning first-class post. Anyone wanting to use it had to telephone the dean even if he or she was at home. At the time, the cost of the call exceeded the difference between a first- and second-class stamp.
This time there is no such nonsense. Instead, we no longer have biscuits at meetings, regardless of subsequent unemployment in the biscuit industry. Meanwhile, a person who is supposedly a member of the Green Party patrols the building turning out lights, so that at times we live in a Stygian gloom that matches the times. Since some of the new, economical lights in the offices are bright, there are those who have taken to switching them off as well. Given that often these rooms are filled with plants (helpfully turning carbon dioxide into oxygen), to enter can seem like a trip into the rainforest - itself, of course, a reminder of our global responsibilities.
There is some light, however, from the giant plasma screens kindly bequeathed to us by the British Science Association, left over from its conference, an aspect of which was a concern for global warming. Unfortunately, they absorb electricity like HobNobs suck up coffee. In the library, lights come on only as you walk towards them, like the walkway that extends in the X-Men films, which in turn means that you are pursued by an enveloping darkness always only feet away.
Needless to say, I contribute to energy saving by saving my energy. I move as little as possible, although I would save more if I didn’t have to spend so much time at my computer relearning the word-processing program as it morphs from WordPerfect to Word 2000, Word XP, Word 2007 and now Word 2010, each time moving its functionality around like Sainsbury’s switches food from familiar aisles, while offering to send messages to some distant machine to help it mend whatever keeps happening to my documents. Do I wish to send a report, it asks? No, I just want it to bloody work in the first place.
Despite a university email warning us against bribery, it is very tempting to offer a little something to those technicians who didn’t build up their pension pots in the now-forgotten panic over Y2K. Unfortunately, they have to spend their time cleaning up the fallout from software upgrades, the failure of servers, and computers being hijacked by schoolboys in Ukraine or global warming fanatics who have moved on from promoting Creationism to trying to sabotage those working to save us from the need to grow grapes in the Arctic.
Meanwhile, iPhones, iPads and laptops exhaust the supply of the world’s rare earth metals (as well as the patience of those who have to listen to the associated conversations, ringtones and rippling clicks of keyboards), soaking up available energy supplies while diesel-engined juggernauts arrive with woodchips for the boilers, playing their part in an environmental balancing act. At universities, everything is recycled, including knowledge. Today’s garbage is tomorrow’s new science building - or is it the other way around?
For myself, I have solar panels on the roof of my home and find myself compulsively watching the meter telling me how many kilowatts (or more usually watts) they are generating. I get paid by the government for generating electricity, which enables other people to use it for purposes of which I do not myself necessarily approve. Watching the meter, however, is more compelling than a number of television programmes, so there is a saving there. The panels will have repaid my investment in time to contribute something to my funeral, an event that a company kindly reminds me of every year on my birthday.
We invested in an air-source boiler, another saving, or at least it would have been had the installers not left its installation in the hands of an apprentice to whom it was such a mystery that it exploded. The company then went bankrupt only to reform the following day in the names of its founders’ wives. This energy-saving business is more difficult than you might think.
Meanwhile, although God declared “Let there be light”, He was around before compulsory energy-saving bulbs that seem resentful about such an instruction and as a result allow time for Zen moments as I await the grace of illumination.
There was talk of the university (which, incidentally, is one of the country’s leading institutions when it comes to sustainability, having an EcoCampus Gold Award and looking for a Platinum one) building a wind turbine that would have swished impressively above the rooms where students were taking examinations, but it might have interfered with the television reception on the nearby estate, where energy is supposedly being saved by a 20-mile-an-hour speed limit and bumps in the road seemingly designed to damage car suspensions.
The students’ union, meanwhile, does its bit, urging its members to shut off the tap while cleaning their teeth, to use the stairs rather than the lifts, and to deposit their litter in bins of bewilderingly different colours.
There is currently a proposal to introduce cows on campus to increase biodiversity (rabbits, squirrels and assorted birds being insufficient). This seems to me a proposal with potentially deadly consequences. Cows fart and belch methane, and I think they know it. You have only to see them gathering together in the corner of fields to know that they are plotting the downfall of mankind.