An Education in Green Living
Maine’s colleges are at the top of the national list when it comes to getting a green education.
- By: Beth Brosnan
The road trip is a hallowed college tradition. Grab the car keys, some friends, and hit the road in search of adventure.
But at Unity College, which bills itself as “America’s environmental college,” the tradition comes with a big, green twist. Last September, when a group of Unity students and administrators hit the road, it was in a biofuel-powered van, and riding shotgun was one of the country’s leading environmental activists and authors, Bill McKibben, founder of the climate change group 350.org. The group’s destination: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Their mission: to persuade President Obama to bring solar energy back to the White House.
“It couldn’t have been more fun,” McKibben told the Los Angeles Times. “Guitars, iPods, excellent snack food, rallies each night.” Strapped to the back of the van was a solar panel that President Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House in the 1970s, and which Unity acquired after it was removed during a Reagan-era renovation. “Thirty-one years old and it worked like a charm — a vexing reminder that we’ve known how to do this stuff for decades,” McKibben added. “We just haven’t done it.”
For Unity senior Jamie Nemecek, the trip couldn’t have been more educational — a three-day tutorial in the effective use of both solar and political power. Although the administration officials the group met with were initially noncommittal, in October Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that the White House will go solar this spring, when panels and a solar hot-water heater will be installed on the first family’s residence.
“I thought I wasn’t interested in politics,” says Nemecek, a sustainable energy major from southern New Hampshire. “But spending all that time with Bill McKibben and hearing about all the advocacy work he’s doing convinced me that I want to study public policy in graduate school, and use what I learn to help reverse climate change.”
Tucked into the rolling farmlands east of Waterville, tiny Unity College may seem an unlikely base from which to mount an assault on global warming. Yet along with Maine’s other colleges and universities, Unity finds itself right at the center of one of the fastest-growing movements in American education: sustainability.
Environmental Studies 2.0
Maine has been a pioneer in environmental studies since the late 1960s; indeed, Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic (COA) was founded in 1969 with a single major in “human ecology,” and Unity, established in 1965, early on adopted an environmental/outdoor education focus. You could think of sustainability as environmental studies 2.0, a comprehensive, interdisciplinary approach that embraces not only climate change and biodiversity, but social and economic stewardship as well.
Unity President Mitchell Thomashow calls sustainability “the single biggest challenge for higher education.” Philip Camill, director of Bowdoin College’s Environmental Studies Program, reaches for a Titanic metaphor, warning that colleges that neglect environmental literacy are “producing people who can count, speak, and write about ships and icebergs, but failing to train them how to recognize that the ship is sinking and how to rescue those on board.”
In response, Maine colleges have, over the last decade, created a thriving ecosystem of sustainability courses, degree programs, research opportunities, and institutional initiatives.
If you want to understand how environmental education is evolving, consider COA’s Sustainable Business Program — the first such program in the Northeast — which attracts students who want “to use business to change the world,” says the program’s founder and director, Professor Jay Friedlander.
Sustainable business employs a triple bottom line that considers environmental and social factors as well as profits, a calculus that can spark a host of positive business outcomes, says Friedlander, including “new opportunities, innovation, tremendous cost-savings, and improved competitive positioning.” Itself an innovative case in point, the Sustainable Business Program helped earn COA a top-ten ranking on the Sierra Club’s annual “Cool Schools” list, along with leading universities like Stanford and Harvard.
In Orono, the University of Maine is home to two groundbreaking sustainability efforts. Scientists and grad students at the university’s Climate Change Institute have received international recognition for their work measuring the rate of glacier melt in both Greenland and Antarctica — and the resulting impact on sea levels around the globe. And in 2009, the university’s Senator George J. Mitchell Center received a $20-million grant from the National Science Foundation to launch the ambitious Sustainability Solutions Initiative, whose goal is to harness the research muscle of Maine colleges and universities to help advance the state’s economic and community development while also protecting the environment.
