Weaving A Sustainable Pattern
by Char Simons
Evergreen’s focus on sustainability combines social justice and the environment
Carbon neutrality and zero waste by 2020. Increasing locally produced food available on campus to 40 percent by 2010, as well as reducing energy consumption by 30 percent, and paper consumption, desktop printers, computers and photocopiers by 10 to 50 percent.
These are ambitious goals for Evergreen, which already gets 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources, such as wind, solar and biomass, thanks to a self-imposed student fee. Sustainability at the college is going beyond such recognizable green measures. A multi-prong approach by faculty, staff, students and alumni is integrating new opportunities, programs and practices into Evergreen’s already strong focus on sustainability that weave together environmentalism, diversity and social justice.
Evergreen is spearheading local efforts of a nationwide climate change conversation, Focus the Nation. Discussions are being organized on college campuses culminating in a series of public events on January 30, 2008. Evergreen is coordinating area efforts with other colleges and universities, state and municipal governments, tribes and nonprofit organizations. Daytime activities at Evergreen are to include workshops on transportation, development and green buildings. Evening activities will culminate with panel discussions, speakers and audience participation at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Olympia, and will include a “toolbox” of ideas and actions to help participants make a personal impact on climate change.
The goal of Focus the Nation is to put sustainability issues, ranging from individual to legislative, high on the national agenda. “It’s slow progress trying to get people on board about climate change, but they’re finally starting to come around,” says Chelsie Papiez, Evergreen’s Focus the Nation coordinator and a Master of Environmental Studies (MES) student. “Transportation is the biggest issue that needs to be addressed, and is one of the biggest challenges for this college.”
Focus the Nation is just part of the picture. “Currently across the country there is a big wave of enthusiasm motivated by climate change,” says eco-design faculty member Rob Knapp, who was instrumental in the green design of Seminar II in the early 2000s. “People are beginning to see that solutions are both important and doable.”
What sustainability is and how to do it has evolved since the first Earth Day in 1970. Recycling, saving whales and tropical rainforests are all important, but are only pieces of a larger, more comprehensive picture. “A lot of things we call sustainability have been happening for a long time,” Knapp says. “What’s happening now is an attempt to draw together all of those threads and make use of Evergreen’s experience. This includes figuring out what sustainability means today, being clear about the relevancy of our curriculum, and connecting with communities in more ongoing, systematic ways.”
At Evergreen, students, faculty and staff have come up with a definition of sustainability the Evergreen way – through collaboration. Campus-wide conversations that began thinking just in terms of the environment quickly evolved to a more holistic, interdisciplinary approach that includes equity, social justice, community and the economy. Furthermore, Evergreen hopes to become a laboratory for sustainability, as demonstrated in its operations, curriculum and quality of life for employees and students. Integral to those efforts are nurturing values and practical skills that motivate a lifetime commitment to a sustainable, intergenerationally just way of living on a healthy planet.
In terms of sustainable practices, Evergreen is already catching regional and national attention. As a member of the leadership circle of the Association of American Colleges and University Presidents Climate Commitment, Purce is actively participating in developing the AACUP’s Kyoto-like protocol pledging to reduce carbon footprints. More than 400 higher education leaders nationwide have signed the Climate Commitment. The college is racking up environmental awards, including recognition from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, Grist magazine’s top 15 list of green colleges and universities, and the Governor’s Award for Pollution Prevention and Sustainable Practices.
“Change at the societal level often begins with colleges and universities. We train teachers, engineers and others. There is no more important work these days than sustainability,” says Nancy Parkes ’78, environmental studies faculty, co-chair of the campus-wide sustainability task force of faculty, students and staff, and former environmental policy aide for Gov. Booth Gardner.
Academically, Evergreen has long been a national leader in sustainability curriculum, with programs such as Ecological Design, Ecological Agriculture and Sustainable Ecosystems. Student involvement has been high, with students approving fees funding 100 percent green electricity for the college, a green redesign of the College Activities Building, subsidized bus passes, and design assistance for Seminar II and its teaching gardens. Still, new initiatives are blossoming in all areas of the college, such as:
- Sustainability and Justice curriculum. Offerings are to include such long-time favorites as Ecological Design and Ecological Agriculture, along with new offerings in Green Business and Entrepreneurship, Environmental Justice, Models for Social Change, Native American Studies, Political Economy, Energy Systems, the arts, core math and science, internships, community partnerships and graduate programs.
