April 21, 2010

More Important Than Just One Day

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Forty years ago today, Cornell students, along with their peers across the nation, began to respond to a crisis that is still plaguing the world. The first steps were small, tentative explorations into an overwhelmingly large issue — students participated in teach-ins and seminars to learn more about the environment.

Today, Cornell’s environmentalism is more action-oriented, and necessarily so. Education and raising awareness are important first steps — helping people understand the magnitude of a problem that can appear so minute — but the Earth needs more. It needs action on the individual and institutional level. And to counteract the damage humans have already caused to our planet, we need more than just one day of education and recycling. We need a culture of sustainability.

Creating a culture of sustainability requires individuals to make environmentally-conscious lifestyle choices on a day-to-day basis. As cash-strapped, stressed-out college students, it is often difficult to meet this imperative. It is easier to toss that beer bottle in the garbage can than it is to figure out what day recyclables are picked up; it is faster to buy a bottle of water at Libe Cafe than it is to search the bowels of Olin for a water fountain. And while asking college students to spend a little more time and energy making green choices is probably not too much of a reach, students can still satisfy their environmental responsibilities by simply pressuring large institutions (like Cornell) to move toward sustainability. One person’s pressure on these institutions to make small, sensible changes can help the environment more than a lifetime of diligently turning off lights and drinking tap water.

Cornell’s environmental track record is already admirable. We eat locally grown beef in University dining halls. We live and learn in green buildings. Even this year’s Slope Day will feature an environmentally oriented theme as part of Drake’s Campus Consciousness Tour. Cornell’s ambitious but realistic Climate Action Plan aims for the University to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050.

But as the University reconfigures itself under tighter financial constraints, it is important for students, faculty and community members alike to demand and expect Cornell to continue its move toward sustainability. In the coming months and years the University will undoubtedly make a number of decisions that have serious environmental repercussions (none bigger than the potentially lucrative but environmentally dubious decision to lease land for hydrofracking). To ensure that Cornell continues to make these decisions with an eye toward sustainability, activists of all stripes must keep an eye on the University and its environmental footprint.