Investing in Infrastructure
Sustainability can be taught in many ways, but one of the most powerful is the college campus itself. Or as Douglas Fox, director of Unity College’s Center for Sustainability and Global Change, puts it, “Our buildings and grounds also teach.” Some particularly gifted “teachers” include Bowdoin’s Sidney J. Watson Arena, the first new ice rink in the country to qualify for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification from the U.S. Green Building Council; Unity House, the president’s “net-zero carbon” home, which, thanks to its five-kilowatt photovoltaic solar-panel system, actually produces more energy than it consumes; and COA’s Kathryn W. Davis Student Residence Village, three duplex-style dormitories that house fifty-one students and yet have heating costs comparable to those of a single-family home.
And then there’s the three-hundred-foot-tall, six hundred-kilowatt wind turbine that looms over the athletic fields at the University of Maine at Presque Isle (UMPI) campus, its blades spinning in the steady Aroostook winds — a powerful symbol of the university’s commitment to renewable energy, which saved more than a hundred thousand dollars in energy costs during its first year of operation and earned UMPI a national award for institutional excellence in climate leadership.
UMPI President Donald Zillman, a legal scholar who specializes in energy, environmental, and natural resources law, likes the winds he sees blowing through Maine higher education. In all, fifteen Maine colleges have signed the American College & University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, a series of sustainability benchmarks that includes setting a target date for achieving campus climate neutrality. “In the crucial areas of sustainability, promotion of renewable energy, and control of carbon fuel consumption,” says Zillman, “our actions reflect our state motto — Dirigo [I lead].”
Then again, Zillman likes the winds blowing through Presque Isle, where bad weather is now good news. He recalls watching a couple of soccer matches during a “terribly, wonderfully windy” weekend last fall: “The poor players were freezing and they couldn’t control the ball. But I was thinking, ‘Boy, we’ve got twenty-five miles per hour winds — we’re making power hand over fist!’ ”
The Maine Advantage
A number of factors combine to make Maine an ideal sustainability classroom — chief among them, says Russell Cole, director of Colby’s Environmental Studies Program, the fact that Maine is “one of the most beautiful and resource-rich states in the country.”
“We have the most abundant contiguous forests of any state east of the Mississippi River,” he notes. “Maine is home to thousands of lakes, and its roughly 3,500 miles of rocky shoreline provide globally important models for fisheries and marine resource management.”
Students choose Unity, says Jesse Pyles, the college’s sustainability coordinator, because Maine offers opportunities simply not found at urban and suburban campuses. “Our students by and large want to work outside,” he says. “And they want to learn outside.” (One student even wanted to sleep outside, and set up a bivouac in the woods adjoining the campus.) Unity’s “increasing national visibility means we’re drawing more students from outside of New England, including from the West Coast,” says Pyles. “That’s been pretty exciting.”
While the term sustainability may be a relatively new one, COA’s Jay Friedlander says Mainers have in fact been practicing it for some time. “I think people in Maine have seen what happens if you just extract everything and don’t put anything back,” he says. “So our ethos here is ‘Let’s preserve this, so we can still have it for future generations.’ ” He points to Maine’s lobster industry, “which had the foresight to say, ‘Let’s not take out more than is produced, and let’s take active steps for preservation.’ The result is a really robust fishery.”
“Historically,” adds Bowdoin’s Camill, “Maine is a microcosm of the challenges that arise between social and environmental issues around the world, and that makes Maine a great place to study these issues. Not only do we have good questions to study and problems to help society think about, we also have the institutions to do it.”
A Practical, Hands-on Approach
Sara Trunzo, who grew up in a northern New Jersey suburb, says she came to Maine looking for something different, for “community and self-sufficiency,” and found both through her interest in sustainable farming. At Unity and elsewhere, sustainable agriculture programs are attracting some of the best and brightest college students, drawn, like Trunzo, by their interest in local and organic foods, animal welfare, and hunger in Maine and around the world.
