In big ways and small, college has gone green

Colby-Sawyer is setting an example

By Thomas C. Galligan Jr. / For the Monitor
August 1, 2010

Every fall, Colby-Sawyer students, faculty and staff celebrate Mountain Day by hiking to the top of Mount Kearsarge to enjoy the far-reaching views. Some of our community race to the top, effortlessly negotiating the trail; others take their time, and a few get there with the strong encouragement of friends.

Things look different from up there. One can see the true scale of the place we call home, looking down on pristine blue lakes in a sea of green foliage. My first Mountain Day as president of Colby-Sawyer, the air was so clear I could see Boston.

When I stand again on that rocky summit this fall, a new academic cycle just begun, my thoughts will no doubt drift even farther south to a place where I spent more than a decade and that lately has attracted the attention of the country and world: the Gulf Coast.

The April explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig claimed 11 human lives, and the destruction associated with the disaster has soaked into our consciousness like the oil still soaking the Gulf. The losses of animal life, income and oil are measured in dizzying numbers.

With this disaster, it's time the entire nation start climbing toward a clearer vision of how we obtain and consume energy, and begin a new cycle of learning what we can do to live more safely and sustainably.

Refining the balance between humankind and nature - sustainability - has been a topic of ongoing conversation and action at Colby-Sawyer. Starting today, Colby-Sawyer will be powered with green energy secured through the purchase of renewable energy certificates. This conscious change in the energy the college consumes immediately reduces our carbon emissions by 43 percent and moves us one step closer to our long-term goal of becoming a carbon-neutral campus by 2050. This goal was established in our student-created Climate Action Plan approved by the college board of trustees this spring.

Since we committed Colby-Sawyer in 2007 to reducing its global warming emissions and accelerating efforts to educate about ways to stabilize the earth's climate by signing the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment, a culture of concern for the environment and commitment to sustainability has taken root. GreenROUTES is a campus-wide, student-driven initiative with a mission to reduce Colby-Sawyer's environmental footprint; minimize waste; reduce the need and usage of gas, electricity, paper and food; and improve the quality and efficiency of buildings on campus. In 2006-07, environmental studies students conducted a campus sustainability assessment. In 2008-09, another group of students completed a greenhouse gas inventory and developed a comprehensive set of policy recommendations to reduce the college's carbon footprint. Both student reports served as a foundation for our Climate Action Plan.

A garden, but no trays

Sustainability projects are visible across campus and include - thanks to alumni support - an organic garden, a tree nursery and a sugaring operation. New high-performance windows, "tray-less" meals in the dining hall and other initiatives reduce energy demands and food waste, and we've switched from heating oil to propane. And we are not alone in New Hampshire's higher education community in taking steps to live more sustainable lives. Other college presidents could also write of their aspirations and accomplishments.

I am honored to say that the list of what we at Colby-Sawyer have accomplished is substantial, and the list of what we have still to do is more substantial yet, but working together we will navigate closer to environmental sustainability a step at a time, each one taking us to higher ground farther from future disasters like the one that has devastated our Gulf Coast.

This plan is a flexible document designed to guide the college toward two related visions: the quantitative achievement of climate neutrality and the qualitative embodiment of whole systems sustainability. It is about what we do and how we live. Implementation will require collaborative action across the college in six areas: energy; transportation; water and biodiversity; food; waste and consumption; and culture, curriculum and investment. Milestones along the way include a 50 percent reduction in emissions by 2015 and a 70 percent reduction by 2020.

While we flip the switch on green power today and dream about someday creating renewable energy on campus, we're taking other significant steps. Colby-Sawyer has hired a sustainability coordinator, and in July we opened our first LEED-certified building, which houses Windy Hill, a laboratory school that serves local families and enriches our academic programs.

(Thomas Galligan Jr. is the president of Colby-Sawyer College in New London.)