One quick glance around the HUB reveals Dickinson College's recent turn towards a strategic focus on the topic of ‘sustainability.' From the pictures of the Student Garden hanging outside the cafeteria to the local produce stand downstairs; the Green Devil has clearly left his (carbon-neutral) footprints all over campus. Beyond the ad campaigns, buzzwords, and slogans, though, how much is the college actually doing to promote sustainable living?
This is the question that I found myself asking when I returned to campus this fall. Is ‘going green' just an attempt by the administration to attract progressive, forward-thinking students to the school and raise Dickinson's intellectual and financial standing, or does our college actually care about the future of the planet? At first, the cynic in me immediately decried all of the publicity efforts and new programs that appeared to pop up daily. Two semesters and many refreshing conversations and debates later, however, and my opinion has changed. While we are far from perfect in terms of environmental and social consciousness, we are taking many steps in the right direction. Dickinson has recently put into place a variety of interesting programs and initiatives which you may or may not have heard of but which all demonstrate an ongoing, multi-discipline approach to the idea of living sustainably.
“Sustainability” is quite the hot-button catchphrase and we've all heard it being spoken about by everyone from Bono to our very own Bill Durden. Despite the emerging prominence in politics, entertainment, and everyday lifestyles a concrete definition of sustainability is difficult to find. The Brundtland Commission, a group convened by the United Nations in 1983 to address the human destruction of natural resources and subsequent environmental consequences, put forth one of the first major definitions that continues to be widely referenced today. They defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Dickinson Professor of Geology Marcus Key favors a similar definition, which is the one used by the Environmental Protection Agency that states “sustainability is the ability to provide for current generations without diminishing the capacity of future generations to provide for themselves.” Both of these definitions address the need to evaluate our current practices and monitor the potential impact on the world that future citizens will be left to inhabit.
Other definitions of sustainability expand the idea beyond the physical environment towards issues of humanitarianism, social justice, and even the economy. For example, the World Commission on Environment and Development once described sustainable development as “a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments, the orientation of technological development, and institutional change are made consistent with the future as well as present needs”. Whereas in the past sustainability has been considered a subject solely for scientists and liberal policy makers, the practice has extended to reach the financial sector as well. K. Hargrove and M. Smith, editors of the 2005 book titled The Natural Advantage of Nations: Business Opportunities, Innovation and Governance in the 21st Century, have identified several common principles of sustainable yet profitable business programs. These include no net loss of human or natural capital, the need for good government, and the necessity of ensuring the importance and valuation of nature.
Last summer, Dickinson College participated in a screening program in conjunction with the nonprofit Sustainable Endowments Institute in order to measure our progress with respect to sustainable development. The assessment took the form of a report called the 2008 College Sustainability Report Card that compared our development in multiple categories against that of other colleges, all of which voluntarily submitted their own data. Overall, we received a B+, but were still recognized as a ‘campus sustainability leader'. Areas in which we scored particularly high include Transportation, Administration, and Climate Change and Energy. However, we also received rather low grades in the areas of Shareholder Responsibility and Endowment Transparency.
With this information and the ongoing goal of sustainability in mind, President Durden made the issue an important part of his Fall 2007 Convocation speech. He reiterated the College's commitment to sustainability and updated members of the campus about past developments and future plans. Additionally, he called for the created of a focus group to address our investment policy and portfolio.
This study group, which is made up of administers, faculty and student representatives from a wide range of backgrounds, has met twice a month for the past two semesters. They were charged with the task of becoming informed of the college's current fiscal policies and educating the campus about the endowment as well as proposing methods for improvement. This group experienced lively conversation and debate about the issue of social responsibility and is now working towards coming up with an assessment of current practices and finding ways to communicate these to the rest of campus next fall. The group is also interested in creating a more permanent way of monitoring social responsibility. Proposed solutions have included the continuation of focus meetings and inclusion within an All-College Committee. However work is still ongoing and no final decisions have been made yet.
