October 13, 2010

Gaining ground with green

With the green movement gaining ground across the country, Knox’s Presidential Task Force on Sustainability is leading the campus towards more sustainable living.

Formed in 2008, the Task Force serves to bring together people from different areas of the college community to discuss sustainability issues at Knox, including faculty, students, Director of Facilities Services Scott Maust and President Roger Taylor.

“The Task Force is really crucial,” senior and Task Force member Michelle Gerber said. “It’s great to have the president, administrators [and] facilities people all at one meeting to discuss the different aspects of sustainability.”

The Task Force was formed with three goals in mind: to expand education on sustainable living throughout the curriculum, to improve the recycling program and to begin work on a larger project that would be impactful and act as a visible sign of the college’s efforts towards going green. Members quickly got to work; one of the Task Force’s first initiatives was the replacement of Styrofoam takeout containers in the Hard Knox Café with reusable “clamshells,” eliminating over 100,000 Styrofoam containers used each year.

Only two years later, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies Peter Schwartzman can already see a difference.

“Without the Task Force, there would be no…sustainability faculty workshop, no EquiKnox speakers, no food clamshells,” he said, listing some of the many visible Task Force projects. “It allows the topic [of sustainability] to get some consideration on a regular basis.”

Much of what the Task Force does, however, is more structural. On May 20, 2008 Taylor signed the Talloires Declaration, an institutional commitment to push forward with sustainability initiatives.

“The day it was signed, I literally bawled in class,” Schwartzman said. “It’s a very significant thing.”

As with many other sustainability initiatives at Knox, the signing of the Talloires Declaration was largely the result of student effort.

“It’s essential to realize that students play an important role,” Schwartzman said. “They have the passion and the open-mindedness.”

As the college transitions to a new president, student initiative will become even more important if Knox is to continue to emphasize green living.

“We are the Presidential Task Force, and the president’s leaving,” Gerber said. “We need to carry on the passion for sustainability and impress upon the next president the importance of pursuing these goals.”

A Farm at Knox?

The one goal on which the Task Force has not made as much progress is the implementation of a larger project that would serve as a flagship for the college’s sustainability efforts. Proposals have included everything from a composting center to a wind turbine, but Schwartzman’s dream is to start Knox’s very own farm.

Knox owns approximately two acres of land (an area the size of two football fields) behind the Human Rights Center, located at 422 S. Academy, which could be turned into a farm, orchard or other food-producing center. Knox students would work on the farm, learning about the ins and outs of growing food, and the produce could then be fed to Knox students.

“The farm project would be huge—in some ways more significant than a wind turbine,” Schwartzman said. “A wind turbine is visible, but how much can you learn from that? With the farm…there’s so much education there.”

The Task Force has seen two proposals outlining the benefits of the farm so far, and while nothing has been firmly decided the push for a large project remains. Student energies are currently fixated on creating a campus-wide composting system.

“Organizations buy compostable plates for events, but they just get thrown out because we don’t have a compost system,” Gerber explained. “We’re pushing hard for [one].”

Building to Grow

Although students often only notice the visible changes, structural changes can be even more important, both in terms of facilities and attitude.

“There’s a lot of focus on visible changes,” Schwartzman said. “For example, there’s no reason why we couldn’t put solar panels on Eco House and have every tour of the college walk past Eco House. It would be visible, but a much more significant impact on campus would be turning the heat down.”

Also essential to further integrating sustainability on campus is education. An attempt to include sustainability as part of the FP curriculum was shot down last spring, the rationale being that FP is already trying to do a lot. In the meantime, Gerber encourages students to educate each other.

“Students need to take personal responsibility,” she said. “For instance, if your suitemates leave the lights on all the time, talk to them about it. Word of mouth really helps.”

Still, Schwartzman believes that expanding sustainability education throughout the curriculum is important.

“Where did these lemons come from?” he asked, indicating the glass of lemonade he was drinking. “They weren’t grown in Galesburg. Where were they grown? How were they grown? Were the growers paid well? We should think more holistically; all of these things matter.”

When the focus moves from the personal to community level, the results can be tremendous.

“When everybody’s just cutting back, it becomes a competition. That’s counterproductive,” Schwartzman said. “To build…is fulfilling. It cuts through the garbage that seems to separate us.”

Anna Meier

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