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Preserving a Changing Earth

They’re everywhere: in our classrooms, by sidewalks, even in the dorms. Recycling bins are taking over our campus. These paper, plastic and aluminum receptacles have been popping up all over the place, and really, it’s an indication that MSU is taking the phrase “Go Green” to a whole new level.
In September 2000, a group of concerned faculty members received a three-year grant from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) to take action on campus to help the environment. When the grant expired, MSU trustees agreed to keep financing the group: this move resulted in the creation of the Office of Campus Sustainability (OCS).
But it’s not only the environment that the OCS is concerned with. “Sustainability is about long-term perspectives – environmental, social, and economic,” OCS Director Terry Link said. The goal of sustainability is to ensure a livable world in the future by conserving and managing resources today.
Many things the OCS does aren’t easy to see. One of the first actions with the grant was changing the light bulbs in campus buildings to be more energy-efficient by installing compact fluorescent bulbs and motion sensors. Quick switches of a light bulb cut carbon dioxide emissions drastically and save loads of valuable energy.
MSU’s commitment to doing little things, like changing light bulbs, paid off last September when it was named a campus sustainability leader by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. MSU was one of four schools, along with Middlebury College and Green Mountain College, both in Vermont, that were recognized for their dedication to sustainability in administration, education, research, and actions. MSU accomplished this by having the least emissions per square feet of building, incorporating hybrid vehicles into the university’s fleet of cars and serving fair-trade coffee in the cafeterias and coffeehouses, among other things. MSU also has a campus-wide recycling program and works to reach out to the community. OCS invites guest speakers to campus to inform students, faculty and community members about various issues related to the future of the world.
Other colleges are starting to do their part as well, according to the association’s report. The University of California at Berkeley received an honorable mention for the award because of its goal to reduce emissions to 1990 levels. Closer to home, the University of Michigan is pitching in to the sustainability cause by maintaining a recycling program and having the greenest fleet of passenger vehicles of all U.S. universities: 87 percent used alternative fuels in 2006.
But organizing projects like these for MSU’s 46,000-student, 5,192-acre campus isn’t an easy thing to do.
“The size of the system creates a challenge,” Link said. For example, MSU used about 2.8 million eggs last year, but all those eggs can’t come from Michigan farmers, so money and energy needs to be spent to get them here. Sustainability actions seek to meet the challenge of getting needed materials to MSU with maximum input to the economy, but minimum impact on the environment.
Global warming has put the environmental protection aspect of sustainability at the forefront. “Global climate change is a scientific fact,” Stuart Gage, a professor of natural resources, said. “There are significant patterns of warming with strong evidence of human impact. There’s evidence in this all over – birds are migrating earlier, insects like Japanese beetles that have never been in Michigan are showing up.” [gage]
Now more than ever, many students are beginning to notice the seriousness of the climate changing. “I definitely think that global warming is a problem,” interior design freshman Kelsey Blakkan-Strauss said. “I think if the ice caps melt, it won’t directly affect Michigan like it will Florida, but it will be felt somehow.”
The loss of coastal land is just one of a wide array of problems that may occur if sustainability is ignored. Researchers predict the future holds melting ice caps, overpopulation and economic decline.
While MSU students are beginning to accept the reality of the issue, taking action and changing their lifestyles can often be the most difficult part of being “green.” Issues like climate change, use of natural resources and land use are significantly related to sustainability, but getting students to realize their impacts, and motivate them to reduce it, isn’t always easy.
“I recycle and pick up litter,” Blakkan-Strauss said. “But it’s not like I go around picking up trash as a hobby.”
The main issue the sustainability cause faces is awareness of the ecological choices that students make everyday. “Some people care, others just don’t give a hoot,” Link said. “The question we have to ask is, ‘Are we graduating students who understand what their choices mean?'”
