OP-ED: Dissecting sustainability

Lauren Olson, First-Year and ASWC Sustainability Committee Member

Before arriving on campus, I was already intimidated by what I had heard about Whitman’s environmental culture. Whitman has the reputation of being a sustainability-minded school. For me, someone with limited knowledge in this area, knowing where to start was daunting to say the least. 

As a child, I was taught that simple actions like recycling and walking to school are important ways to care for the environment. As I got into high school, I started to learn about environmentalism, but I never got involved in environmental activism. I never took action.

Taking action was intimidating. I didn’t feel that I had enough knowledge or experience. The impact that one person could make didn’t seem to matter much. In the past, I avoided internal guilt with small forms of personal action, as many of us do, but now I’m realizing how important it is to unpack that form of environmentalism. While these little steps can make a difference, they are limited to those with the privilege of choice. 

In this form, sustainability work isn’t for everyone. Picture the folks who collect Hydroflasks, use metal straws and buy fair trade chocolate bars. With them, a certain stereotype comes to mind – one that fits well with the Whitman brand. This vision of an “environmentalist” is problematic, and for good reason: these avenues of action are fundamentally inaccessible

Sustainability of the Earth and all its people should be a pressing concern to everyone; the privileged mask that sustainability wears is incredibly dangerous. Cliches are abundant and threaten to reduce meaningful environmental work as something that is only for the white and privileged. Sustainability isn’t about Patagonia and recycled yoga mats. It’s about the way we produce, consume and dispose in a finite world. Sustainability isn’t about stopping global warming so you can have a 12-week ski season. It’s about stopping global warming to prevent drought, famine and the worst refugee crisis the world has ever seen. Sustainability isn’t about preserving a lifestyle of excess. It’s about preserving life itself. 

Social justice and sustainability go hand in hand because sustainability is crucial to the future of marginalized groups. Vulnerable, oppressed groups all over the world will bear the brunt of climate change’s harmful effects.

The UN released a report in 2016 about the disparities that exist between different populations in terms of the impact climate change can make. The report noted that “Governments can play a significant role in reducing the risks of climate change to vulnerable populations” but their “failure… to close the development gaps… leave large population groups at risk.” Recognizing the power that an educated vote or active protest has is important in starting to rethink the way we approach sustainability work. 

The looming consequences of environmental abuse will affect everyone, but not equally. The effects of climate change are already visible in the Western world; we see more severe wildfire seasons and stronger tropical storms every year. Consider that the effects from climate change here are nothing compared to what is felt in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Models predict that millions of lives will be lost in the coming decades due to famine, drought, flooding, illness and geopolitical conflict caused by climate change – and almost none of them in the West. It’s reasonable to feel powerless, or that your individual actions are futile, but we have reached the point where it should not keep you from getting involved. Think about the resources you have: your vote, your voice and purchasing power.

Hydroflasks can only get us so far…