As people around the world debate the severity — and veracity — of environmental crisis, a quiet revolution is taking place on college campuses across the nation. Unlike the ’60s, no one is marching. No one is burning down buildings. Instead, students are planting vegetable gardens and designing solar roofs.
The tools of revolution for Lindsay Selser ’07 are needle nose pliers and box wrenches. The Willamette politics student was low on cash but needed wheels, so she dug through the recycle bin at her local bike shop and built a bike from the frame out. As she spun around Salem, an idea began to take shape. Perhaps, she thought, one of the only things keeping other students from a bike ride in Minto-Brown Park was a little encouragement, a convenient place to pump up a tire, and a bit of grease monkey know-how to balance out the core curriculum.
Selser wore out an evening writing a Sustainability Mini-Grant proposal. She didn’t ask for much — just space in the already crowded University Center for a bike shop where volunteers could give pointers on bike maintenance, and start-up funds to get the wheels rolling. Selser teamed up with Andrew Myer ’08 and Courtney Staunton ’07, who petitioned for an eight-bike fleet to be loaned to students, residence housekeepers, professors — anyone who wants to give the practice of eco-friendly transportation a spin — and then spent her holiday break stocking up on tire levers and patch kits. Doors opened in March.
In fact, doors are opening across the country, as administrators and professors meet with students to map out a future they believe will be dramatically different from the past. They’re trying to figure out just exactly how “business as usual” works when nothing about the state of the planet is usual.
In 2003 a European heat wave left 35,000 dead. In 2004 Hurricane Katrina created hundreds of thousands of environmental refugees. Oregon has received its own wake up calls: scorching temperatures that broke records and fueled massive wildfires, disaster-stage floods and growing dead zones off the coast. The “Inconvenient Truth” of last summer’s documentary is — it turns out — incredibly inconvenient.
“This whole issue, which seemed very obscure a few years ago, is really coming to the forefront, maybe because nature is taking the lead and saying, ‘You’ve got a real problem here,’” says Jeffrey Sachs, international economist at Columbia University and director of the United Nations’ Millennium Project. He believes the discussion will intensify as the world grows hotter, ecosystems continue to collapse on every continent, the energy crisis becomes more acute, and population pressure on diminishing resources widens the already unstable divide between the haves and have-nots. Scientists note that ecosystems aren’t the only thing affected. Since the 1940s human sperm production has inexplicably fallen by more than 50 percent, and breast cancer risk has tripled, with more than half of all new breast cancer cases attributed to environmental toxins.
Most news about the environment these days is bad news, but in some quarters, the gravity of the challenge is bringing out the best in people — more collaboration, more cross-platform thinking, more meaningful dialogue about our responsibility as humans. Cities and states across the nation have pledged to reduce carbon emissions in an effort to slow global warming. In Oregon, Portland is transforming an industrial wasteland into the $2.2 billion South Waterfront community, the first mega-scale “green” redevelopment in the nation, according to USA Today.
But government and corporate entities cannot transition to a sustainable society without the support of academia. “Higher education institutions bear a profound moral responsibility to increase the awareness, knowledge and values needed to create a sustainable future,” says Anthony Cortese, former dean of environmental programs at Tufts University.
While some believe talk about sustainability is off target, others believe that no educational experience can be meaningful unless it addresses the defining challenge of the 21st century. “Sustainability is about the terms and conditions of human survival, and yet we still educate as if no such crisis existed,” says David Orr, chair of Oberlin’s Environmental Studies Program.
By utilizing sustainable practices, Gary Grimm (above, right) helps keep the campus clean and safe for students and ducks alike.
That’s changing, as colleges across the nation take up the call. Long the bastions of isolated scientists who offered dire — and mostly ignored — warnings about species lost and temperatures rising, universities are now infused with the passion of students who will inherit the future we are creating. “We’ve witnessed an exponential growth in campus sustainability efforts in the last few years,” says Judy Walton, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. “The movement seems to be exploding.”
Students who grew up with “global warming” in their textbooks and professors who understand the implications of population graphs are sitting down together to define what it means to create sustainable systems, systems where human demand doesn’t outstrip the capacity of the natural world to supply resources and absorb waste. They are discussing how to meet the needs of this generation without compromising the needs of future generations, how to rescue a planet whose life support systems have become critically endangered. As Willamette environmental science student Forrest Lindsay-McGinn ’08 says, “Ultimately, sustainability is just about increasing our planning horizon.”
