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The Dartmouth
February 22, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Merkel preaches sustainability

Armed with reusable cloth napkins and an environmental cause, students flooded Collis Commonground Thursday to hear James Merkel, the College's sustainability director, pitch his plan to transform campus into a model of conservation and effective resource management.

Merkel's role is designed to coordinate sustainability efforts and maximize sustainability awareness on campus, he said.

A former military engineer who changed careers after witnessing the horror of the 1989 Exxon-Valdez oil spill, Merkel will be working in conjunction with a new student-run organization entitled Sustainable Dartmouth. This coalition, formerly the Environmental Roundtable, is comprised of various campus groups including Farm and Field, the Environmental Studies Division of the Dartmouth Outing Club and the Dartmouth Free Press.

"I am here basically to help imbed sustainable principles into the campus community. This effort includes buildings projects, administrative practices, how we manage the [Second College] Grant and the natural habitat around Dartmouth, transportation issues and student life," Merkel said.

Reflecting his all-encompassing approach, Merkel unveiled an 11-point plan for the sustainable future of Dartmouth, which includes a diverse set of goals. Among them, he hopes to collect data concerning conservation and sustainability, develop Sustainable Dartmouth as an organization and attempt to create waste-free dining on campus. Other aspects include a commitment to energy reduction and diversification and garbage recycling.

Sustainable Dartmouth aims to enhance communication among interested campus groups, encourage collaboration related to sustainability projects, create a dialogue between the administration and students regarding these practices and raise awareness on campus regarding the feasibility of a sustainable future.

On the importance of waste-free dining, Merkel said the majority of food items in Collis are sold in packages. He added that opting for a plastic "to-go" container instead of a plate contributes to Dartmouth's "garbage-footprint" of 833 pounds of garbage per year per person -- an amount close to the total annual amount of South Africa.

Merkel emphasized the importance of personal choice and the power of the individual in the creation and perpetuation of sustainable practices such as this waste-free dining effort.

"We can take ownership for our own choices," Merkel said. "It's not rocket science to have a cloth napkin, but it takes thinking and an understanding of our environmental impact."

Merkel does not just ask others to change their lifestyles because the planet's finite resources cannot support the burdensome combination of population growth, unsustainable practices and inefficient technology. He also practices what he preaches.

Merkel has traveled around the world raising awareness about sustainability on a global scale, and he has made sustainable practices part of his way of life, even living on approximately $5,000 a year for a time.

Merkel has also experimented with constructing a straw-bale house in British Columbia and using solar power to heat water at his home.

Despite his own devotion to sustainability, Merkel is quick to note that his goals for Dartmouth, the community and the planet do not include blaming or speaking negatively about those not as committed.

"No one is guilty. No one is wrong. Let's just be honest. This is my impact, and I'm not proud of it, but I'm not going to feel guilty," Merkel said. "I'm a creative person. What can I personally do to help?"

Merkel ended with a call to action for all those present. In his singular style he said that fun was also an integral part of sustainability, drawing on the idea that if people enjoy the practice they will remain engaged in the process.

"This isn't ecological heroics," Merkel said. "We all just need to think about sharing, caring and conserving."