22 April 2008

What is sustainability, anyway?

What with all these contests and events, it seems appropriate to take a moment and ask a few relevant questions to see what this is all about. It seems even more appropriate as today is officially Earth Day.

So what is sustainability?

The most common definition comes from the UN World Commission on Environment and Development, otherwise known as the Brundtland Commission, from which we derive most of our ideas on sustainability. In 1983 they defined sustainable development as “[meeting] the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

But what does this mean at Washington College? The college has overlooked the Chester River for over 200 years, and with careful management, can stand for 200 more. This can mean a number of things, from reducing our dependence on fossil fuels, to buying locally in order to support our local economy and community. It also may mean building a community at the college that supports its members- faculty and staff, students and alumni, and their families- to provide a social environment in which we can all live, learn, and grow.

One of the overarching principles of sustainability is the emphasis on balancing environmental, economic, and cultural needs in the community. Educating for a sustainable future calls for integrating knowledge from many disciplines so students have the tools to be decision-makers and stewards of a sustainable world.

So what do we mean by “going green”?

This one is a little harder. “Green” is a term applied to any number of products and activities, many of which barely qualify for the label. In fact, a new phenomenon known as “greenwashing,” defined as “the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service” has taken root in our environmental language.

At WC, we may make a lot of jokes about May Day being a green practice, and the fact that the George Washington statue happens to be green. But what are we actually doing to go green? Actually, quite a lot. Between upping recycling on campus, building the composting program, purchasing more locally-grown foods and eco-friendly products (including recycled paper towels, recycled paper with post-consumer waste content for printers and copiers, and green cleaning products), and building to LEED Silver standards, we’ve made quite a start. All over campus, individuals are stepping up to green their own everyday activities, by turning out lights, walking to campus, and bringing reusable mugs to the dining hall.

This still doesn’t define “green.” Most often, green is used to mean something done with concern for the environment. There are many “shades of green,” as explained by wikipedia. Everyone seems to have a rather different idea of what it all means.

Personally, when I think of “going green” and sustainability, I look out my window. My window overlooks the Chester River, and on the other side I can see trees and houses; if I crane my neck I can see the dock and the bridge. It’s beautiful. There are ducks and seagulls and I’m sure, under the surface of the water, fish and turtles and crabs and things. There are also boats, and I can see the Sultana making the rounds with a cargo of elementary school kids. This, all of the kids and the animals and people living together and enjoying the water, sharing in the history and the future of the river, exemplifies sustainability. If in another 200 years someone stands on the bank of the river and there are still fish and birds and kids, and all of them are relatively healthy and have places to live and food to eat, and will be able to do so for yet another 200 years- that will be sustainable. In my mind, that’s as green as you can be: alive and loving it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled on to your blog and you posed an interesting question. But it was your answer that really brightened up my day (even after reading about the issue of "greenwashing" diluting what good others are doing by going green). I loved the poetic way you aggregated nature and man to be inseparable entities of a truely sustained and green world. Keep on keeping on! And Happy Earth Day.