And they’re doing more than talking. Williams College students initiated a “Do It in the Dark” energy conservation campaign, Iona College screen savers announce “Think before you print,” and Pacific Lutheran University sponsored a “Can the Can” campaign to cut down on waste. Brown University installed low-flush toilets, and Pitzer College students manage a “green bikes” program. Oberlin’s new Center for Environmental Studies hopes to become a net supplier of energy, and Evergreen State College students voted to go 100 percent green in energy purchases.
According to the Oct. 20, 2006, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, admissions directors report that more students are asking how green campuses are, and many institutions now advertise their efforts. But the same article concluded that although there is a lot of noise, there’s less substance. “Relatively few institutions have made major commitments to actually alter their campuses, and even fewer have incorporated sustainability into their teaching and research. … For the time being, most institutions are reaching for low-hanging fruit.” Worse, some universities may be “green-washing,” The Chronicle says, taking minor steps to adopt the appearance of sustainability but avoiding difficult changes.
To some though, walking the talk just makes sense — and has for a long time. Willamette shows its true colors — cardinal and gold and green — in many ways. Trace the history of green practices at Willamette, and many stories lead to an old steam heating plant and an “Aw, shucks” kind of forward-thinker. Gary Grimm, now manager of campus operations, remembers the long lines at gas stations during the 1970s energy crisis and the dawning national realization that oil was not only central to our way of life, it was vulnerable to subtle political shifts half a world away.
Grimm took the message to heart. “I took it as my job to save energy and make the University run more efficiently,” he says. “The more we save in energy costs, the more money goes to academic programs.” Grimm was instrumental in implementing a computerized energy management system, saving the campus $470,000 the first five years alone. It wasn’t easy; he was working with buildings that date back as far as 1867.
Grimm directed facilities crews to buy paint and carpet with low organic volatile compounds in place of more toxic brands, and became proactive about protecting Mill Creek from storm run-off — the oil and antifreeze from parking lots, the pesticides and fertilizers from lawns.
Grimm made it easy for the rest of us to practice sustainability, says Environmental Science Professor Karen Arabas. “Sustainability is really about changing people’s behaviors, and some changes are easy because people like Gary have made them invisible.”
“As I get older,” Grimm says, “I’m seeing changes in the world, and frankly they scare me. What will the world be like for my kids and grandkids if we don’t do something? It’s not getting better, but I have hope that these little steps can add up.”
By 2001, Grimm wasn’t the only one wanting change. Seniors in Arabas’s 2001 sustainability seminar wanted to take their conversation beyond the classroom. “My sense is that in the wake of 9/11 this group of students felt a need to make a difference,” she says. “Sustainability became their passion.” They invited President Lee Pelton to class to begin a dialogue — and found a sympathetic ear. A serious hiker for more than two decades, Pelton has a passion for the natural world and a sense of obligation to protect it. He had recently established a loosely organized committee — the Willamette Environmental Sustainability Team — charged with the mission of assessing and implementing sustainable practices on campus, and he invited students to join.
The group, headed by Administrative Services Vice President Jim Bauer, switched paper suppliers so the reams of sheets used each year no longer come from South American rain forests but from a tree farm in the flatlands of eastern Oregon. The University signed on as a pioneer institution with Bon Appetit food service when the corporate giant made the switch to a sustainable business model, testing practices and products such as environmentally friendly take-out containers. The ad hoc committee implemented a policy that runs against the common institutional grain, but has paid off: Purchases would be based on durability, not the lowest bid.
Forty students, staff, faculty and administrators attended a retreat to chart the course for the University’s sustainability efforts. (From top left: Joe Bowersox, Ellit Maltz, Don Negri; Heidi Preuss Grew; Jesse Finch Gnehm ’99, Karen Arabas; Lucas Nebert ‘08.)
By November 2004, there was growing consensus that the University needed a broader-based coalition, one that looked further than operations to include research, teaching and student activities. Pelton drew from students, staff, faculty members, administrators and trustees to form a 15-member Sustainability Council. The professional schools were represented alongside the College of Liberal Arts, and Politics Professor Joe Bowersox was asked to chair. Pelton also set aside a pool of money for Sustainability Mini-Grants to make sure the cause had operating funds. In announcing the council, Pelton aligned sustainability with the University motto, Not unto ourselves alone are we born.
