Activism and Initiative: Getting Closer to Sustainability

by Sherrie Kelly

David Smith
Caeleigh Warburton

March 7, 2014

While practical knowledge and critical discussion are important components of the Sustainability Semester, the nine of us have acknowledged a need for the group to push and develop our actual practice of this information further.  Activism is often understated as a component to the definition of environmentalism, but it is equally important for us to be active and implement sustainable practices into everyday life as it is for us to be environmentally literate.  As students on the Sustainability Semester, we have the unique opportunity to put our beliefs and values to practice under the guidance of peers, professors, and various players in the environmental movement, an aspect of the Sustainability Semester that featured prominently this past week.

Alternative Energy was the focus of a recent Sustainability Studies class.  We were fortunate to host a panel of specialists from various alternative energy fields such as solar, wind, and hydro.  Omay Elphick, the director of power marketing for Gravity Renewables, shared with us his various past projects and how implementing renewables has evolved over the past few years as technology and regulations have changed in response to interest in green energy. After giving us an informative overview of the basics of solar, Scott Shipley of Northern Lights Energy, showed us how he does a solar assessment using the Sustainability House as an example.  Finally, Everett Smith, who owns a hydro plant in St. Regis Falls, explained the complexities of the electricity market and how small producers are often at a disadvantage when it comes to policy.

Because renewable energy represents a relatively small and new component of energy production, it has many challenges to overcome, especially in terms of shaping regulations and policy to work in its favor.  Omay, Scott, and Everett made this abundantly clear.  What was common to each of these men was a strong initiative to persist in shaping these regulations and policies.  This trend suggests to us that in the realm of alternative energy and certainly other fields relevant to attaining sustainability, success requires relentless ambition, ingenuity, and initiative.  So we must have just those qualities.

Contrary to what one might think, the Sustainability House is not yet the epitome of sustainability.  It is not powered by renewable energy, it is not super insulated, and it does not utilize passive solar construction, elements that are often considered essential in a sustainable house.  The Sustainability House is a recently renovated old farmhouse, which presents the sort of realistic challenges faced by most homeowners who don’t have the luxury of building from scratch.  While the Sustainability House is far from perfect, it does allow us to practice taking the kind of initiative demonstrated by Omay, Scott, and Everett.  It starts with the small things like caulking the windows to stop the drafts and letting up the shades on the south side of the house, but ultimately it is our responsibility to learn how we can make this old farmhouse more sustainable and then figure out how to take action. 

This kind of initiative is not limited to our coursework and how it relates to improving the Sustainability Semester site.  David Smith has adopted the unofficial role of organizing trips to attend environmental conferences and protests.  This past weekend he orchestrated a detailed itinerary accounting for transportation, lodging, and meals for St. Lawrence students attending the student-led dissent in Washington to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline and encourage President Obama to live up to his political rhetoric.  The number of Sustainability Semester participants grew steadily throughout the week, starting with just a handful of students until nearly the entire house was prepared with homemade signs displaying catchy slogans and sensational artwork of a skeleton guzzling oil out of a five-gallon gas can.  All the details were set in place, housing was covered, money was withdrawn from the bank, almond butter and jelly sandwiches were prepared, and everyone’s daypack was sitting by the front door.  What could go wrong?

Unfortunately, as winter storm Titan threatened to whip across the country, the overlap of the ice storm with our homeward bound route led many of us to the difficult decision to not play the game of chance with Mother Nature.  A few of the more daring Sustainability Semester eco-warriors decided to brave the weather and continue on with the journey to Washington D.C. 

On March 2nd 2014, our housemates marched from George Washington University, the place where President Obama gave his climate speech, down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House with over 1,000 other college students from up and down the east coast.  They stood in solidarity with hundreds of others fighting for their futures and to show President Obama that they stand as a collegiate militia to support him when he rejects the Keystone XL pipeline.  We applaud our housemates for taking the initiative to be such active participants in an issue about which we, as a group, are quite passionate. 

As spring break approaches, many of us contemplate how we should continue taking the initiative to use our acquired knowledge and passions to make changes at home.  David plans to sit down with his parents to plan for their garden this summer and order seeds.  Jamie is looking into composting methods that will suit her family’s needs.  Caeleigh looks forward to continuing her relentless campaign for a family milk goat.  Others are eager to share their new insights on energy efficiency measures that can reduce the environmental impact of home appliances and incentives for installing solar arrays.  We are all eager to apply what we have learned so far on the Sustainability Semester as we have discovered that sustainability isn’t waiting for someone else to come up with the answers.  It’s about taking the initiative to put our knowledge to work and actively advocating for the world we would like to see.

pic 1 - Recently installed thermal curtains for our dining room window.
pic 2 - Sustainability semester house withstanding a cold winters day.
pic 3 - Student march down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House to urge President Obama to reject the pipeline.
pic 4 - Students marching down Pennsylvania Avenue for the XL Dissent protest.