Earth Day necessitates broader discussion of accountability

Earth Day traditionally encourages individuals to demonstrate their support for environmental protection, from recycling in their own homes to raising collective consciousness on the reality of climate change. On this most recent Earth Day, however, President Trump in-stead lauded his administration’s reduction in federal environmental protections. A statement released by the White House Office of the Press Secretary read, “We know that it is impossible for humans to flourish without clean air, land, and water. We also know that a strong, market-driven economy is essential to protecting these resources. For this reason, my Administration is dedicated to removing unnecessary and harmful regulations that restrain economic growth and make it more difficult for local communities to prosper and to choose the best solutions for their environment” (HuffPost, “Trump Celebrates Earth Day By Praising Rollback Of Environmental Protections,” 04.22.2018).

Despite being comically contradictory to a common understanding of the holiday, this message likely did not surprise anyone who has been paying attention to the actions of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during Trump’s presidency. Though the EPA was established in 1970 by Richard Nixon, a Republican president, climate change has since become a polarizing issue that divides many along party lines. One divisive figure in this debate is Trump’s EPA Director, Scott Pruitt, who is considered the position’s most conservative appointee in decades (The Washington Post, “Trump has picked the most conservative EPA leader since 1981. This one will face much less resistance,” 12.13.2016).

Pruitt was also a vocal opponent of the EPA before Trump’s presidency—he has personally sued the EPA over a dozen times—and since his appointment has announced plans to roll back most of the last decade’s significant environmental regulations. Pruitt also claims that there is no proven connection between carbon dioxide emissions and climate change (The New Yorker, “How Do You Celebrate Earth Day When Scott Pruitt Is Still at the E.P.A.?” 04.22.2018). Of course, contrary to Pruitt’s actions and Trump’s rhetoric, climate change is caused by carbon emissions, and the leading polluters are the very institutions that would benefit from weakened environmental regulations. In fact, 100 companies—most prominently ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Chevron—have been the source of the vast majority of carbon emissions in the last few decades (The Guardian, “Just 100 companies responsible for 71% of global emissions, study says,” 07.10.2017).

These corporations, which typically produce the largest masses of waste, are often lauded for their performative, yet minimal, environmental efforts. In the 1980s, the term “greenwashing” was coined to describe a company that poses as a friend of the environment while actively engaging in environmentally unsustainable practices in order to protect and expand its markets (Scientific American, “How Can Consumers Find Out If a Corporation Is ‘Greenwashing’ Environmentally Unsavory Practices?”). The term remains highly relevant today: Nestlé claims that its bottled water is good for the planet when, in fact, only about 31 percent of its plastic bottles end up recycled, which translates to millions of tons of garbage every year, much of which ends up in landfills or the ocean (The Guardian, “The troubling evolution of corporate greenwashing,” 08.20.2016). We as consumers must remain skeptical of big corporations that will do anything to appeal to their customer bases.

While tackling environmentally conscious consumer practices on a large scale might seem intimidating, equally daunting is addressing sustainability on an institutional and individual level as college students. Vassar’s Office of Sustainability has in recent years strived to make the College’s building practices more sustainable. Efforts in recent years have included making the renovation of Sanders Physics and New England in 2014 eligible for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, as well as the construction of the Bridge for Laboratory Sciences; working to make campus events such as Founder’s Day and house-related programming less wasteful; providing compost bins to more than 60 TA, TH and SoCo units; and run-ning the recent House Energy Challenge. Environmental efforts at Vassar extend beyond the administrative level as well. Some projects outside of the Office of Sustainability include the Community Solar Project and the student-run Vassar Solar initiative, both of which President Bradley discussed in her email on April 22. In addition, a series of Earth Week events aimed at fostering environmental consciousness among students began on April 18 and will continue through April 27.

However, Vassar students and the College have substantial ecological footprints, despite efforts to limit energy and resource consumption. It would be useful to have a consolidated source of information on sustainability to which students could turn to find out more about what they can specifically do on campus on a day-to-day basis to ameliorate the environmental crisis, as well as what progress is being made on campus as a whole. The College could take small actions to reduce our footprint, such as placing compost bins outside of dining facilities. Finally, we should make an effort to simply switch off the lights when we are not in our rooms, and not to waste food. When we are not directly responsible for paying electricity bills or purchasing individual food items, it can be easy to waste both commodities and fail to consider the nonmonetary—and more devastating—costs of our actions. Although the sustainability challenge has ended and the Earth Week events are drawing to a close, we ought to remain environmentally conscious for the other 51 weeks of the year—in our individual actions, on the Vassar campus as a whole and on a national and global scale. Af-ter all, we are denizens of this earth not just on Earth Day, but every day.

–– The Staff Editorial expresses the opinion of at least 2/3 of The Miscellany News Editorial Board.

Correction: Last week’s Staff Editorial incorrectly identified Dean of the College Christopher Roellke as having led the the Intensives Curriculum discussion; in fact, it was led by Professor of Education Christopher Bjork.

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