In keeping with our stated commitments and the vast development taking place elsewhere in the world, Dickinson itself has implemented a variety of programs and development that go a long way in making the campus more sustainable. By now, most students have seen the construction of the environmentally friendly new science complex near Tome and have experienced the new Equitrac printing system. Though it experience a few glitches during the early stages of implementation, the system is helping to minimize paper waste and cut down on excessive energy consumption. Dickinson has also purchased farmland that is now being used to grow and harvest food for the consumption of the community and students alike. Through the work of the Student Garden, some of the vegetables available in the cafeteria are now local, in season, and grown using organic farming practices. In the future, the College Farm plans on adding the space and materials to make salsa and other homemade treats, as well as host dinner and more events to encompass more of the Dickinson population.
Another development in the cafeteria is the addition of a more comprehensive composting system. If you were wondering where those rainbow bins have gone, fear not. They've been replaced by a machine in the back of the cafeteria that composts our leftovers more effectively and efficiently. Future plans for the campus include the integration of biodiesel as fuel as well as the possibility of purchasing wind turbines to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and electricity. The College is also in the process of hiring a Sustainability Coordinator who will work on a range of projects at the newly created Center for Sustainability, which will be located in the Kaufman Building next fall.
Sustainability is being included in the realm of academics, as well. New classes are being offered each semester that blend environmental and social concerns with traditional topics. These include a class on Environmental Ethics as well as a history class focusing on ecology in Africa. Another class incorporates both business concepts and this emerging notion of corporate social responsibility. There is a course in the geology department titled Energy Resources, which, as Professor Key states, “obviously deals with sustainable energy use, and resources.” In one exercise, students taking the class are required to quantify their personal energy consumption for an entire week. Key was also recently approved to teach a new course next year for the Norwich Science Program at the University of East Anglia entitled Sustainability Science. Other global education programs are also considering collaborating with other groups in order to add sustainability to their range of focus. For example, the college is working to form a partnership with the Dickinson program in Cameroon, and next semester there will be a multidisciplinary course involving both sociology and environment science in Venezuela.
In the coming weeks, keep an eye out for sustainability-related programming happening all around campus. The Local Foods Dinner and Farmer's Market will take place next weekend and will feature a speaker, entertainment, and food from various local and organic sources. On April 19th, Earth Now! and Amnesty International will co-host Earthfest all day on Morgan Field. Students and community members can drop by to enjoy educational games, craft projects, a speaker, informational and campaign booths and a live performance. A few weeks later, on May 3rd, the Letort Festival will take place at Letort Spring Run. The festival is a joint effort between ALLARM, the Borough of Carlisle and other regional environmental and service organizations. According to ALLARM director Julie Vastine, “the event embodies collaboration at all levels from Carlisle High School students performing, Dickinson Students volunteering, the Letort Regional Authority organizing a clean-up, and ALLARM and the Borough organizing the event and partners.” There will be food, entertainment, organized programming and a special kid's zone. The Green Devil Challenge is also currently taking place, sponsored by Dickinson SAVES. More information about this competition and a calendar of events, including movie nights and a bike ride, can be found on the college website at http://www.dickinson.edu/departments/sustainability/GDC2008.htm.
With the approaching warm weather of spring, we should all take the chance to get outside and explore for ourselves what is going on in regards to sustainability and earth-friendly living. This is the world that we're going to be living in for the rest of our lives, and if we don't take concrete and proactive steps towards modifying our behavior and treating it better, we risk destroying it - not only for ourselves but for the other living beings we share space with and for those who will come to live here when we're gone. As young college students, it is in our hands to be conscious of what we're doing to ensure that this does not occur. This activism can take many forms: becoming active in politics through demonstrations and elections, staying informed via lecture and outside reading, and taking a look at personal choices are all great ways to get involved. I've given you a sampling of actions that Dickinson College has undertaken recently, but by no means is it a comprehensive list. I urge you to start up conversations in class and around campus and talk to professors, administrators and fellow students about these issues. It is crucial that we continue to promote sustainability at Dickinson with more than just a free water bottle and a catchy green banner. Our real-life actions need to match up with our rhetoric and the best way to ensure that this happens is to constantly push to keep sustainability a high priority and a hot issue around campus.