Kobe, Lebron and the Stats of Sustainability

by Ben Inskeep

Fact: Kobe Bryant is better than Lebron James.

Or is he? The criteria we use to compare these two athletes will likely determine our conclusion. Kobe has won five national championships.  But Lebron has better stats over his career in scoring, rebounding, assists, blocks and steals. Kobe scored 81 points in a game and is a proven performer in clutch situations. But Lebron has won two Most Valuable Player awards to Kobe’s one.

So who wins the argument? On some metrics Kobe is more impressive, but if you look at different measures Lebron is clearly dominant. The point is that something as straightforward as determining who is a better basketball player isn’t actually quite so simple, even when you have a stack of statistics in front of you. It all depends in your definition of what makes a good basketball player. Is it winning championships? Having the best stats? Intangibles like “making your teammates better” and the ability to nail a last-second, game-winning shot? Or some combination of these things?

This sports example is analogous when we talk about trying to become a “leader in campus sustainability”. When comparing how sustainable IU is relative to other universities – or even just within our own university across time – it is challenging to determine who is more sustainable or if our university is becoming more sustainable every year. After all, there are many definitions of sustainability, each with different criteria for measuring it. For example, as IU continues to expand, it will add additional buildings, thereby increasing total energy consumption. Bad news for sustainability, right? But if IU switched from a primary energy source of coal to natural gas during that time period, its carbon emissions would fall dramatically – despite the increase in energy consumption.  Add another layer of analysis into the mix – for example, the environmental harm associated with hydraulic fracking used to extract natural gas – and things can get pretty hairy.

Campus sustainability assessments are a useful method for untangling the many variables that go into the concept of sustainability and can be used to compare universities on how sustainable they are.  A significant component of my internship with the Office of Sustainability has centered around the holy grail of campus sustainability assessments, the Sustainability Tracking, Assessment & Rating System (STARS). STARS is a self-reporting assessment used to track and quantify sustainability in higher education. It provides a framework for understanding and measuring the many different components of sustainability on a college campus. Numeric scores across many measures are aggregated and then categorized into four easy to understand grades to indicate a school’s level of sustainability: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. IU completed STARS for the first time a year ago, receiving a Silver rating. The three other Big Ten schools (Michigan State, Minnesota and Penn State) that have already completed STARS have also received Silver ratings.

Every couple of years IU will be resubmitting STARS to document its improvement across many sustainability measures, with the goal of reaching a Platinum rating by 2020.  This will require improvements across a very broad range of different sustainability categories, such as academics, food, energy, transportation and administration. STARS represents an important way that IU can demonstrate its leadership in sustainability in the Big Ten and nationally.

Getting back to Kobe vs. Lebron, the winner is actually Lebron – at least according to the STARS equivalent of the basketball world: efficiency ratings. So at least when it comes to STARS, as much as I hate to say it, let’s try and be like Lebron.

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