Sustainability Column: Positive Impact From Privilege


Making a serious environmental impact can start at Colgate.

As both the school year and my time at Colgate slowly come to a close, it feels appropriate to do a bit of reflecting on how sustainability has affected me in the last four years. As an Environmental Studies major, I have learned about sustainability through the lenses of ethics, environmental justice, philosophy and art. I’ve made videos, interned for the Office of Sustainability, created and implemented a policy for sustainable purchasing on Colgate’s campus and, once, picked up a battery from a puddle in a parking lot so I couldrecycle it.

But, at the end of the proverbial day, I still wonder if all of this has made an impact on Colgate’s campus. I do believe that Colgate students care about the future of our generation, and I think that most students have an awareness of how to be more responsible when it comes to resources. If you haven’t heard about recycling, turning off your lights or taking shorter showers, there’s a strong chance that you live under a rock.

Yet, at the same time, I wonder if Colgate students realize that these small things are representative of how desperately our generation needs to change the paradigm of our existence. Currently, we are in the midst of a mass extinction, losing 27,000 species per year including bacteria, plants and fungi. This is most notably due to habitat destruction in bio-diverse tropical rainforests. Sea levels continue to rise, and 2016 PBS estimates propose a maximum of three to four feet in the next 75 years. The income gap continues to widen, increasing the likelihood that vulnerable populations will more frequently experience weather events, food deserts and lack of access to education and healthcare. These global implications can be impossible to grasp, especially when we are ensconced in the colloquial “Colgate bubble.”

I continually struggle with how to balance my desire to consume with my responsibility to preserve, and I truly feel guilty about making unsustainable choices, like buying things I don’t need or flying across the country. For me, the way to reconcile my responsibility to the environment and the beings that share it comes down to choices.

As Colgate students, we are assailed with countless opportunities like job offers, fellowships, invitations to trips, class offerings and summer plans; the list is infinite. I would like to think, perhaps naively, that many Colgate students are conflicted about how to integrate sustainability into these choices: how do we accept opportunities deeply-seated within positions of privilege? With each choice that comes our way, we have the opportunity to build our resume and network, but we also have the chance to act in ways that better the lives of those around us. We can say yes to the chance to intern for a gasoline company and gain invaluable experience there, but in doing so, we benefit from companies that may be responsible for large-scale environmental degradation and human rights crises. While this is just one example, there are many ways in which these sorts of situations arise.

From one point of view, we can reject these positions of privilege and instead work from a grassroots agenda. For me, this has taken the form of giving up meat and fish and also acting as an advocate for sustainability through my positions as a member of Outdoor Education and as an intern for the Office of Sustainability. But taking a stance outside of the mainstream can also be alienating.

So, from the opposing point of view, I accept some of these privileged opportunities, and try to use my positions of power to do good. For example, I was able to go abroad, but chose to study colonization and conservation in the Caribbean by sailing across the Atlantic. In doing so, I dramatically decreased my carbon footprint while also conducting research on the effect of climate change on artisanal fishing. For me, this is what my understanding of sustainability has come down to: taking the alternative path when possible, but, when given incredible opportunities, consciously implementing them in what I see as a kind of ripple effect. Being honest with myself about the reasons that I am taking advantage of an opportunity, be it for fun, employment or education, helps me plan out how I can implement my experience in the future. While it isn’t always a one-to-one exchange, having this kind of purposeful consciousness has helped me to figure out how I can better integrate sustainability into my daily choices. In doing so, it comes down to a kind of balance that is, admittedly, nearly impossible to find. Quite possibly, this may be me just trying to have it all. But hey, isn’t that what Colgate students do best?