As a senior, Trunzo started Unity’s summer garden program, which provides organic produce for the dining services department. Now, as the college’s Food and Farms project coordinator, she helps run Veggies for All (VFA), a nonprofit based at the college that raises fresh produce for local food pantries. Last fall, VFA distributed an astounding 15,000 pounds of cabbages, carrots, onions, potatoes, and squash. “We should all have access to sustainable and satisfying food,” Trunzo says.
COA students Lisa Bjerke and Nicholas Harris had plenty of questions — about issues like waste disposal and fossil-fuel alternatives — when they arrived in Bar Harbor, Bjerke from Sweden and Harris from Colorado. As students in Friedlander’s Social Entrepreneurship class, they are combining forces and designing a pilot project that would take food and agricultural waste collected on Mount Desert Island and use it to help produce the biofuel butanol, which could be used to power COA vehicles. “This would be a really sustainable way to keep waste from leaving the island and keep us from importing fossil fuel,” says Harris. “It could close the loop on the island.”
After completing Friedlander’s course in business planning, Harris and Bjerke plan to launch their project through COA’s sustainable business incubator. Known as the Hatchery, the incubator provides students with the office space and the resources to get their fledgling ventures, both for-profit and nonprofit, off the ground.
“What’s so wonderful about COA is that this is a place where you can teach it, and then you go do it,” says Friedlander. Adds Bjerke: “You learn how fun, and how hard, it can be to find real-life solutions, how much work and effort that requires.”
At Unity, helping students find sustainable solutions in their daily lives is Jesse Pyles’ job description. Which is why, on an overcast late fall day, Pyles and a group of freshmen stood outside a classroom building surveying a small mountain of garbage — twenty-four hours’ worth of crumpled papers, apple cores, and pizza boxes collected as part of a campus waste audit to help students understand just how quickly solid waste piles up, and to strategize about ways they can reduce, reuse, and recycle.
Facing Economic Challenges
Unity is a fascinating place to teach sustainability, says Pyles, because “our students represent a huge, diverse environmental spectrum.” With majors in everything from Conservation Law Enforcement to Captive Wildlife Care and Education, Unity famously attracts both “hunters and huggers,” which Mark Tardif, Unity’s associate director of communications, considers a distinct educational advantage. After college, he points out, students “will not have the luxury of walking into a room of individuals who feel passionately about wind power, or who even agree with [them] at all. Therefore, our curriculum encourages a 360-degree approach to environmental issues.”
Such skills could be essential in the current economy, when some argue that environmental regulations are stifling job growth.
It’s a familiar dichotomy, says Friedlander, but a false one. “One of the reasons we launched the Hatchery is to start businesses that will stay here,” he says. “What if we had a cluster of sustainable enterprises that formed in this area? It could really turn around the economy. It could change the whole region and become a model for other people to follow.”
A similar spirit underlies the University of Maine’s Sustainability Solutions Initiative (SSI). “The project recognizes that our state’s identity is inseparable from its natural resources and our future economic prosperity depends on our ability to distinguish what makes Maine so special,” then-Governor John Baldacci said when SSI was launched in 2009. “It’s important to our environment and our economic future.”
SSI’s central strategy, explains Research Project Director David Hart, is “to increase the ability of the University of Maine, the University of Southern Maine, and other Maine colleges and universities to help solve sustainability-related problems — that is, problems with interconnected economic, social, and environmental dimensions.”
During its first year of operation, SSI faculty teams met with business and industry leaders, state and local government officials, and representatives from a host of nongovernmental groups, and then drew up detailed proposals for a range of projects addressing urbanization, forest management, and energy independence. After review by outside experts, more than a dozen research projects have already been greenlighted.
The overarching goal, says Hart, is “to build partnerships,” to demonstrate that the economy and environment are allies, not enemies.
Bowdoin’s Phil Camill, for one, is optimistic. “I think there’s a lot of common ground, and that all sides can recognize the need for both a healthy environment and for jobs,” he says. “And increasingly they recognize that a healthy environment has the potential to really spur economic development in Maine."
- By: Beth Brosnan