Rosalie Kerr ’97, the sustainability director at Dartmouth, is responsible for leading the College’s sustainability efforts and overseeing the College’s Green Energy Plan. The Dartmouth sat down with Kerr to discuss past, present and future sustainability initiatives at Dartmouth.
Can you tell me about current sustainability initiatives at Dartmouth?
RK: I think it’s an exciting time for sustainability at Dartmouth. One of the things we’re currently working on is called the “Our Green Future 2.0 process.” It is a report from outgoing College President Philip J. Hanlon to incoming College President Sian Leah Beilock, with a series of recommendations surrounding sustainability leadership and updated operational sustainability goals for Dartmouth. We are excited about the increasing interest in sustainability demonstrated by the incoming class. We just did admitted students’ weekend, and there are a lot of incoming ’27s who are super fired up about sustainability.
What are some of Dartmouth’s strengths in sustainability?
RK: First of all, we’re a liberal arts school and sustainability is a complex problem that requires more than one discipline. We’re also undergraduate-focused, and we have a strong history in experiential learning with undergraduate students, from our Foreign Studies Programs to lab-based classes like agroecology to just students doing really cool projects, such as the Big Green Bus, the Sustainable Living Center and the O-Farm.
Can you tell me more about the Dartmouth Green Energy Project?
RK: Dartmouth is a microcosm of any city because we have a lot of energy needs. You can think about all of Dartmouth’s spaces — from Collis to the labs to the gym — that use tons of energy to keep them going. We have cold winters, meaning that we use the most energy then. So our cold, rural location presents some interesting challenges in providing sustainable energy. We are trying to figure out how to provide energy in a low carbon way, and that means a total transition of our current energy system. The first step is converting our energy distribution system from steam to hot water, and then generating that hot water in low carbon, highly efficient ways. The step after that is taking existing buildings and making them much more efficient.
What are some of the most pressing sustainability challenges that Dartmouth currently faces?
RK: Providing students with the incredible educational, research and living experience that we want in a low- or no-carbon way is challenging. Another challenge is feeding 4,200 to 6,000 students in a way that's sustainable in an environment that doesn’t grow food year round and where food is expensive. Another really interesting challenge is waste. The recycling system in the United States is broken. The consumer-single-use orientation that we have functioned with in American society for the last 50 years is adding up. Landfills are filling up, and we can no longer export waste to China to be recycled or sorted. This is also true for Dartmouth. As much as Dartmouth students care about climate or care about sustainability, our sorting behavior is zero. If we audit any three trash bins on campus, we will discover that they’re not sorted at all. So how do we develop a system that takes into account human behavior, sustainability, cost and real-world circumstances?
How are these challenges being addressed?
RK: We always have really interesting initiatives that originate with students. Right now, a student intern is working on clothing waste — a small, but growing portion of the Dartmouth waste stream. Fast fashion has contributed to that; you can order a pair of leather pants and a mullet wig instantaneously on Amazon, and then throw that away after you wear it once to the event that you ordered it for. There’s also a student who's working on both educating students about fast fashion and how they could avoid buying unnecessary clothing. We have students who are doing similar things with bikes, students who are looking at the waste system and a student who is really passionate about reusable cups.
How can interested students get involved in sustainability at Dartmouth?
RK: There are a lot of interesting courses that focus on sustainability. I’m meeting with groups from ENVS 12: “Energy and the Environment” who are doing projects connected to campus and these issues. There are fabulous faculty who are doing research in areas related to sustainability, and they all employ undergraduate students. From a co-curricular perspective, getting engaged in the Sustainability Office is one easy way to get involved in sustainability on campus. We have office hours every week with homemade baked goods, so it’s always an easy way for students to just stop by and chat about their passion projects. For example, Green 2 Go was originally a student initiative that came from a student who came to office hours.
What role do you see Dartmouth playing in the broader sustainability movement?
RK: We have an opportunity to contribute in really meaningful and distinctive ways because of our unique combination of strengths. We produce two really important things: scholarship, such as research, and our students. Our students change the world. They disproportionately control how resources are consumed and how decisions are made. I think we have an opportunity to bring our existing strengths to prepare our students to go do that in a way that transitions our planet to a low carbon, sustainable future.
What are some of Dartmouth’s long term sustainability goals?
RK: We have goals in each of six operational areas — water, waste, landscape and ecology, energy, food and transportation. Reducing our carbon emissions to zero or near zero is our ambition from an operational perspective. We also have goals that relate to how we empower the community in which we’re situated. Dartmouth is obviously a huge part of the surrounding community. In each of those areas we are kind of whittling down how we take these recommendations and turn them into real goals that we can aim at. They all have to do with contributing to a brighter and greener future for the College, the Upper Valley and for the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.