My final semester has gone by ridiculously fast. It has been a time of good-byes, a time of finishing things I started, and a time of giving a last push to making RPI more sustainable. This article is printed on the last day I shall be a club officer of either EcoLogic or the Student Sustainability Task Force; I have held a club officer position of at least one of those two environmental organizations almost four years.
Through these positions, I have come to believe that Rensselaer should be the leader when it comes to sustainability. We are not there. Last year, I authored the Sustainability Report 2014, available at http://poly.rpi.edu/s/k0rgj. While I was unable to get all the information I would have liked, the results from what I found are disappointing compared to other colleges such as Cornell University. Environmental problems such as climate change and pollution are issues that my generation will have to deal with. We need to be able to acquire the skills necessary to fix these problems; to change the world. These are complex issues that require scientists, policy makers, engineers, social scientists, designers, and more to fix. And we were making progress.
Starting immediately after most of my first semester classes finished, I decided to get more involved in sustainability at RPI. I planned Vasudha’s first-ever “Vasudha Reunion,” became Secretary of EcoLogic, attended Power Shift 2011 with around 30 other RPI students, and helped out a little with the Resident Students Association’s EcoHall Challenge. It was an exciting time—we were accomplishing our projects and raising awareness. I saw this in each of the organizations I was involved in—and heard about how well SSTF was doing (I had class at the same time as their meetings).
I’m still not sure what happened. I’ve heard a thousand explanations for it. But the involvement of the members of the Classes of 2013, 2014, 2015, and even 2016 were far less involved than the classes preceding them and following them (pat yourselves on the back, Class of 2018 especially; so many of you are so incredibly motivated, you make me sorry to graduate). In fall of 2011, at around the same time as the low involvement was becoming apparent, former Chief of Staff and Associate Vice President for Policy and Planning Laban Coblentz left RPI. This had a huge impact on sustainability; Coblentz was SSTF’s point of contact with all of the administration. SSTF’s numbers subsequently dropped to near-zero.
For the last three years since Coblentz left, we have tried to continue on our own. We have been frustrated at the lack of progress we have been able to make. Students who are at an institution for four years cannot develop the same kind of contacts and trust that someone in a permanent administrative position can. They do not have the same knowledge of how RPI works as someone more permanent. Lastly, students do not have a lot of time—we have classes, other activities, and jobs. The combination makes it difficult for us to get important sustainability projects implemented.
I firmly believe that two things are needed to ensure that Rensselaer becomes more sustainable. First, SSTF needs a designated contact high up in the administration to meet with regularly and to help with projects. Second, I believe we need an Office of Sustainability. A permanent staff person working hard to accomplish goals to make RPI more sustainable would be incredibly helpful. Several students, perhaps work-study students, working out of the office would be incredibly useful. The Sustainability Clearinghouse, found at http://sustainability.rpi.edu, should be regularly updated and could be a valuable resource for recruiting students to Rensselaer who care about environmental issues.
Again, RPI has so much potential. We pride ourselves on our research and on being ahead of other colleges. But we really are far behind when it comes to sustainability. And we don’t have much time. 2014 is likely to be the warmest recorded year; each year these days, just about, is warmer globally than the previous ones. I do not see a separation between Rensselaer and sustainability; our motto is “Why not change the world?” and what better change is there to make than to solve our environmental crises?