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Carleton Students Show a Disappointing Lack of Commitment to a Sustainable Carleton Compared to the Faculty and Staff

November 11, 2008 at 11:23 am
By Chris Erickson

As the new 5th-year ENTS intern one of my many projects for fall term has been promoting Carleton’s new Pledge of Sustainable Conduct.  The Pledge is a list of straightforward, mostly things that if everyone on campus incorporated into their daily lives (many already do some of them), would lead to a significant reduction in Carleton’s energy and utilities usage and, ultimately, in our school’s GHG (Greenhouse Gas) emissions.  The Pledge (available at go.carleton.edu/sustpledge) was written last year by students, faculty, and staff and was approved for release to Carleton by the EAC (Environmental Advisory Committee), the CSA, and College Council.  The thinking behind the pledge is that by signing their name people will take their commitment toward modifying some environmentally harmful behaviors more seriously, and the list would serve as a tangible example to other colleges, incoming students, and to ourselves that our college has sustainable ideals.  As English professor Mike Kowalewski put it the Pledge “is a simple set of suggested actions that can have a resounding impact if we all sign the Pledge -- and then follow up with more sustainable behavior."  Always a worthy goal by itself, since President Rob Oden signed the President’s Climate Commitment (PCC) reducing our GHG emissions has become of the stated goals of our college.

I should clarify here what the PCC is and what Rob Oden has signed us up for by putting his name to it.  The PCC is a partnership between 100’s of American colleges that recognize human induced global climate change is global crisis requiring immediate action, and that colleges and universities are leaders in technological, organizational, and cultural innovation.  What the commitment requires of our campus is complete, verifiable carbon neutrality.  This, I would like to point out, is a phenomenal goal, on that I think has not really sunk in with the student body, the faculty, or the staff.  We emitted Greenhouse Gases equivalent to approximately 22,000 metric tons of CO2 during the 2007 calendar year.  We emit GHGs in quite nearly every facet of operations at Carleton.  Indeed the only college entity not emitting any GHGs is our dear Arboretum, whose plants are happily re-sequestering a small fraction of what the rest of campus is emitting.

I must confess I was rather skeptical of the PCC and the Administration’s actual commitment to it when Rob Oden signed two years ago; it seemed like too prime of Admissions promotional material to be trusted.  Thus my initial feelings on the Pledge of Sustainable Conduct last year were that the Pledge would be an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the strong student support for a more environmental Carleton.  Tons of student pledges would emphasize that the student body was not going to be satisfied with high profile upgrades; that in addition to a new façade, we would insist on real changes to our operations, and culture. 

As a 5th year intern then, sandwiched between being a student and a staff, the great surprise for me thus far this year has been seeing the far greater seriousness about and energy toward the issue of environmental sustainability from the faculty and staff.  The student Sustainability Assistants (STAs) have been busy attending department and office meetings around campus with staff and faculty who have come to us anxious to know how the recycling system works, how the compost system works, and what they can do in their offices to aid the college with the goal of carbon neutrality.  Faculty and staff frequently come to me to volunteer ideas about how they might improve the resource efficiency of their office and department operations.  There are custodial workers who are voluntarily monitoring the amount of trash, compost, and recycling coming out of our dorms.  And after hearing multiple offices discuss different attempts to cut paper use I finally asked if this was due to a new college policy I was ignorant of.  The answer I received: “No,” like I’d missed the point; “we’re saving paper.”

I am not sure why there is not quite the same level of practicing commitment among students.  My feeling is that students are entirely in favor of achieving carbon neutrality by external means: extra windmills, energy saving gadgets, magic buttons.  But few are very interested in any solution that factors in behavior: taking shorter showers, washing clothes with cold water, not using computers as often.  And behavior is the most immediate, cheapest, reliable, and direct means for reducing waste.  Perhaps it is because as 4-year students we feel less invested in the long-term consequences of our actions on Carleton.  With regards to energy and utilities, the fact that students never see an actual electric or heating bill except the giant lumped-sums our parents sign is certainly a factor.  But both these ways of thinking are mistakes.  An overwhelming percentage of Carleton’s alums remain very invested in Carleton.  And we have a responsibility at all times and especially during a financial crisis, to think about the best interests of Carleton and the programs and individuals it supports.  A truly carbon neutral Carleton will not exist while any current student attends school here but with across-the-board support it could happen before your children do.

In this world sharing a real commitment with your college to become carbon neutral is something to be immensely proud of.  You my have noticed some buttons around campus declaring “I Pledged” with a small “CARBON NEUTRAL CARLETON” logo.  If you sign the Pledge we will deliver one of these to your mailbox (you will have the option to return it for use by another signee).  When the Environmental Advisory Committee (EAC), myself included, approved the funding for Pledge buttons my first thought was of Billy Bragg’s old, partially ironic invitation to “Join the struggle while you may / The revolution is just a t-shirt away.”  True enough, but I believe we need to find out where our campus stands before launching into the organizational and procedural changes, not to mention the millions of dollars that will need to be spent before we can claim to emit zero Greenhouse Gases.  I encourage you to consider how important a goal this is to you and then make a small declaration of your feelings by displaying a button.

Making a significant reduction in Carleton’s GHG emissions is not going to require lifestyle changes, only the tweaking of daily habits, which, I acknowledge, is for humans a marvelously difficult thing to do.  Carleton’s Pledge of Sustainable is an excellent list of simple habits for Carleton students, faculty, and staff to begin working on that, when practiced by all members of campus, will be an important contribution toward carbon neutrality.  In the words of Rob Lamppa, Carleton’s Director of Energy Management, “Students, Faculty, and Staff.  It will take changes from all of us to get there.  Following the Pledge is an example of this."  Make the commitment to begin the reduction of your daily GHG emissions by signing online at go.carleton.edu/sustpledge and then show your support to others.   Together we can demonstrate that the slowly increasing sustainable features of our campus will by no means be the end to an environmental Carleton, only an excellent start.

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