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College in Vermont Sets Green Pace

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

Sterling College in "Green Mountain State" Provided Example/

By Declaring Climate Emergency, Taking Other Steps/

But Most Other Higher Education Institutions Still Lag Far Behind

Photo courtesy Sterling College (VT)

Each Wednesday, Sterling College students and faculty gather for a Community Meeting circle, as they did outside on this early-autumn day.

By Alfred Robert Hogan

Fourteen young climate activists asked in writing for United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres to declare a planet-wide climate emergency, on Wednesday 10 November 2021, during the UN COP 26 meeting in Scotland. Among them was Fridays For Future founder Greta Thunberg of Sweden, joined by young allies from the USA, India, the Marshall Islands, and other countries. While that formal legal petition remains pending, one important set of institutions with lots of activists present has been surprisingly under-targeted: colleges and universities.

Located in rural northern New England, private Sterling College is still one of only three of close to 4,000 US four-year higher education institutions, and only 19 out of tens of thousands of such places worldwide, to have formally declared a climate emergency. Ensconced upon 53 hectares in the countryside by the town of Craftsbury, in gently hilly north-central “Northeast Kingdom” Vermont, the 125-student campus calls itself “the leading voice in higher education for ecological thinking and action.” Its four environment-related majors are Ecology, Environmental Humanities, Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, and Outdoor Education, though custom-designed “green” majors can also be pursued. The college also offers a minor in “climate justice.”

Back on Tuesday 11 June 2019, then-Sterling President Matthew Derr put the college on record as declaring a climate emergency, essentially acting in sync with what the governing board had endorsed with its 10-year “strategic initiative” paper two months earlier, in April 2019. The process had begun at the behest of Sterling students, employees, and trustees in 2018. The climate emergency declaration document cited “climate change,” and damages caused by an “extractive economy,” such as soil degradation, water pollution, and industrial agriculture.

Beyond its climate emergency declaration, Sterling College has compiled an extensive track record of many good environmental practices other campuses would do well to emulate:

  • As of 2013, it became the third US higher education institution (and the first in New England) to divest from fossil fuels.

  • As of 2016, the campus derived 80 percent of its electricity from 11 solar power trackers.

  • Students themselves grow 30 percent of the food served on campus, using no chemical pesticides nor fertilizers.

  • Faculty and students use the college’s Green Bike Program to get around campus and into town on a fleet of shared bicycles.

  • Overall, under the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education’s Sustainability Tracking And Rating System (STARS)—which lets colleges and universities assess their sustainability performance—the college earned a Gold Rating, with its 2021 total score of 75.92 points ranking it among the top five higher ed institutions participating.

As Christina Goodwin, Sterling College’s vice president for advancement, explained, “This is what we do, so for us, it was not a stretch, it was a natural alignment.” The small private college, founded as a boarding high school for boys in 1958, expanded to being a junior college in 1983, and to a four-year undergraduate college as of 1997. Goodwin said, “Our mission has always been about environmental stewardship, saving land and open spaces, but that is now insufficient…Stewardship-- caring for and protecting nature--is no longer an adequate approach. The challenges we face require systemic change… I do think we all have obligations as part of nature… And higher education is not exempt from this.”

As to why so few colleges have followed, well, the Sterling example, Goodwin expresses some empathy, noting the vast array of majors at bigger institutions may complicate matters. Goodwin, herself a transplanted Maine native and 2002 Sterling graduate who majored in wildlife management and ecology, said, “At a place like Sterling, which has prioritized environmentalism since its very first foray into higher education, and as such it is a central part of our identity, we were well-primed for the climate emergency conversation. Unfortunately, without this collective understanding of the science and systems at play, I don't hold a high level of confidence we will see a voluntary transformation across higher education regarding the climate emergency--that is unless a radical policy shift forces the hand of higher education, by changing how goods are produced and consumed.”

The two other USA higher education institutions to declare climate emergencies so far are public Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven—with close to 12,000 students—back on Thursday 30 May 2019, prompted by pro-environment students and science faculty, and later on, public Auburn University in Alabama, with some 30,000 students. But so far worldwide, only 19 colleges and universities in Western Europe and the USA have formally declared climate emergencies: one in Scotland UK (Glasgow University, in the city where UN COP 26 took place); one in Wales UK (Bangor University); 10 in England UK; four in Spain; and those three in the USA. None are situated in the Most Affected People and Areas (MAPA) regions of the planet, sometimes called the Global South.

However, student activists have urged such declarations at other colleges, as Northern Arizona University students did in a climate march from their NAU campus to Flagstaff City Hall, on Friday 24 September 2021. They also suggested specific proposals that NAU could easily consider and adopt quickly (effective by Spring Semester 2022). But officials at NAU have yet to respond to, let alone act on, either on the climate emergency declaration demand or on these related ideas advanced by campus activists:

  • Divest all NAU investments—both endowment and pension funds—from fossil fuel corporations and other planet-destructive corporations (public NAU has not even transparently yet disclosed its fossil fuels investments).

  • Require all NAU undergraduate and graduate students to take a one-semester course on the climate crisis and 6th mass extinction.

  • Upgrade all meals and snacks served and foods sold on campus to vegan fare. (The international animal rights nonprofit PETA has accorded NAU an A+ rating for its vegan options in its cafeterias.)

Additional resources for those wanting to achieve college and university climate emergency declarations and take other "green" steps:

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