April 25, 2007

Former N.J. Gov Pushes Campus Sustainability

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The Sun sat down yesterday with Christine Todd Whitman, former administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and former governor of New Jersey to discuss college students’ impact on the environment.
The Sun: What brings you to Cornell, and what have you enjoyed about your experience here?
Christine Whitman: I went to the Ornithology lab yesterday, and that was just fascinating. I’ve been to Cornell before, and it’s just fascinating the work the lab is doing with animals and animal sounds. I’ve met with the head of [the College of] Architecture Art and Planning, and talked about some of the innovative things that are going on. I particularly enjoy spending time with students, because you never know what the questions are going to be and this is a very bright, engaged campus, with some very good, thoughtful people. So it has been fun to be able to spend some more time here than I did the last time I was here.
Sun: You’ve been interested in the environment before it became trendy and politicians and celebrities jumped on the “green” bandwagon. How did you become interested in the environment and involved in environmental causes?
Whitman: I grew up on a farm, so you are outdoors a lot, you understand the changes in nature, and the interrelationship of the eco-systems, you see that on a daily basis on a farm.
And I had parents who were very committed to the outdoors; we spent a lot of time outdoors whenever we could.
And getting more sophisticated about it, you take a state like New Jersey and you watch the farms disappear. You see housing developments where there used to be woods. You get a sense and understanding of the pressure, and it becomes more critical to take some action.
Sun: In your talk yesterday you discussed climate change; do you think this is the most pressing environmental issue affecting Americans today?
Whitman: I think climate change is very pressing, but one that’s less spoken about and more pressing is water, specifically quantity and quality.
Climate change clearly is the “it” issue of the day, and it’s an important one, where we need to start taking action now to prevent further degradation of the environment.
The really serious impacts are down the road a bit, whereas with water, those serious impacts are occurring right now. Not just in other places around the world, although clearly in other places around the world, but here in the West, and in the Midwest.
Here in the Northeast our infrastructure for water and sanitary sewer septic are so old that they’re leaking.
We’re wasting water, we’re polluting things that shouldn’t be polluted, and the price tag is enormous. We’ve got to get smart about it, we’ve got to take it seriously and understand water isn’t free.
Sun: What do you suggest college students do to get involved in helping to solve these environmental problems?
Whitman: Well one of the thing you can do is educate yourselves, and then take that out to the community at large.
Try to help the public understand that what you drink isn’t just what falls out of the sky. The water system has an infrastructure, it has chemicals that need to be used to purify the water, these are things that cost money.
And it has pipes to deliver the water, and the pipes are old and they need to be replaced, and that costs money. And so people have to understand that they are going to have to pay a price for clean water.
And they have to understand that their actions, when they go out and plant their grass seed and fertilize their lawn, if they put too much fertilizer on their lawn, that’s going to get washed away.
And that’s going to end up in a storm drain, and that empties into a stream or a river, or a lake, or along the shore, and that’s what’s causing the bulk of our pollution.
So it’s what we do individually, and educating people about that, and their relationship to the environment, it’s a tough one.
Sun: In your speech yesterday you said: “Leaders in both the environmental and business community have seen that responsible environmental stewardship can reap benefits for all.” What type of benefits are you alluding to, beside the obvious environmental ones?
Whitman:Primarily economic. From a business point of view they are discovering that if they take a good hard look at their production methodologies, many of them are finding that they can eliminate problematic chemicals. They are finding that they can be more efficient in their production line in ways that save them money as well as help the environment by reducing emissions. It helps the public that lives near them, because you have a cleaner environment. So it really helps everybody for the long term.
Sun: You said yesterday that “small actions, when taken together, can have a huge impact,” such as people buying products that have received the Energy Star, and are thus better for the environment. What other “small actions” would you suggest to college students, besides looking out for these products?
Whitman: Well, how you get around; if you can carpool, do it. If you can bike to where you are going, that’s even better. You don’t need to run the water the entire time you are brushing your teeth. And all that really makes a difference. Looking for Energy Star products is important too, but you know what, when you’re not charging your cell phone, or your Ipod, or your Blackberry, unplug the charger. Because every minute that’s plugged into the main electrical source, there is power [being drawn]. And that’s an easy one, I would never suggest to people that they should go unplug their televisions and all, that’s over the top and people aren’t going to do that. But unplugging their charger is a pretty easy thing to do.
Sun: Any last words or thoughts to share with the students of Cornell?
Whitman: Well I’ve been enormously impressed with their level of sophistication and interest in these issues. And I just hope that they continue that focus and are willing to spend a little time to figure out how to communicate that to the public at large. Because the average person doesn’t have the time that you’ve had to think about these things. And yet, the average person is very much impacted by what’s going on, and we need to be able to help them to understand that.