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The Dartmouth
April 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

A Culture of Climate Apathy?

One student details frustrations and wishes for sustainability efforts at Dartmouth.

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I often hear phrases like “Dartmouth doesn’t recycle” and “the heating plant burns bunker oil” repeated around campus. The first time I heard them, I accepted them at face value, in part because of general pessimistic attitudes towards Dartmouth administration, but also because of the College’s history of lackluster climate action. Believing them only strengthened my pessimism about Dartmouth’s potential for change. The reality of Dartmouth’s sustainability progress is much more complicated, but it feels easy to believe the single, simple story of institutional letdown. 

Lived experiences reinforced this letdown, like when my inefficient and poorly regulated dorm left me unable to adjust the thermostat any lower, causing me to leave my window open all winter. In the face of such frustration, I often find myself falling into continued apathy and inaction. 

Part of this apathy may come from cynicism about the College’s track record on climate. Spriha Pandey ’24, Dartmouth Energy Alliance’s president, emphasized the shortcomings of Dartmouth’s actions in this space.

“Traditionally, Dartmouth has not been known to be a leader in green actions, especially among the Ivy League,” she said.  

According to The Valley News, though some progress has been made since, Dartmouth was the largest emitter per capita in the Ivy League as of 2022. 

Importantly, in my experience, this initial apathy can discourage student engagement with sustainability, further exacerbating the cycle of inaction. In discussions I’ve had, peers have said that believing Dartmouth doesn’t recycle makes it easier to simply throw away the hundreds of cups and cans used every week at fraternities, or that leaving lights on in empty rooms feels inconsequential compared to the pollution spewing from the heating plant’s smokestack. Feeling unable to change institutional practices causes disengagement in the decision-making processes that drive those practices.

Pandey described how when she started working on climate issues in high school, she was “very ambitious,” believing she could “make these big changes overnight.” However, her initial idealism shifted during her first year in Hanover.

“You’re hit with reality,” she said. “Freshman year, I realized ‘Okay, this is not going anywhere. I’ll just fend for myself … and see what happens.’” 

Pandey’s story of muted idealism is not isolated. Another environmentally conscious student, Emily Barosin ’25, emphasized how the magnitude of climate change as a problem can lead to a sense of pessimism. 

“If we’re thinking about climate change in terms of avoiding irreversible global temperature increase, I’m very pessimistic about that,” she said. “I simply do not see a future where we reduce carbon emissions quick enough to avoid the irreversible effects.” 

Pessimism and apathy are just two threads in the tangle of complex emotions around climate change. Working in climate can be “deeply emotionally challenging work,” according to Irving Institute for Energy and Society academic director Amanda Graham, whether that’s a sense of hopelessness, anger or even fear. 

“A lot of what drives my passion for thinking about these issues is fear,” Barosin said. “But I understand that’s a very unsustainable way to frame the problem as a whole.” 

Navigating the intersection of emotions and passion is difficult, and the emotional toll of living in today’s world should not be understated, deeply involved in climate work or not. However, students’ perceived inability to effect change isn’t baseless. Pandey said that the difficulty of advancing Dartmouth’s climate efforts is due to “just a lot of stakeholders,” an idea echoed by Graham.  

“Organizational change is hard,” Graham said. “If you recognize the fact that we as individuals are complicated in many ways, and then you add us all together, we add our individual complications.” 

In her quest towards climate progress, Pandey has attempted to advocate for sustainability issues around campus, most notably the removal of the No. 6 fuel oil heating plant and its prominent smokestack. However, she has been slowed down by the many parts of Dartmouth’s system. 

“Systemic change is a very slow process. I’ve tried advocating [against the use of No. 6 fuel oil] multiple times,” Pandey said. “But when you have systemic change, you have to rethink all the jobs involved and talk to all the stakeholders, which goes beyond the one simple thing [you] are thinking about changing.”

Even for a committed climate do-gooder, these interwoven complications can shroud avenues for effective change and dissuade efforts, leaving students confused about where to even begin. 

“I’ve really struggled with finding the right place to start or a specific issue to focus on within all the problems and issues associated with climate change,” Barosin said. 

As the saying goes, “starting is half the battle” — but how have some students worked to overcome apathetic tendencies?

One avenue for student influence is larger-scale advocacy. Despite Pandey’s frustrations with her own advocate efforts, she still believes that a concerted, large-scale effort can lead to progress. 

“Anything that becomes very clearly something that students care about, the administration most likely will act on it,” she said. 

Whether directly or indirectly, widespread communication of environmental priorities to recently inaugurated College President Sian Leah Beilock can be one way to “get over the hump” of climate apathy and shift into action. Beilock has made meeting students a priority and has shown her receptiveness towards student input as well as climate action. In addition, in her inauguration speech, she committed “more than $250 million in additional investments in campus decarbonization efforts in the next three years.” Pandey called the College’s updated plan for carbon neutrality by 2050 “pretty concrete” and that climate is “definitely part of [Beilock’s] agenda.”

Transitioning to action doesn’t need to be a grand motion, though. For students I talked to, as well as myself, small but concrete steps, such as using reusable silverware and mugs, add up and can be empowering. For many students, striving for sustainable living can be fun, too. For Barosin, sustainability “offers a lot of opportunity for creativity,” especially with daily rituals like eating and cooking. 

“I often see it as an art challenge or a minor creative pursuit to make the day a little bit more interesting,” she said. “[I’ll tell myself,] ‘Okay, here’s what I have in my fridge right now. You’re all vegetables that I need to use up. How can I do that in a way that tastes good?'”

To students such as Pandey, the dissemination of individual acts to collective action through behavior modeling and conversation is perhaps the most powerful part of personal sustainability choices. 

“There’s a domino effect that we were talking about, which is that if I am super climate conscious in my life, people around me pick it up too. Even the smallest thing seems like it doesn’t make a difference, but it really does,” she said. “When people observe you doing that, they’re going to make some small change in their life, even if it’s not the same thing that you’re doing.”

While action can be the antidote to disengagement, centering hope and community moving forward may be just as important. 

“I worry about sustaining a sense of hope because the world that you have grown up in has this incredible informational overload, and the world is on fire; these problems are everywhere and becoming more and more serious,” Graham said. “We have to take care of each other in the midst of that.”

Even though climate apathy can lead to inaction at times, students like Pandey remain positive. 

“As of right now, I feel optimistic … There’s a lot happening behind the scenes that we don’t see,” she said. "It’s slow, definitely much slower than it should be. But at the same time, there is hope.” 

It takes hope to imagine a more sustainable and just future, creativity to find opportunities for change and action to make that future a reality for our community. Looking forward, I hope we can center these things in order to push past the emotional burdens of climate change.