Sustainability’s Soul

Sustainability isn’t just about light bulbs. It’s not just about turning down your heat, either, or shutting down Paresky at night, or even the solar panels on Schow roof. Instead, it’s about confronting mountains being blasted to shreds and coal choking whole towns, as well as fighting to fix polluted and dangerous neighborhoods, poverty and unemployment. At its most tangible level, sustainability means building a neighborhood park out of a trashed lot and training unemployed residents to find jobs restoring their own communities.

Through stories like these, three visitors from the West Virginia coalfields and the South Bronx used their faces and their voices to give “sustainability” a soul. Lorelei, Bob and Dwaine were the Environmental Justice panelists for last Tuesday’s Focus the Nation, where they described how their respective organizations fight mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia and work to revitalize the economy, community and environment in the South Bronx. Their stories blended horrific injustice with genuinely powerful inspiration, and I found myself caught up in a strange mix of outrage and hope.

I needed it and, judging from comments I heard from other students, faculty and staff in the audience, we all needed it. I had gotten a little numb to the word sustainability. Sometimes it seems that, here at Williams, we run the risk of oversimplifying such an infinitely complex idea until sustainability seems like a sterile world of technology, building plans and cost-benefit analyses. The stories from Lorelei, Bob and Dwaine gave living, breathing, meaning to the word in general but, perhaps more importantly, they showed how even at Williams such stories and their meanings hold relevance.

Coal River Mountain Watch, Lorelei and Bob’s organization, has spent the last decade fighting mountaintop removal, a mining technique, on both the state and national levels. Sometimes called “strip mining on steroids,” the process involves using over 3,000 tons of explosives per day to blast away hundreds of feet of mountaintops, then bringing in 20-story earthmovers to dig out the coal. Much of the waste is dumped into valley streams and rivers, and the toxic liquid waste from coal washing is stored in giant “sludge dams” that are often perched above communities. Mountaintop removal mining has destroyed an estimated 800-plus square miles of mountains, and buried or polluted over 1,200 miles of streams and rivers in Appalachia.

Sustainable South Bronx, which is run by Dwaine, faces the same problems of poverty, unemployment and degradation as central Appalachia. In the Bronx, however, problems arise when garbage dumps and jails are given zoning approval instead of parks and community spaces. Asthma from air pollution, contaminated rivers and even diabetes settles in as residents are less inclined to exercise in more dangerous neighborhoods.

Dwaine explained that since its start in 2001, Sustainable South Bronx has organized to build parks, fight the unjust distribution of garbage, plan a greenway and “clean tech” industrial site to provide both recreation and jobs, and train residents to find jobs restoring contaminated brownfields.

These are moving stories – but how do they connect to Williams? Though our end of the Appalachian chain is coal-less and safe from mining, we also share in the costs. Lorelei described how pollution from coal plants travels up the northeast, and how the mercury from the process flows to the Gulf of Mexico and enters the Gulf Stream. On a larger scale, we sink ourselves deeper into fossil fuel dependence as we allow companies to exploit land and people to produce coal power as cheaply and quickly as possible, thereby reducing the chances that we will ever save ourselves from the many disastrous effects of global warming.

We also, however, are intricately bound up in a solution composed of both energy conservation and political awareness. Our own state’s proposed Global Warming Solutions Act would cut energy use 80 percent by 2050. We can, as always, add our own voices to the debate and urge our legislators – both nationally and locally – to get involved in passing bills like the Clean Water Protection Act, which would effectively end mountaintop removal.

We are even more deeply involved in the second part of Sustainable South Bronx’s mission. Not only should we advance “environmental and economic rebirth,” but should also inspire other communities to follow suit. We can look to how our own Northern Berkshire community suffers from poverty, high rates of hunger, teen pregnancy, unemployment and PCB poisoning in the rivers. The Sustainable South Bronx’s projects, all launched in just seven years, show us how many ways we can pull from our own resources to make real change.

Lorelei, Bob and Dwaine’s stories teach us to look for the connections – the human connection. How can we feel, sharply, the links between health, jobs, green spaces, political equality and community vitality? How can we approach “sustainability” – that intimidating, elusive word – with a new sense of curiosity and a passion to know what it means for other people’s lives? The idea that we’re all connected in some way, that the health of the environment and its people is indivisible, is nothing new. But sometimes we need real stories to give it new life and to make it a part of our own lives as well.

Julia Sendor ’08 is an environmental studies contract major from Chapel Hill, N.C.

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