Through a Glass, Sustainably

David Orr visiting the College Farm

by Tony Moore

Stop for a moment and create a mental picture of sustainability.

Solar panels drink in the sun, powering homes and businesses. Electric cars move silently through city streets between recharging stations, and everything you use is recycled and reborn later. Organically grown agricultural products color your table, and the post-meal scraps create biofuel to run everything from lawnmowers to Dreamliners. Ah, sustainability.

But now ask Neil Leary, director of Dickinson's Center for Sustainability Education (CSE), to define sustainability, and that picture disappears, replaced by something much more complex.

"Sustainability is about answering a fundamental question," he says. "How do we improve the human condition in this and future generations, equitably and without damaging environmental systems necessary to support healthy and vibrant societies?"

In other words, it's a lot bigger than your recycling bin.

Helping us all look far beyond that green curbside bin, the CSE ratcheted up the sustainability dialogue by creating the Baird Sustainability Fellows program (which included seniors Courtney Blinkhorn, David Dean, Emily Eckardt, Giovania Tiarachristie, J.J. Luceno, Sarah Ganong and Taylor Wilmot). The CSE also partnered with the Clarke Forum on Contemporary Issues to bring leading experts to campus under the forum's spring theme, Living in a World of Limits.

We never ran out of whales

"He has me so conflicted," says Taylor Wilmot '13 of Michael Shellenberger. "I wonder at times, 'Does he believe everything he's saying, or is he just trying to provoke people to think about these things?' "

The first in the series of provocateurs to come to campus through Living in a World of Limits, Shellenberger is cofounder of the Breakthrough Institute, a joyfully contrarian environmentalist and a serious proponent of technology as the main defense against the climate crisis. He is a practiced button-pusher—and he's jabbing at Wilmot before even stepping into the room—but those buttons often activate parts of the brain that may previously have been waiting for him.

"People say things like, 'These are dark times!' " he begins. "Really? People are living longer, more farmland is reverting to nature. We've got a huge carbon and climate challenge, but personally I'm more optimistic than I've ever been."

Interjecting, David Dean '13 asks, "Your opinion is that we'll continue to find and make energy indefinitely?"

"No question about it. … There's not going to be any trouble with energy," Shellenberger says. "It's an exciting moment in the United States. We are displacing coal with gas and appreciating that there are problems with gas that need to be fixed. We might stop coal exports from the United States. We might keep coal in the ground."

"But then we'll start natural gas exports."

"I hope so," Shellenberger responds. "We went from whale oil to kerosene not because we ran out of whales. There were still a lot of them, but when you have kerosene, why use whale oil? When you have gas, which doesn't have any heavy metals going into the air, not to mention half the carbon, why wouldn't you use that?

"The question is, are things getting better or worse?" he asks. "We invented the automobile, the Internet, electricity—every major technology. A lot of these things were developed for reasons we might disapprove of, like warfare. It's not just good things have bad consequences. Bad things have good consequences. We're not utopians in terms of any of these new technologies."

'You can't return to a past that never existed'

"Utopias have a bad batting average," David Orr tells students during a classroom visit on March 27, echoing Shellenberger on at least one point. A looming national environmental figure from Oberlin College and the University of Vermont, Orr has a true knack for dropping nuggets that resonate:

    "There is no past to go back to."
    "Nobody knows where the tipping points are, but you'd be foolish not to know that we are at or near tipping points."
    "Hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up."
    "Sustainability: No one really knows what it means."

On this last point, Orr may be right, but he's convinced that contemplation and action can achieve it. "Where we have to go, I really don't know," he says. "But the point at a college or university is to think as deeply as we can about the human predicament."

In her Baird blog, Emily Eckardt '13 comments that Orr's "grandest mission has been on a local level. I admire [him] for pairing a theoretical, historical, scientific and political analysis of the sustainability movement with a community-based initiative."