- Strengthening the role of Evergreen’s service centers, such as the Center for Community-Based Learning and Action, in the sustainability curriculum.
- Opportunities for Master of Environmental Studies students, including a core course in sustainability and graduate research and practicum fellowships.
- Hiring faculty in sustainability.
- A new coordinator of sustainability located in the president’s office and making permanent the sustainability task force.
- The college’s new master plan calling for a major focus on sustainability in the next 10 years in the areas of transportation, housing and on-campus facilities.
- Development of green purchasing policies and practices.
- New and ongoing faculty-student projects, such as measuring the mitigating impact of Evergreen’s 1,000-acre forest in reducing the college’s carbon footprint.
- Creating new graduate fellowships for student leaders in new areas, such as coordinating the work of the sustainability task force to infuse sustainability throughout curriculum and college operations.
Part of sustainability is weighing the common good with individualism. In terms of college operations, nowhere is this more felt than in how goods and services are acquired. “If we don’t pay attention to what we’re purchasing, we’re leaving a fairly large hole in the middle of the puzzle,” says Kathleen Haskett, college purchasing manager, who is working on a campus-wide green purchasing policy that would formalize acquisition of items such as green janitorial products and recycled paper. “A green purchasing policy would bring new meaning to the phrase ‘the Evergreen way.’”
Some changes will mean putting the common good ahead of individual needs and desires. “Perhaps we go back to the central store model and away from ordering whatever we want off the Internet where delivery trucks make single trips to the college and each purchase has to be logged in individually,” says Steve Trotter, executive director of operational planning and budget, and sustainability task force co-chair. “Our whole behavior is based on consumerism and the latest gee-whizeree. How do we go through that difficult phase of right-sizing?”
One way is by examining our values, says Karen Gaul, an anthropologist and Evergreen’s new sustainability faculty member. “There is a need to examine our sense of entitlement and privilege, which shuts the door to all we can learn from other cultures. What Evergreen can offer is to educate students to think and live sustainably, and how to make choices of restraint in a culture of consumption. We need to get away from the idea that restraint equals sacrifice. Life can be so much richer when you’re consuming less.”
Faculty member Jean MacGregor directs the Curriculum for the Bioregion initiative through the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education, helping regional teachers integrate sustainability themes into everyday classes.
Another way is through beauty, Knapp believes. “One of the most important opportunities we’ve got is for faculty in the arts to be central to what’s going on. Things won’t be sustainable until they’re beautiful. People won’t engage with them enough and love them enough to keep anything going. Sustainability is about making life better. We need the literary, visual and performance arts to understand what sustainability consists of.”
Another academic initiative that has great ripple effect potential is Curriculum for the Bioregion, helping college teachers in the Puget Sound region integrate sustainability themes into a wide array of undergraduate courses.
“Each year more than 11,000 students at community colleges in the state take English composition. If even a small number of writing teachers regularly created reading and writing assignments on sustainability issues, think how many students we would reach,” says Jean MacGregor, director of the project, which is housed at the Washington Center for Improving the Quality of Undergraduate Education, one of Evergreen’s Public Service Centers.
Evergreen faculty member Rob Cole teaches students to use mathematical models to find new ways of looking at the natural environment.
“(My) main job is to create situations for students to create ‘ah ha’ experiences for themselves,” he says. “Situations that will provoke students to act.”
One of many untapped solutions to sustainability problems is right outside our door – nature, asserts faculty member Rob Cole. “There is no waste in nature. Everyone is food for someone else,” he says. “Biomimicry is an area in which we could make the most progress.”
Several factors will determine whether sustainability activity nationwide and globally will go the way of civil rights and human rights and become a full-fledged movement, or whether it remains a short-term bandwagon. “People have to be motivated to change their consumer patterns out of hope for a better life, not out of fear. Grassroots initiatives need to remain strong, rather than handing over problems for experts to fix,” says Ted Whitesell, MES director. “We have to be willing to work across significant differences. Change can happen if people challenge the power of the petroleum industry to set political agendas.”
Changing individual, community, corporate and government behavior around energy consumption, transportation, food, housing and other quality of life issues is hard but not hopeless. “These huge problems are not going to be resolved just because highly motivated individuals inform their legislators who design new rules to live by, or because the corporate world suddenly gets green religion or from another spate of U.N. reports, as valuable as all these things are,” MacGregor concludes. “A sustainable future will only happen because individual people believe they can make a difference in the world and are motivated to act.”