The council went into action, organizing a summer retreat in the mountains near Eugene. The 40 students, faculty, staff and administrators who attended developed the philosophical underpinnings of Willamette’s approach to sustainability — the “Four E’s”: equity, environment, economics and education.
Academic literature had aligned social justice, or equity, with sustainability for a long time, but the notion hadn’t made it off the shelf at most campuses. Theorists write that the environmental aspects of sustainability cannot be separated from the social aspects; the most disenfranchised people in every country bear the brunt of unsustainable lifestyles. “It used to be when people messed up a valley, they could just leave,” student Lindsay-McGinn says. “Now there’s someone living in the next valley. With so many people on this Earth, there’s little room for irresponsibility.”
“The best predictor of toxic waste in a neighborhood isn’t geology, hydrology or property values,” says Law Professor Robin Morris Collin. “It’s race. The darker the skin or the poorer the people, the more toxic their neighborhood is likely to be. The same pattern holds between nations. Look across the border of Mexico, or the border of almost any poor country, and you’ll see it: illegal dumping of toxic waste, exploitation of environmental and human resources, violation of environmental laws. One country’s choice of development may lead to environmental disaster for other countries.” She and husband Robert Collin, senior research scholar at Willamette’s Public Policy Research Center, believe that “sacrifice zones” are no longer sustainable because communities are increasingly intertwined.
If equity is usually the last consideration when institutions are making environmental decisions, economics is usually the first, which is why it was included in the Four E’s. “We’re probably kidding ourselves if we believe that green practices are always going to be less expensive,” says Economics Professor Nathan Sivers Boyce, “but we have a responsibility to balance economic sustainability with environmental sustainability, to consider the true cost of our actions.” Grimm believes that going green is going to become less expensive as the market for environmentally friendly materials and products grows. Right now developers are working out the kinks and the market is experiencing growing pains, he says, but that will change. Already, many Oregon business leaders report that sustainable practices have boosted their profits, according to an Oregon Sustainability Board survey.
Jeff Eisenbarth, Willamette’s vice president for financial affairs, believes the new Kaneko Commons, designed to meet some of the nation’s highest energy efficiency standards, will pay for itself. “What makes sense as far as sustainability usually results in savings to the campus operating budgets,” he says.
While some worked to conserve energy, the new Sustainability Council expended it, everywhere at once it seemed. Willamette’s handshake method of getting things done, and the level of commitment from top administrators, helped convert the effort into a groundswell. “Other campuses would die for that type of leadership,” says Walton, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. Council members used the post-retreat momentum to spearhead numerous projects, moving forward on two fronts: research and curriculum, and operations (the education and environment of the Four E’s).
“Our vision is to develop ecologically literate leaders who can make thoughtful, informed decisions,” Bowersox says. “When someone has a degree from Willamette, they should be able to understand the complex social, economic and biological consequences of pollution, energy waste or global inequities.” About 30 faculty members are already consciously incorporating themes of sustainability into their teaching and research, and the topic shows up in surprising and unexpected courses.
Spanish 232, for example. Students in Jennifer Covarrubias’ class bone up on Spanish with conversations about the environmental impacts of ecotourism. Wendy Boring Petersen’s history students are re-examining the narrative of Western civilization through the lens of sustainability, which introduces a whole new cast of heroes and villains, along with the notion that perhaps the transition to agriculture deserves at least as much attention as the fall of the Roman Empire. Sivers Boyce has studied the impact of international trade on environmental agreements such as the Kyoto treaty, and another economist, Don Negri, studies the impact of water scarcity on agriculture, as delivery systems across the West turn off the tap to farmers and re-direct water to urbanites. (Negri’s College Colloquium this year: “Whiskey’s for Drinkin’, Water’s for Fightin’.”) Law Professor Susan Smith, who co-authored the authoritative treatise Crimes Against the Environment, helps law students probe the intricacies of environmental crime enforcement and climate change policy. And English Professor Michael Strelow’s novel The Greening of Ben Brown explores the compromises society makes: A fictional chemical company keeps a small town financially afloat while simultaneously using the Willamette River as a toxic waste drain. “What’s the price of clean water?” Strelow asks. “What’s the true cost of treading on this earth?’”