Orr heads a community-based effort called the Oberlin Project, which he sees as just another seed to grow a bigger movement. "If you create a really cool, sustainable Carlisle, Pa., and we create a really cool, sustainable Oberlin, Ohio, it doesn't amount to anything unless it goes viral," he says.

"The main point that I gathered from Orr is to consider the bigger picture," says Sarah Ganong '13. "But if everyone out in the community, and ultimately in the world, doesn't buy into sustainability then I wouldn't define what we're all aiming for to be sustainable at all."

It's complicated, and Orr admits this, but he insists that action in the face of uncertainty will always trump inaction.

"So what are you going to do?" he asks. "You might say, 'I'm not going to do a damn thing.' That's your choice. It's not a choice that anyone coming out of a liberal-arts college would be proud to make, though."

Speak softly and carry a green stick

If you're not going to do a damn thing, you don't want to tell Bill McKibben about it. McKibben, environmental heavyweight and founder of 350.org, is on campus for a three-day residency after having accepted the inaugural Sam Rose '58 and Julie Walters Prize at Dickinson College for Global Environmental Activism last year. If there's one thing he's good at, it's, well, spearheading global environmental activism.

At a student roundtable meeting, the issue at hand is divestment: Should Dickinson rid its endowment portfolio of any investments tied to the fossil-fuel industry? For McKibben, it's a statement more than a question, and it's one he's been making across the country.

"In the end, it comes down to a moral issue," he says. "It's wrong to wreck the climate, so it's also wrong to profit from that." McKibben, like Shellenberger and Orr, is effective in communicating the logic of his points in deceptively simple ways, and his logic generally is aimed at pushing for change.

The change he wants to spark on campus is crystallized by another simple statement: "If colleges aren't going to divest, who is?" he asks, and it really prompts only one answer. Unlike Orr, who takes a boots-on-the-ground approach, and Shellenberger, who may almost be seen as an anti-activist, McKibben sees large gestures that lead to large changes as the best approach.

"By all accounts, Dickinson is right in the thick of it—the farm, the Treehouse, all of it," he says. "The only place Dickinson has left to demonstrate its leadership is addressing the endowment with regard to the issue of divestment. There is always an opportunity cost when you don't lead. And the risks of inaction, monetary and otherwise, are higher than the risks of action."

The issue is nearly as complex as pinning down a definition of sustainability, and McKibben's stop at Dickinson is but one of many as he pushes for change on campuses across the nation. And while only a handful of colleges in the United States have made a commitment to divest at this point, McKibben sees the decision as inevitable in the end. "I look forward to coming back to Dickinson," he says, "to celebrate when divestment happens."

Sustainability: Maybe we do know what it means

So if you sat in on Living in a World of Limits, you might think that sustainability is as simple as it is complex. Abstract and tangible, impossible and imperative. It's about the environment, people, financial policy, perception. It's global and it's local. It's the here and now, and it's the distant future. It can be realized through technology, through a systems approach, through a social/political movement. It's something we can all take on in a million different ways, and it's something that we each have to take on in at least one way.

Wilmot found inspiration in Carlisle's brownfield sites—all former factory sites in the early stages of redevelopment—studying them and presenting her findings to the community. Giovania Tiarachristie '13 documented racial tensions surrounding food-security initiatives in a low-income neighborhood in Harrisburg. In her Baird Fellows biography, Tiarachristie says she looks at sustainability as a "holistic approach to existence … [following] the intergenerational and cross-cultural human path toward social justice and harmony."

Shellenberger speaks of this human path as well, and he sees you on it, following yourself to a better world. This, in the end, is what sustainability is all about: creating that picture of sustainability in your head, placing yourself firmly in it and going forth into the world.

"Do what you're passionate about," he tells students. "Do what you're good at. Get out into the world and do stuff. Get experience. Make mistakes. Work hard. As Pindar said, 'Become who you are.' Embrace life. That's it."

Published Jul. 24, 2013