Beyond Switching the Light Bulbs

November 24, 2013

Wise words from The College’s Sustainability Fellow Patrick Foley, ’12

I was recently asked by a friend what advice I would offer to new students on campus interested in sustainability. I’ve been involved in the environmental movement on campus for a while, so I wanted to share some thoughts. Working to improve sustainability on campus at William and Mary over the past four years, both as a student and the College’s Sustainability Fellow, has been one of the best experiences of my life. I have witnessed so many positive changes on campus as a result of enthusiasm from students, faculty, and staff. We increased access to recycling, built LEED certified buildings, and funded environmental research. We even laid the groundwork for a state of the art EcoVillage that will establish William & Mary as a leader of sustainability in higher education. However, I think we have a lot of work left to do.

So here is my advice: We need more environmental stewards. We have become so ingrained with familiar advice that it has almost lost meaning: “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.” There needs to be more. You should expect more. There is a world of difference between supporting environmental causes and being an environmental steward. An environmental steward is not passive. We need people looking to take meaningful action and who motivate others to raise their expectations. You are responsible for your own behavior, but you should also call upon your leaders (be it the campus administration or your political representatives) to enact effective policies that promote sustainability.

Education and outreach are vital components of improving sustainability on campus. Environmental groups should certainly ask individual students to make changes in their daily lives. I would encourage you to join these groups—I can personally attest to the great relationships I have developed through many of these organizations. You’ll begin to understand the issues, and awareness is undoubtedly important. However, after you attend enough documentary screenings and panel discussions to inform yourself on these issues you begin to ask yourself a question: where is the real change?

I am skeptical about the prospects for really changing things on campus without a renewed spirit of enthusiasm from students and faculty. Yet I am not cynical. When people stand up for the courage of their convictions and voice their concerns real change can take place. I saw this determination when we stopped a coal plant in Surry County. I saw this determination when students elected to assess a ‘green fee’ to create a permanent fund for supporting sustainable projects on campus. Students must demand large scale change. Incremental change simply isn’t enough.

Granted you should recycle. You should attempt to conserve electricity. You should take a shorter shower. We need to hold ourselves accountable, but we must also demand that our leaders make sustainability a priority. Macro-policy is every bit as important as individual action. Without efforts from the top to change behavior we will only have a façade of sustainability—it makes for a good admissions’ catalogue, but ultimately we are not moving forward. Be an environmental steward and never lower your expectations. Voice your opinion and demand leaders listen to your concerns. I think you will be surprised by how much you can accomplish with enough determination.

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