The Sustainabili-tea at ‘Berg

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In the Spring of 2021, while most of my peers planned their return to Muhlenberg, I packed my bags for a three-month move to Hawaii. No plans, no expectations. I found myself immersed in a place where sustainability is at the core of everyone’s values. 

From my perspective, an Islander’s relationship with the earth is a continuous cycle of give and take. The island and the people living with it share the same breath, inhaling and exhaling the sustenance of life in unison. The natural systems – earth, water, sun and rain – rule over all else, providing life. There is no choice but to give back. 

I lived and worked on a property off-grid with no phone service, no buildings or stores, no hierarchy of productivity. It felt like a dream at first. I didn’t know places like this still existed. It was anarchy in the best sense—the internal compass of society directed toward doing the right thing and collaborating with the earth. Within the whole world, I saw this Island as a microcosm of sustainability.

On my work-trade property, there was an event every Saturday known as “free-trade,” which in this context, is an act of anti-consumerism and anti-waste. The occasion came alive as an exchange of ideas, skills, things, food and love. Everyone owns it, everybody puts in the work to continue it and everyone gets to benefit from it. Each week there was a discussion about how we can improve the space, make it more accessible and take action for the greater good. This practice exemplifies the intentions of sustainable living and provides a space where cooperative communities can thrive. 

From my lived experiences I have developed an evolving definition of sustainability; a discipline in which choice-making holds the earth’s best interests at heart and within each choice there is an applied awareness of how everything in our world interacts. I suggest that “free-trade” is an exercise in sustainability and that is why I brought the idea to Muhlenberg in the form of a clothing swap. Now, the newly reclaimed group on campus, “enACT” (the environmental action team) is taking this idea even further and building a foundation within our community for sustainability to grow. 

Of course, it’s easier said than done to put these values into practice. Even when we care about environmental action, there are a lot of factors in the way. A big joke of Muhlenberg is when you put something in the recycling and feel good about yourself then later see someone pooling it together with the trash. It leaves some of us asking ourselves, “Why do we even try?” The Muhlenberg website shares that our trash ends up in a waste-to-energy facility that produces “less CO2 per ton of garbage than a landfill.” But what happens to recycling… And, if waste and recycling are all going to the same good place, then why the separate bins? Why does our administration perpetuate a facade and avoid transparency about what is really going on?

It appears from the website that changes to the recycling program have not been made since 2012. Administrative attention is long overdue. And recycling isn’t the only thing; food waste is a pressing issue that is getting some attention from the Food Recovery Network club but not from the administration. The lack of transparency about these matters makes me wonder what else is hiding beneath the surface.

Our institution must be responsible to promote solutions that encourage students to pursue environmental action. At the same time, we as students must make choices that contribute positively to the system that we benefit from, even if they inconvenience us. If both of these pillars —institutional, accountability and individual effort— are in place then we can proceed sustainably.

According to the 2021 NextGen Climate Survey, “83% of Gen Z youth worry about the planet’s health.” Many of us have awareness but don’t translate it into action. Awareness alone is not enough. Luckily, collegiate institutions have the resources and privilege to serve as key players in sustainability efforts. Their student stakeholders are likely to be enlightened about the state of the planet and passionate about seeking change because they are actively learning how to look at the world through a critical lens. When I arrived at Muhlenberg College, that energy was very hard to find. There were small pockets of those who outwardly cared but I found that many students approached the topic dismissively, treating sustainability as if it were a random club they didn’t have an interest in, rather than seeing it for what it truly is: a part of life. 

Muhlenberg College publicly claims that they “seek to create a culture on campus that supports sustainability” and there is a strategic plan in place that looks promising. I see the administration making good choices but I feel a lack of outreach to the student body. I crave a more collaborative relationship that lets everyone in; one that fosters environmental consciousness across the whole campus.

Let’s get jazzed about it! How can we discuss sustainability on a deeper level and be realistic about what we can do? The answer is enACT: a completely collaborative system that brings ideas to life and builds a bridge between care and action. I feel hopeful about what lies ahead. Do you? 

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