Seeking Sustainability at Dartmouth

by Lucy M. Li | 1/28/16 8:56pm

Merriam and Webster define something sustainable as “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed; involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources; able to last or continue for a long time.”

The word “sustainability” has become a buzzword for being eco-friendly, bringing to mind images of green recycling signs and composting bins that remind us to stay involved in the campaign to save the planet’s rapidly dwindling resources.

But as Merriam and Webster’s definition reveals, the meaning of sustainability is not purely exclusive to environmental preservation. The sustainability of other aspects of life — our health, relationships and even academics — are also worthy of attention.

For Caroline Cutler ’19 , environmental concerns are what come to mind when she ruminates on sustainability.

“I think of being environmentally friendly, living larger, our global ecosystem and how we can all come to exist and survive with limited resources and rejuvenate those resources,” she said.

Charles Springer ’17’s reaction to the word was a bit different than Cutler’s, although he conceded to its frequent association with environmental activism, especially on Dartmouth’s campus.

“I don’t necessarily jump to environmental things unless I’m on campus and I hear someone say it on campus, in which case I jump immediately to environmental concerns,” Springer said.

He said that for him, the word signifies resourcefulness and something that can be maintained over a long period of time.

“When sustainability comes to mind I think of efficiency, and I think of something that can be continued in the long run,” he said.

Cutler’s and Springer’s remarks are probably the result of the high level of attention given to environmental concerns at Dartmouth. At least in the environmental sense, Dartmouth definitely has a reputation for being unusually dedicated to sustainable practices, which begin within the first day of Dartmouth Outing Club First-Year Trips.

With groups like Divest Dartmouth, Farm Club, Environmental Conservation Organization and the DOC; weekly “This Week in Sustainability” emails; and multiple trash cans on campus reminding us to recycle and compost, Dartmouth seemingly puts quite an effort into being sustainable.

Cutler remarked that we are certainly dedicated to being green, perhaps more than our peers at other colleges.

“I feel like we’re definitely more sustainable than the average college,” she said.

However, there are some pretty glaring ironies in Dartmouth’s environmentally-friendly practices. Sure, we have composting bins all over campus, but then we waste hundreds – maybe thousands – of plastic cups each night playing repeated games of pong. We drink smoothies from biodegradable cups, but we spend our days in overheated classrooms and dorms.

These contradictions beg the question — how environmentally sustainable are we, really?

According to the Sierra Club’s “Cool Schools” rankings of the most “green” colleges, Dartmouth placed 124 out of 173 colleges. Dartmouth was beat out by other four Ivy League schools, including Cornell (16), Harvard University (19), Yale University (28) and the University of Pennsylvania (40).

Stephanie Her ’18 said she has thought about the wastefulness in fraternities.

“You go into a frat and the cups are just everywhere,” she said. “There’s so many of them, and they’re not reused. It’s so wasteful.”

Evidently, the answer to whether Dartmouth is environmentally sustainable is not clear. But how sustainable are Dartmouth’s other facets ­—— specifically, being a student here?

Alisha Yan ’19 spoke about self-reliance and independence in her definition of sustainability in terms of health.

“If you were to sustain yourself you would be pretty independent, right?” she said. “You could rely on other people and other things but in general, you are your best resource.”

If we really are our best resource, it means we have to take care of ourselves, to live a lifestyle that can be maintained continuously.

Living in such a manner is ostensibly hard in college. And at Dartmouth, where each term starts and ends within 10 weeks, sustainable habits seem especially hard to practice. The combination of incredibly driven students and the quick pace of the quarter system can be a recipe for disaster.

Her agrees that sleeping enough each night, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy state of mind often fall by the wayside when the stress of midterms and commitments overcome them.

“Dartmouth works you so hard and everything is crammed and you have go so hard for ten weeks,” she said. “The stress is really unhealthy.”

Cutler expressed a similar sentiment about the unviability of sustaining one’s health during Dartmouth’s fast-paced terms.

“There always comes a certain point where my system breaks down and it can’t be sustained just because I burn myself out,” she said.

And yet, students frequently celebrate Dartmouth’s students abilities to balance the many facets of their lives —— they can eat healthy, exercise and get all of their work done while still having plenty of time to socialize. This made me wonder —— is this alleged balance really that prevalent?

Her took notice that many students’ goals to eat healthy and exercise don’t always quite add up with our drinking habits.

“I have thought about that ­­—— how people focus on [healthy eating and exercise] but then consume so many calories when they drink,” she said. “It’s definitely a little ironic.”

Yan remarked that she thinks most Dartmouth students have been successful at finding this balance. While we like to push ourselves, we also like to treat ourselves.

“Academically, I think there is a good balance between work and play,” she said.

Her believes that while we can sustain such a lifestyle college, it probably isn’t viable in the long run.

“I think the Dartmouth lifestyle is okay for four years, but if it were more, you’d just be hurting yourself,” Her said.

This so-called Dartmouth lifestyle comes at a price – $65,523 per year, to be exact. This leads me to my next question — is Dartmouth financially sustainable?

Cutler believes that the Dartmouth experience is definitely a worthwhile investment.

“I feel like already the Dartmouth name has already helped in certain aspects of my life,” she said. “I think you get a lot out of your experience.”

However, $65,523 is definitely a hefty price, even with financial aid. What’s more, tuition increases each and every year. Investing in the Dartmouth experience becomes increasingly unsustainable and unaffordable.

Springer has a pretty clear vision of how to increase Dartmouth’s financial sustainability. He believes Dartmouth must work harder to spend efficiently and fight rising tuition rates.

“We need to find ways to combat the massive rise in tuition that is happening in all colleges in America but is very disproportionately happening in Ivy League and private institutions,” he said.

He said they ought to “find ways to continue maintaining the academic quality of the college without frivolous spending.”

For Yan, paying for a Dartmouth education does not place a large burden on her family’s financial situation, but she agrees that it certainly isn’t the case for everyone.

“I do think that a lot of people would not find that Dartmouth would be financially sustainable because it’s quite a blow to annual household income,” Yan said.

With varied, even inconclusive, results on the sustainability of the environment, academic lifestyle and finances at Dartmouth, I had one more question about a much more nuanced and complex topic — how sustainable is love here?

At Dartmouth, with the frat scene and D-Plan, it seems that hook-up culture abounds and relationship dynamics can sometimes be weak, or simply hard to find.

Springer said he believes that relationships are difficult to nurture and maintain at Dartmouth.

“I don’t think that this is the most conducive setting for a long term relationship,” he said. “I heard when I came in here a statistic that Dartmouth has one of the highest alumni marriage rates. I question if that’s still true.”

Like many other college students, we often assimilate within the hook-up culture. With the typical unsustainability of a relationship, especially at Dartmouth, people perhaps assimilate because they seek something noncommittal — something that will not have to end when their D-Plans don’t align.

Cutler said that she thinks what people want out of their love lives is often just a reflection of what is sustainable for themselves individually.

“It depends if you want your constant to be constant or your constant to be change, you know,” she said. “So I think it depends on who you are.”

Essentially, sustainability is a worthy goal in all facets of life, even if it’s more realistic to try to recycle more than to get 12 hours of sleep each night. Internalizing and understanding the importance of sustainability will help us, Dartmouth, and the word around us to become happier and healthier.