Reconsidering Sustainability

Dana Walden, Opinion Columnist

A few weeks ago, the Wire published a letter written by a former Whitman student, Vivian Voth, in which Voth details why she left Whitman. In her view, the college is not as sustainable as it could be, and such inaction warranted her transfer. Voth places most of the Whitman community’s apathy on the college, arguing that the absence of student support is “due to the lack of funding and difficulty in gaining support for any initiatives from the administration.” I am not here to argue with Voth; on the contrary, I completely agree with her, but I think the issue goes deeper than an institutional unwillingness to encourage sustainability. I think the issue lies in our students.

Everyone is always doing something at Whitman, or at least that’s what it feels like. Ask a Whittie what their “cause” is, and they will likely have an answer. Whether your thing is getting out the vote or working with green dot to combat sexual assault, you’re sure to be involved in something… I mean, it’s Whitman. There is a common conception on campus that if you aren’t actively working against the system, whatever system that may be, you aren’t doing enough. This is not necessarily a bad or inaccurate understanding of agency; the problem arises, however, when students claim, or feel the need to claim, they are an activist on campus, even when they’re not.

There is a certain kind of social pressure at Whitman associated with activism. Whitties are largely known to be hyper-involved in their communities, and when they’re not, they feel a sense of alienation and lack of belonging to the campus community. In order to avoid the loss of social capital that comes with the impression of inaction, students are all but required to appear politically and socially engaged. This is what I understand to be the undercurrent of our sustainability issue here at Whitman.

An overwhelming number of students claim to be involved in sustainability efforts on campus. Given how underrepresented and paltry our sustainability program is, though, I am sure that many, if not most, of these students are using sustainability as a cop-out. It is easy to say you are “sustainable” without having to back it up in some way. In fact, I’m not quite sure there is a consensus at Whitman of what sustainability even means. The word itself is vague, and the identity attached to it is even more convoluted. Being “sustainable” can mean anything; as long as you’re not caught walking back from Safeway with plastic bags, your character is safe from being called into question. I can understand why sustainability is used by many to adopt an activist persona: it’s quick, it’s easy and it lends itself to the want of personal accountability.

I am not absolving those who are inactive of any sort of blame, if there is any blame that should be placed on them. I am also not writing to call these students out, because by all intents and purposes, I am one. I am not even suggesting that everyone on campus gets involved in the sustainability program, because most of us don’t have the time or desire to do so. Rather, I aim to provide an explanation to a problem we are facing, in the hopes that those who are willing to put the work in will step up, or those reluctant to make change will step down. Either way, we’ve got to step somewhere.