Faculty from every school and discipline have incorporated sustainability into their curriculum. (Above: Karen Hamlin, education. Below, left: the novel by Michael Strelow, English. Below, top right: Robin Morris Collin, law. Below, bottom right: Elliot Maltz, business.)
Many professors are taking their scholarship into the larger community, combining research with outreach. Atkinson Professor Elliot Maltz is working with a consultant for Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, to improve sustainability practices of supply chains around the globe. Education Professor Karen Hamlin organizes trips to the Galapagos Islands, where public school teachers introduce stewardship values in science courses and help grade-schoolers plant hundreds of trees. Joyce Millen’s anthropology students interviewed immigrant workers as part of an effort to create Marion County Health Department’s first ethnographic health profile: Many field workers are exposed to unregulated toxic pesticides, Millen’s students report, and immigrant children say the fields often make their parents sick. Psychology Professor Sue Koger, who studies the link between developmental disabilities and environmental toxins including pesticides, worked with other volunteers to help Salem implement an integrated pest management system, which reduces pesticide use. “Dollars lost” to convenience or profits isn’t an issue, Koger says. “You can’t put a price on having an autistic child.”
The Sustainability Council promotes research and teaching dedicated to sustainability, and cross-discipline collaboration as well, hosting a well-attended “Community of Scholars” luncheon in December where faculty explored partnerships. The council collaborated with Audubon to sponsor a sustainability workshop, supported the Straub Environmental Learning Center’s lecture series, and helped incorporate stewardship themes into Opening Days and Willamette Academy curriculum. They are currently organizing a spring conference that will bring educators and business leaders to campus to discuss how to convert theory to practice.
Many in the Willamette community have begun their own efforts. Atkinson students recognize businesses that practice sustainability with their Oregon Ethics in Business Awards, and this year the MBA program was named in “Beyond Grey Pinstripes,” in part, for its attention to sustainability in the curriculum. The Outdoor Pursuits student club introduces at-risk children to the outdoors, and students in the Greek system sponsored a benefit concert to support Sustainability Council initiatives. Convocation lectures have addressed sustainability, the Dempsey Environmental Lecture Series brings in nationally prominent speakers, and significant green gifts have come from Trustee Jonathan Carder ’68 and wife Monique Baillargeon, Frederick Wert ’71, and WU parents Richard and Marjorie Rogalski.
Sustainability Council meetings see a lively cohort of students with a bottomless well of energy. Students brought electric cars to campus on Sustainability Day and showcased fair trade and home-crafted gifts at “I’m Dreaming of a Green Holiday.” Atkinson students conducted a campus assessment of attitudes toward sustainability. The Environmental Community Outreach Society collaborated with the council and others to host anthropologist Jane Goodall, who drew 600 secondary and college students from throughout the Northwest. Environmental science major Constance Adler ’07 edits a sustainability e-newsletter while fellow major Kiry Nelsen ’08 developed “Conserve to Preserve” stickers, and politics major Janelle Duyck ’09 canvassed door-to-door about global warming, in temperatures, coincidentally, that topped 102 degrees.
Last year Duyck and artist Maya Karp ’07 could be found digging in flowerbeds outside Matthews Hall, composting kitchen scraps. They helped create a sustainable floor in the residence hall — with bathroom compost bins, low-flow showerheads, cloth towels instead of paper, and current event flyers printed on the back of old ones. “These acts won’t save the world,” Karp says, “but if we can start the discussion with 42 women on the second floor of Matthews, and they each start the discussion with three other people, that’s a beginning.”
Sustainable thinking has become more deeply embedded in University operations in recent years, with administrators moving toward creating an infrastructure with a smaller ecological footprint. Selser’s bike shop, for instance, isn’t the only alternative transportation idea that’s taken hold. Willamette employees participate in the annual Bike Commute Challenge, and the University partners with Cherriots buses to provide free passes. The campus is looking at alternate-fuel vehicles as well as a campus car-sharing program that would utilize state motor pool hybrids and flex-fueled vehicles.
Bon Appetit buys organic produce and hormone-free chickens from local ranchers, works directly with local fishing fleets, and sets aside dining room scraps for farmers. “We go out to farms now and kick the dirt around with the ranchers,” says Manager Marc Marelich. “We even know their kids and dogs.” Chefs provide vegetarian alternatives, promote fair trade coffee and recycle cooking oil for bio-diesel production.
