A sustainable shift

Consider Middlebury, a school known in the NESCAC for its environmental emphasis. Or Colby, which recently achieved carbon neutrality. What comes to mind when you think of Williams? Is “sustainability” even on the list? If not, what does that say about our school?

One of the things that sets Williams apart from similar colleges is a lack of transparency and cohesion, particularly with regard to environmental efforts. Sure, we have recycling bins (though you wouldn’t know it on weekends), Log Lunch, a garden and an environmental studies center. There is the option to compost food waste in the dining halls. Some of the energy generated by exercise machines in upper Lasell is harnessed for use, student organizations push issues like divestment and there are ancient little signs on light switches encouraging everyone to “Do it in the dark!” Every now and then we have 150-mile meals, and there might even be a sign in your bathroom about the shower timers of yesteryear or that allegedly water-saving yet “not an anti-scalding” device.

Is that really enough? Can’t we do better than a handful of disconnected efforts, flawed in their design, to have minimal impact on daily life and, by extension, on our collective consciousness? I hope so, but right now too many questions remain unanswered. What are the current perspectives on environmental issues on campus? What exactly is and isn’t being done by the College? What would students, faculty and staff like to see happen? How can we do better? Most of the people who I’ve spoken with about environmental efforts, be they fellow college students, faculty, children, staff, family or friends, stress the importance of relevance and convenience: It’s not that people don’t want to care, it’s that it’s too easy not to. As the saying goes, “Out of sight, out of mind.” We don’t usually have to see the waste we create or recognize the consequences of daily choices we make. On the flip side, we also don’t always hear about the efforts to decrease the school’s environmental impact that are in fact underway in various sectors of the College. One has to make a concerted effort to see the former and seek out the latter, and even then the facts may not be clear.

Part of the answer lies in simple physical changes, such as more straightforward and consistent signage for composting in the dining halls. However, a long-term cultural shift is also essential. That is not to say we need to convert this academic institution to a green revolution hippie commune (or any of the other stigmatized images that accompany the admittedly overused word “sustainability”). It is to say that establishing a more effective exchange of information regarding the undeniably relevant issue of our environmental impact would be a beneficial step forward.

By educating ourselves, sharing information and starting a conversation about sustainability at Williams, we hope to better serve our community and communities to come. Open dialogue about environmental advocacy, integration and practical solutions can help close the invisible gaps in our environmental awareness.

To be clear, these awareness gaps are not endemic to Williams College. They are very much present at other institutions and in the world at large, but intersections of environmental issues with social justice, economics, health care, politics, food systems, international relations, etc., only increase with scale. The topics are as multifaceted as those who comprise the Williams community, and they need our attention now. Although there is more pointed research to be done, articles in Sierra, the Journal of Environmental Psychology, and Environmental Education Research, and certainly the latest TEDxManhattan talks, suggest that it’s worth the effort; eco-literacy and environmental awareness established at academic institutions, if well-executed, really do translate to our lives and decisions beyond college. I can think of no better place to plant such seeds of change than here at Williams, where the conversation never ends and ideas really do translate to actions.

Roshny Vijayakar ’17 is from Golden Valley, Minn. She lives in Williams Hall.