It’s not easy to get most students to look at their ecological impact 50 years from now – most of them are focused on their test next Wednesday or the big game on Saturday. “Generally, there is a lack of knowledge, that environmental and economical effects don’t effect everyone,” said sociology junior Skye Black. “There’s a feeling of invincibility – most people don’t see what’s happening on earth, so they don’t think it will effect them.” However, some organizations, like Be (Spartan) Green, are trying to raise awareness on campus and inform students on how they can help.
The Be (Spartan) Green campaign has put posters up around campus and has a Web site with features to teach students how to be more environmentally friendly. The basis of the campaign is to get students and faculty to “think, act, live” green everywhere.
“What you’re seeing around campus is the beginning of communication of what we’ve been doing,” said Jennifer Sowa, project coordinator in the office of the vice president for finance & operations and environmental stewardship communications team leader. The Be (Spartan) Green program is more than the ads you see around campus, they’ve been studying students habits when it comes to things like how much food they waste and recycling. “We want to reduce input to the campus and reduce harmful output from campus.”
Another initiative, Residential Initiative for Studies of the Environment (RISE), works to breed awareness among students about the sustainability issue. Students from all majors can be in RISE, a residential option in Hubbard Hall. Along with dorming together to promote sustainable living, they also take classes that allow them to graduate with an Environmental Studies specialization. Black is also a member in the RISE program and feels strongly about the issue. “When I think about sustainability, the word balance comes to mind.” Black said. “There should be a balance between what we take from the earth and what we put back in. Right now, it’s very unbalanced.”
When it comes down to it, sustainability is an evolving idea, one that continues to develop as more information becomes available. “There are more questions than answers,” Link said. We’re unsure of all the problems, and even more unsure of how to solve them. Since there’s no way to track exactly how much each person impacts the world, there’s no easy way to show what the problems are. Without that instant gratification, people are not easily drawn to care about sustainability. It’s no small wonder when you consider that it’s based on getting people to turn lights off and understand fair-trade practices in Africa.
Seeing as there is no specific path to creating a sustainable environment, finding support for such a long-term project can be a challenge. Though MSU was awarded for its efforts in sustainability, there are still issues in trying to gain support, especially financial support, for its endeavors.
There are also some people that disagree with the reality and urgency of the climate change crisis. “The earth goes through natural cycles of heating and cooling,” Gage said. Some people aren’t sure whether or not the small increase in temperatures is due to human impact or if it’s part of the globe’s natural cycle, but it has been proven that these temperatures are rising faster than they would, which is an effect of overuse of fossil fuels. “If we take the short view, say over the next 100 years, the impact won’t be that great, but in the long term, it adds up.”
Finding inexpensive, easy ways to reduce MSU’s global impact isn’t an easy task. “We spend about $28 million on fuel every year, and there are a lot of fuels that are greener, but more expensive,” Link said. “So, where does that money come from?”
An important aspect of OCS is it’s still a very young program. As time goes on and people realize climate change isn’t the only reason sustainability is an issue, its scope will expand, and the program will have greater success in obtaining funds and the means to make campus “green.”
[stanley] MSU’s commitment to sustainability isn’t only good for its own campus. Since MSU is an integral part of Michigan as a whole, the more MSU does to preserve ecosystems, the more other organizations and individuals will follow. “We are a big part of the state and the area we’re in,” psychology junior Sandte Stanley said. “The things we do won’t affect our generation as much as it will our children and our children’s children.”
Being named a campus sustainability leader by the AASHE means MSU works toward not only being a green campus, but toward educating everyone involved with the university about ecological and economic responsibility. Today’s younger generation is being charged with taking care of the world. It is, after all, the generation with the technology, purchasing power and ambition to change how the world thinks and acts about its own future.
But how to start on this daunting task? Asking everyone to take a huge step like buying a new hybrid car isn’t the way – small steps are key. Small things like changing one regular light bulb for a compact fluorescent bulb, buying local fruit, and utilizing the recycling bins that have cropped up everywhere are a good start.

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