worms eyeview of green trees

Trading greenhouse gases for trees: Sewanee’s sustainability investments are not enough

Keegan Congleton   
Contributing Writer 

Environmentalism is not for the weak-willed. Despite years and years of growing environmental concern, it seems that delusion and greed is still more powerful than the simple truth that we must change. Our university is no different. Sara McIntyre is the campus’s sustainability coordinator and is determined to improve Sewanee’s sustainability. With her guidance, the school has reduced carbon emissions from 2008 by 36 percent and helped drastically reduce the food waste on campus. According to McIntyre, any food that isn’t eaten at McClurg is flash frozen and donated to the Community Action Committee to help fight hunger. 

The only wasted food is the food that is thrown away by students. McIntyre strongly supports the sustainability goals that Sewanee has committed to, but the remaining carbon emissions that the university pledged to eliminate will take even more resources and hard work that the university doesn’t seem willing to subsidize. She stated, “These reductions have been primarily done through energy reduction in construction.”  

McIntyre said that new construction was made more sustainable by using better insulation, salvaging building materials, and installing a central cooling system for all of the campus’s cold water, and described this as “low hanging fruit” for carbon emission reduction. Even these simple, efficient, and cost-effective programs have lost some support. LEED is a program widely used by private organizations to determine how environmentally friendly a building is. This program provides professional and reliable feedback so that buildings can meet certain verifiable standards. Their certification can be seen in some buildings such as Spencer and Snowden. McIntyre stated that until recently this company was used to consult on new construction, but to cut costs this program is no longer directly used. Now the university follows LEED standards, but without the unbiased consultation and lack of funding recent construction mostly falls short of their standards. 

Moving away from these investments in environmentally friendly construction and with fewer ways to limit the amount of energy used on campus, the next step is to invest in renewable energy for the university. It’s difficult to see how the university will do this without giving McIntyre and her team the resources they need. The issue isn’t just money though. It’s a lack of consistent support. She said that if sustainability was “seen as a main part of our identity then all other problems would be solved.” As it stands, sustainability is just another part of the university that is fighting for resources rather than a value that is being implemented in all of the university’s actions. This lack of consistent values can be seen through direct investments into coal and oil industries according to the university’s financial statements. This problem has a simple and immediate solution that would just mean transferring investments to something other than fossil fuels.

Often it is seen that environmentalism is more costly than simply ignoring the problem, but the university obviously understands the value of marketing itself as environmentally friendly. The carbon neutral goal is something that all prospective students hear on tours and is a focus of Sewanee’s webpage. It is clear with surprisingly little digging that these attempts to appeal to environmentalists do not represent the university’s actions. The removal of the surface level attempts at environmentalism that many companies have attempted often fail. If the university really wants to be seen as environmentally friendly they must be more vocal about these issues and commit to the values of the environmentalist movement. I can attest that students love to hear the ways that the school is doing its part to protect the environment and properly manage the domain that we are very lucky to have.

  Clare Harkins (C ’23), a senior and a director of the Green House says, “we are on our way but it’s not enough … there’s pushback at every step.” Which I think captures the feeling of most students. The goals that are set are great, but seem like they are being abandoned or losing momentum. If the remaining steps to carbon neutrality are going to be taken, the current support for the Office of Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability, or OESS,  won’t be enough. The next steps in McIntyre’s plan are to increase the university’s use of renewable energy and to utilize carbon sequestration and carbon credits to balance out the remainder of the university’s emissions. There are also many well thought out plans. One plan that she discussed is to harvest natural gas produced from the university’s remaining food waste and use it as a relatively low emission fuel source while also making compost. With extensive plans that comprehensively address Sewanee’s sustainability, the rest of the university just needs to follow through.

 Sewanee is also putting less money and attention towards environmental science related fields despite their growing popularity. According to Data USA,  the number of environmental science degrees awarded is growing at about 5 percent and natural resource and conservation is growing at about 3.02 percent with similar fields following this upward trend. This doesn’t sound like all that much, but when compared to the business degrees being rewarded sitting around 0.434 percent it is definitely significant. These degrees are going to be more and more important as companies are transitioning over to more sustainable practices and require consulting. With this incredible growth in environmental fields, Sewanee should take the opportunity to attract new students with the already amazing groundwork. Harkins says, “People come to Sewanee because of our domain and the opportunities that it offers.” I am one of those students and sometimes the lack of resources for sustainable practices is disappointing, but now I know it’s just not being voiced to the students and isn’t properly valued. 

Despite not having a business major, many students come to Sewanee to get the firsthand experience that the Carey Fellowship offers. Why then are there so few opportunities for students to get involved with sustainability? More programs like the Sustain Leaders could provide a big incentive for many prospective students if people were told more about them. At the very least, more of these kinds of programs would give students the opportunity to give back to the community and learn more about environmentalism. With the current action plans there is little involvement with the student body. Harkins stated that, “we have events planned to potentially help students understand what the carbon neutral plan is because I don’t even know if a lot of students know about that.” Which is a pretty big problem for a project that is meant to make students proud to be at Sewanee.

These problems exist because the Board of Regents and the Board of Trustees, who decide what projects to fund, use environmentalism as a means to market the school rather than improve Sewanee’s environmental impact and incorporate environmentalism into our culture. In the past they have rejected listening to the Socially Conscious club to shift the school’s investments away from fossil fuels and to utilize the domain for carbon sequestration and selling carbon credits instead of logging the forests. Harkins also mentioned the shrinking Earth Studies department as professors have retired. How can Sewanee market itself as a sustainable liberal arts college when it fails to provide a quality environmental studies education? With more support for the Earth Studies department and programs like the Sustain Leaders, the influx of young environmentalists could be a source of prospective students. Personally, I would love more opportunities to be involved in improving the sustainability of Sewanee as a means of getting hands-on experience and I know I’m not alone.