Reflections on Converging Environmental Minds

Around 8:30am on Saturday morning, I received a phone call and subsequent text from a student at West Chester University. “We’re sorry,” she said “but one of our drivers is worried about black ice so we will be unable to attend the retreat.” Despite my best efforts to convince her the weather would be fine, sunny in fact, I knew my encouragement was a lost cause. This phone call was the final note in a weeklong symphony of cancellations, apologetic e-mails, and last minute scheduling issues. When all was said and done students from Dickinson, Lycoming, West Chester, and Franklin & Marshall had cancelled just days before inaugural Student Environmental Retreat was supposed to take place. I was depressed.

Josh Hooper, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Environmental Resource Consortium (PERC), was extremely sympathetic over the phone. He had heard about the event just a week before the actual date and wished PERC could have helped to advertise and publicize the event. To my surprise, after our conversation he did in fact put up a description of the event on the main page. HIs enthusiasm and support of my idea helped lessen the blow of the ever decreasing number of participants. I promised, should the event not be canceled, that we would speak again on ways this event could occur in the future.

In total, we had 11 students and 3 faculty participate from Bucknell University, Susquehanna University, and Gettysburg University. I cannot thank these individuals enough for providing the retreat with positive energy, innovation ideas, and overall support throughout our time together. I also want to thank Erika Staaf, Bucknell alum and PennEnvironment employee, who drove 3 hours in the snow to present an informational workshop on campaigning and volunteer retainment strategies as the wrap up discussion on Saturday night. Without each of these wonderful participants, I know the success of the event would be minimal at best. At night, when the Gettysburg students and myself were sitting in front of the fireplace making s’mores, I remember feeling incredibly lucky that such a kind and intelligent group was willing to partake in my crazy event.

The conversation was organized into various environmental topics: recycling, food, economic funding, green roofs/gardens, housing options and community initiatives. Each of the schools had a program in a couple categories and we spent the majority of the time presenting our ideas and discussing the feasibility of such projects on other college campuses. Gettysburg has two theme-houses, Farmhouse and Local Lovin’, that work to include sustainability and a connection to their local community through shared living. Susquehanna had its own Sustainability Committee and sub-committee with students creating and implementing various projects on campus. Bucknell students discussed the green roof, native plant garden, and campus-wide recycling audit. And these are only a handful of the numerous projects presented. Each student and faculty member had her hand in one or two new and exciting initiatives that other schools wanted to try out.

We also found that members at Susquehanna and Gettysburg faced similar challenges to those at Bucknell. Participants commented on feelings of apathy and lack of interest from their campus as a whole, both in the student body and administration. Not all members of Facilities, Dining, and the University administration were always as open to policy changes in the name of sustainability. Katherine Straub, a professor at Susquehanna, spoke about the feeling of deprivation she believes many individuals fear when they hear about environmental projects. They don’t want to be cold (turning down thermostat), stuck in the dark (conserving energy), and smelly (taking shorter showers). For the student groups on campus, a lack of commitment and dedication was a common theme. One Gettysburg student said, “There’s this bubble of environmentally aware people on campus. How can we pop this bubble?” This is a major part of the environmental debate. The majority of environmentally aware individuals are not radical hippies or angst-ridden vegan organic farmers. Most of us just want the general population to understand their relationship to the earth and take a moment to ponder the impact each of us will leave behind. The call for increased awareness and appreciation of our world is a celebrate of ourselves not a confinement of human rights and basic necessities.

Kathy Straub wrote me a short e-mail accompanying her survey about the retreat. It read,

“And thanks to you for organizing the retreat!  I enjoyed it immensely and left very rejuvenated and ready to dig back into our sustainability work at Susquehanna.”

Sometimes all you need is human confirmation that your fight is not yours alone but a larger presence fought by others, unknown to you. Environmental battles or not, I think each of us can relate to the encouragement found when a stranger confirms what you know to be true. That your fight is worthwhile after all.

The final report will be posted on Scribd in 1-2 weeks. I will attached the weblink for anyone who wants more specifics on the retreat conversation and discussion.

Less Meat and More Questions

It’s been just over 5 months since I’ve embarked on my vegetarian quest. While this may not be particularly impressive to many, it is my personal record regarding non-meat eating and this record gets longer with each passing day. Frustration, not cravings, remind me of my new diet plan when everything appetizing on a dinner menu contains beef pieces or chicken broth. And I find this thought interesting. If a vegetarian eats meat, does he or she have to start from scratch? Do “true” vegetarians frown upon those who sneak the occasional spare rib or chicken wing?

Jonathan Safran Foer’s book Eating Animals attempts to wrestle with these issues on a larger scale. The book idea originated with the author’s desire to know what meat really was, a question not dissimilar from my own. Foer does not lecture or preach the benefits of vegetarianism, mostly because he is still unsure of exactly what it means to be part of the meat producing/selling/buying/cooking/eating industry.

[Eating animals] is a slippery, frustrating, and resonant subject. Each question prompts another, and it’s easy to find yourself defending a position far more extreme than you actually believe or could live by. Or worse, finding no position worth defending or living by (pg 13-14).”

Maybe eating or not eating meat is not so black and white. Foer himself cycled through periods of vegetarianism throughout his life, trying to find the meaning to life’s simple dinner plate. One of my geology professors, while munching on an egg salad sandwich, openly admitted that he was entering into yet another period of meat-free eating. His vegetarian lifestyle ebbs and flows as a ocean tide as opposed to a concrete and unyielding definite. The woman who interviewed me for the Bucknell magazine had been a vegetarian for six years as a young adult when on September 11th, 2001 she ate a large cheeseburger as a statement of patriotism. “I must have drank a gallon of peppermint tea afterward, I was so afraid I would be sick,” she commented. And while she does eat meat, this woman continues to be a very conscious consumer of healthy options, lamenting the lack of vegetarian options at restaurants in central Pennsylvania.

Some of my vegetarian friends are truly pescatarian or those who eat fish or any other living thing that lives in the sea. No tuna or mackerel I’ve talked to relishes in the idea that they are not included in the “meat” category. I myself eat tuna fish sandwiches now and then, wondering if I’m breaking some kind of unwritten vegetarian code. It’s much easier to pass judgement on those who devour meat constantly if you yourself are a 100% vegetarian 100% of the time. But should judgement be a factor in our decision to abstain from animal flesh entirely? I’m only left with questions.

I think we should embrace those who eat differently than we do. I have never tried to force my Muslim friend to chow down on a hunk of bacon and don’t frown upon my roommate for refusing dairy products due unfortunate bowel reactions. There is nothing wrong with my neighbor’s younger brother eating potato bread due to an extreme gluten allergy. And so there is also nothing wrong with a person who abstains from or indulges in meat consumption as long as he or she is making a conscious decision to eat in that way. Humanity is defined in terms outside of right and wrong and so, it seems, are our food choices.