A culture of complacency: Are students sparking enough change in the purple bubble?

February 10, 2016 by Jordan Fields

As a geosciences student, I spend much of my time thinking about change. In particular, I think about changes in “the critical zone” – a showy term for the space where humans interact with and affect the environment, the surface of the earth. I’m sure I’m not the first to tell you that there have been some critical changes here in the last 150 years, the last 10 years, the last year (the warmest year on record by an alarming margin) and even in the first few weeks of this new year.

These changes are happening at a breakneck speed that is unprecedented in geologic timescales. Despite this, our behavior doesn’t seem to be changing much in response, which is uncharacteristic of organisms that have found success by adapting and responding to their environment. This is indicative of a broken system and a broken society – one in which each individual is aware of change yet feels no urgency to respond to it. This behavior seems to be akin to a mob mentality, but one of a more passive and, perhaps, more destructive variety.

As the nation’s attention has turned towards Flint, Mich., in recent weeks, mine has too. Though details are still emerging, it has become evident that the problem of toxic tap water in Flint – the result of a number of different factors and diverse contributors – was ignored for far too long (well after many credible sources had raised serious concerns). A few years ago, the choice was made to switch water sources in order to save money. This decision, coupled with insufficient treatment of this water and outdated pipes and infrastructure, resulted in lead leaching into the public’s drinking water.

It struck me that the poisonous tap water in Flint is a poignant metaphor for the way the campus community approaches things such as climate change. There are broad shortcomings in both the policies taken and the attitudes espoused with regard to such issues on this campus. We too are overlooking elements in our lifestyles that are contributing factors of environmental problems that we speak of often but rarely act on, such as changing weather patterns and the increasing frequency and intensity of storms. Even when crisis strikes nearby, like the contamination of water just downriver from the College in Hoosick Falls, N.Y., no one on campus seems to talk about it, or even be concerned by it. In this way, we play an active role in the creation and augmentation of these problems. But I don’t believe it has to be this way. We should begin considering more frequently the implications of seemingly small behaviors and decisions we make each day: the food we put on our plates, our habits as voracious consumers and online shoppers and our insatiable appetites for fossil fuels. Making small sacrifices in these areas can have huge impacts.

However, no one seems to want to do this. It’s a similar problem to the one in Flint. We know that our own pipes, so to speak, are insufficient and, in many cases, broken. We know that it is no one person’s fault, but we forget that it is all of our responsibilities to take on these issues.

As in Flint, it is hard (and incorrect) to assign blame to one policy, practice, agency or company. This makes it difficult to fully grasp how big a role each of us – you and, yes, certainly me – do play in the creation of the problem and, conversely, how much power each of us have to act against unsustainable practices. The problem I see on campus is that we are complacent towards change, a campus attitude made possible by the convenience of choosing to ignore the external costs of the comforts of our current existence.

I am implicated in this as well; it is easy to lose sight of what is truly important when your next assignment feels like the only thing that matters. While that next assignment is important, we can all make small changes for which the benefit to the community far outweighs the personal cost of our time or tastes.

So, where to begin and how? There are almost too many ways to answer this question, which I believe is partly responsible for the paralysis that has gripped so many students. I personally choose to begin with food, specifically by eating less meat. But I am not writing to spew facts about the cost of our broken food system, as many have written about this before. I am writing instead to encourage each of us to consider our role in a broader broken system in which food plays a central role. Flint’s case is an important lesson: If no one takes responsibility, the whole community suffers. Only in this case, the community is all 7.4 billion of us, and we won’t be able to just buy bottled water, as the people of Flint have done for now, if we ignore these issues for too long. I’m not asking anyone to give everything up, to stop eating meat, for instance, but I am asking everyone to give something up, whether it’s part of your time, a new purchase when the old item is just as good or one industrially-produced burger per week.

Purple bubble or not, this is the real world. We are living in it right now and real change should not be something reserved for after graduation.

Jordan Fields ’17 is a geosciences major from Woodstock, Vt. He lives in Bryant House.

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