Discourse / Letters / October 8, 2008

Letter to the Editor: True strength of Knox’s sustainability movement lies with the students

I’m what you might call a hippie: I’m a quinoa-eatin’, yellow-mellowin’ college student who shaves her legs infrequently, brings canvas bags in her bike basket to the local farmer’s market, has abandoned Mr. Clean and Lysol for good old vinegar and baking soda… and yes, I have actually hugged lots of trees. I was green before it was cool.

This fall in Barcelona, I’ve noticed that “green” is a fad here, though not quite to the extent it is in the U.S. There are no mega-mart Whole Foods here, nor endless car commercials that talk only about the car’s MPG. (Or KPL, if you prefer metric.) At first glance it might seem like we Americans have out-hippied our European amigos. But I’d argue differently.

Conservation is a way of life here. Gas, water, food, and electricity have been expensive for a long time. People conserve resources out of financial necessity, not necessarily ecological awareness.

Conservation is also a fundamental pillar of being green. This may seem obvious, but it’s something that a lot of us are forgetting. With billboards, commercials, and product labels claiming that everything from Hummer H3s to organic pancake batter in a can (I’m not making this up. It’s called “Organic Batter Blaster.”) is healthy for you and the environment—the true principles of sustainability are getting lost in this unregulated nonsense.

The term is “greenwashing.” “Green” has become such a fad that PR departments everywhere are stopping at nothing to find a way to use the word on a label or in an ad, even when it doesn’t belong there, because they know that well-intentioned consumers like you want to save the planet.

I would go so far as to say that our occasionally PR-minded college is guilty of this as well. The Knox website’s front page now features a link to a section on Sustainability section, which in turn links to a list of “Completed Sustainability Initiatives” (www.knox.edu/x20060.xml). After reading through this extensive list, my inner hippie was disturbed more than proud. Sure, most of the things on this list are truly commendable. A few, however, little or nothing to do with sustainability. My favorite is listed under 2005-2006 projects:

“Back-up generator for the Umbeck Science & Math building installed to prevent power outages from destroying samples and experiments in science labs, and disabling the computer systems.”

As a SMC-rat, I completely approve of having such a generator installed. However, increasing the building’s power usage is not exactly forging the way towards sustainability.

On the other hand, there are other projects on this list that were designed save energy and resources: energy efficient lighting, server virtualization, double-sided printing, etc. Some of them were probably initiated with the big S-word in mind. Others may simply have been a matter of saving money.

This begs an important question: is “accidental sustainability” still sustainability? Should Knox be allowed to boast about the energy-efficient lighting installed eight years ago to save money, before sustainability was a hot-button issue?

In my opinion, yes. This is no different than what I’m seeing here in Spain: economically-motivated conservation. In fact, I’d say all of you accidentally green people out there—who are driving less because gas is expensive, re-wearing your jeans because you can’t find any quarters for laundry, and buying used textbooks instead of new—you’re doing more to save the earth than some people who are trying to be green.

Why? Conservation is what matters, not a green label on a package. If you’re feeling bombarded by greenwashing and don’t know where to start, here’s a hint: buying things is never very sustainable. Things have to be made, whether from natural resources or from man-made materials, wrapped in plastic before they are fit to sell, shipped, often halfway across the world, to your local big-box store, and finally, when you throw that thing away, there is no away—it may be on this earth longer than your grandchildren.

Obviously, this presents a dilemma, because in a modern capitalist culture, we must buy things to survive. It’s impossible in our world for an individual to have zero impact on the earth, but I promise you’ll get a lot further in your efforts if you follow the three R’s, in order: first Reduce, then Reuse, and as last resort Recycle. Rush out to your nearest Wal-Mart has never been on the list.

That’s why I applaud some of our latest efforts towards sustainability. I’m sure that our trayless caf is preventing lots of food and water from being wasted. The eco-clamshells are saving 120,000 Styrofoam containers from entering the landfill every year. The free store is a great way to reduce waste and encourage reuse (and I hope it finds a new home.)

What do all of these projects have in common? They are student-driven. Ultimately, that’s what bothered me about the “Completed Sustainability Initiatives”—so many great student-initiated projects were missing. Sure, CFA’s new roof may save on cooling costs, but it does nothing to raise awareness and promote social change.

Always remember: the true strength of Knox’s sustainability movement does not come from Roger Taylor, nor any sort of task force, nor the PR department. This movement belongs to the students. Make small changes in your own life and work with others to affect bigger ones. Just because what you’re doing doesn’t end up on the Knox website doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

Ellie Poley

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