The Sustainability Council partnered with Grounds Manager Ron Nichols to create the Landscape Stewardship Committee. Each year the grounds see fewer pesticides and fertilizers, fall leaves are composted for community gardens, and every drop of water is measured — much of it as drip irrigation. Water is conserved in Hudson Hall as well, where concertgoers have discovered water-saving toilets.
Sustainability is integrated campuswide, from theme-based living in Kaneko Commons (top) and student efforts to green the residence halls (above) to the decision to serve up organic and locally grown produce in Goudy Commons (below).
Willamette has an ambitious goal of cutting energy consumption in half by 2020, and new construction practices will help pave the way. The recently opened Kaneko Commons is slated for certification by the U.S. Green Building Council for meeting some of the nation’s highest performance standards in green design, construction and operation. The river east of Kaneko, on University property, is also coming back to life. A restoration project spearheaded by Bowersox will turn what is now an eyesore into a community asset.
Many challenges remain. Although half of all campus waste is recycled — including all electronic equipment — Safety Director Ross Stout believes toxic chemicals in academic departments and operations need closer scrutiny. Simple awareness is part of the solution; Facilities Supervisor Dan Craig has switched to non-toxic cleaning supplies, but some offices still unknowingly order toxic brands. “We need to centralize ordering and do more educating,” Craig says.
Currently the University has no baseline to begin measuring progress, but that will change. Last summer individuals from every sector of campus met at the second annual Sustainability Retreat, where working groups created the blueprint for a University-wide assessment — one that takes the pulse of academics as well as operations. “The assessment this spring will do two things,” Pelton says. “It will give us a snapshot of where we are and keep this issue in the foreground of campus dialogue and reflection.”
One of Willamette’s most significant goals relates to equity. In November, Pelton announced that Willamette will institute a “living wage” standard for its lowest paid employees. The president, whose mother and grandmother cleaned houses for a living, has a heightened awareness of “what it means to work and still not be able to provide the basic needs for your family.” He hopes to create a stronger safety net for every member of the Willamette community.
The effort that began in a boiler room, graduated to recycle bins, and spread into classrooms across campus has matured. “I’ve rarely seen so much honest engagement, reflection on the issues, and attempts to include others,” says Walton. “People at Willamette take their motto and mission seriously and genuinely try to walk the talk. It’s a sincere commitment, not just lip service. The university takes time to make sure its efforts are deep and thoughtful.”
Students who are now being mentored in the ways of stewardship will soon join hundreds of alumni who protect watersheds, research renewable energy, start sustainable businesses, organize overseas medical missions and sit in the halls of Congress. They’ll crowd into Peace Corps programs, where Willamette is one of the best-represented schools in the nation, and talk up solar cookers and irrigation. “Knowledge,” Bowersox says, “is only as good as the values for which it is used.”
And they’ll continue to think about what they learned here. “This issue won’t go away,” Duyck says. “Some of my friends say there’s nothing we can do to make a difference, especially where global warming is concerned, but we shouldn’t just pack up and go home.” Karp, who used to think environmental talk was just for extremists, says “Now I realize moderates need to get involved. In the end, it’s really about living your values.” Selser, who is still tooling around on two wheels, says “Students have so much energy. Help us harness it. If we have support and guidance, there’s no end to what we can do.”
Ultimately, sustainability is about something more profound than the tenuous balance between degraded forests and stressed logging communities, or the daunting challenge of climate change. The deeper core of sustainability embraces our inter-connectedness with each other and with every being that shares this planet. That instinct helps us recognize the nanosecond of time we represent in human history and helps us imagine the generations who will live with the legacy of our actions. As Bowersox says, “Children make the future personal, tangible, emotional. Children keep us human.”
Last spring President Pelton was taking his first-grader to school. He packed her lunchbox, buttoned her coat, and was walking her to the door when he heard someone frantically knocking. There stood Don Negri, who lives two blocks away. “When a professor is on your doorstep at eight in the morning, you know it can’t be good,” Pelton says.
But Negri pointed to a bald eagle that had flown from its nest on the river and settled in the top branch of a tree in the president’s yard. Pelton and his little girl walked out and craned their necks.
“Of all the places in Salem to choose, this eagle had landed at my house,” Pelton says. “It was a thing of grace.”