A Spotlight on Inclusive Sustainability at Swarthmore College
“We don’t have to sacrifice a healthy economy for a healthy environment.”
There exists a beautiful in between.
I am a double major in Economics and Environmental Studies, unassuming living proof of this middle ground. It’s easy to profile someone as either a barefooted hippie with no possessions to her name or a materialistic corporate sell-out with no concern for anything green besides the cash in her wallet. Yet the more time that I spend at Swarthmore, a higher level institution that proudly doubles as a giant arboretum, the more I see Weaver’s claim in action.
A little over a year ago, I believed that environmental awareness was a dialogue between overzealous liberals with too much time and political energy on their hands. I figured that while environmental protection was probably important, to take part would require a pair of elephant pants and a bank-breaking vegan diet. Growing up in Jersey suburbia, my exposure to responsible waste management was limited to nonexistent. My family had two working parents and a daily schedule that simply did not allow us to put extra thought into our garbage. Tying up our plastic trash baggies every Tuesday and Thursday evenings with the occasional glass bottle sorted into the recycling bin was the extent of our efforts. This bare minimum was not too different from what I had been taught in school, as my public school understandably put their standardized curriculum above any supplemental lessons in social responsibility.
I find myself two years later, plucked from my life in Jersey suburbia to attend Swarthmore College, unexpectedly and drastically more conscious of my consumer footprint. On campus, I am a Green Advisor, which is a stipended role as a Office of Sustainability liaison to both the student body and a selected college department. In this role, I act as a residential leader and advise the residents in my dorm to make more environmentally conscious decisions through study breaks and conversation. I also act as the liaison to the enormous Athletics Department and design year-long programming to ensure an alignment of sustainability goals across campus. Lastly, along with the rest of the Green Advisor team, I manage the industrial-sized compost operation at Swarthmore. Sorting out contaminant trash from over 180 tons of organic material, we maintain the partnership between our college and the locally-based commercial composter, Kitchen Harvest.
Don’t get me wrong, I came into this role not because of some miraculous osmosis of social responsibility, but mainly because the stipend sounded sweet for my threadbare wallet. Shockingly, I came out with an intended Environmental Studies minor and an engrained consciousness of my consumer behavior. To me, this slice of exposure has been profound from the very beginning. Before becoming full-fledged Green Advisors, we had an introductory training week at the tail-end of this past summer. While most of the training consisted of PowerPoint and the occasional uncomfortable icebreaker, we had the opportunity to take a trip to the nearby city of Chester, Pennsylvania. In Chester, 34.6% of residents live below the poverty line, with African Americans representing 70.4% of the population (DataUSA). This statistic was not entirely alarming until we learned of the Covanta incinerator, a strategically-placed and noxious waste management plant that burns trash material from all over the Tri-State Area. This has resulted in sky high asthma and lung disease-related complications among residents—recording approximately three times as many cases as the national average (Chester Environmental Justice).
On the day of the visit, we started the day with an exercise to visualize the concept of environmental justice. Melissa, our program coordinator, instructed us to all line up horizontally and to take steps forward or backward depending on our answers to her questions. Her questions related to our upbringings and other demographic classifiers, all of which ended up demonstrating a very telling correlation between privilege and exposure to environmental education. Some Green Advisors, hailing from the urban and “hip” parts of the Pacific Northwest, grew up drinking kale smoothies and composting under enforced state legislation. At the end of this exercise, these folks found themselves standing far ahead of the rest. Yet others found themselves standing behind the starting line, having reported lower income upbringings in an inner city environment. The stark contrast of exposure among our small group not only demonstrated the direct relationship between affluence and environmental consciousness, but also the hopeful fact that people of different backgrounds are willing to come together to recognize and resolve a universal issue. At the end of the exercise, I yet again found myself in between my peers far ahead and those far behind, but no longer at an impasse. I was in a beautiful place to start caring.
So we dispersed our physical human census to hop on a van into Chester. We arrived at the site of Covanta’s incinerator, and entered the looming plant. Greeting us were two mouthpieces in suits, who painted a euphemized picture of the plant and its painful history with no reference to the discontent residents of Chester. We were then handed hardhats and earplugs and taken on a brisk tour of the facilities. We peeked in at the roaring incinerator through a little window, like looking through the belly button of an enormous steel dragon. We held our breaths through the expansive room of trash waiting to be burned, rancid brown piles of garbage spanning ten football fields. We were pointed in the direction of the wastewater treatment facility just a mile away and fed some incomprehensible numbers. We then handed back our hats and ear plugs and walked out of the plant feeling a collective indigence.
“Who did they think they were? Sustainable waste-to-energy initiatives my ass,” one of my fellow Green Advisors protested back in the van. We sat in muted reflection as our van rumbled to our next stop. Ruth Bennett Community Farm is a collaborative volunteer farm between Chester residents and Swarthmore students that grows and donates fresh produce to Chester community members. We spent the sunny afternoon putting down new flower beds, a small tribute to counteract the damage we had witnessed that morning. The project coordinator who greeted us explained the dire lack of fresh and healthy food options in a low income setting like Chester. Most residents resort to processed food, a cheaper alternative to organic produce, which is largely inaccessible to start with (with a few noteworthy exceptions). Getting farmers tans and dark mulch under our nails ended in a job well-done, and felt like the very least that we could do.
Despite my visit and consequent insight, I am still an outsider looking in on a lived experience. I walked through the fetid incinerator for all of ten minutes, laid some flower beds for a single afternoon, and enjoyed the luxury of taking a van back to Swarthmore and never looking back. As Jamaica Kincaid wrote in A Small Place, her expose on the toxic tourism culture in Antigua, Africa, “when the native sees you, the tourist, they envy you, they envy your ability to leave your own banality and boredom, they envy your ability to turn their banality and boredom into a source of pleasure for yourself”. It’s true—I was but a tourist in this trip, with the opportunity to live a day in the life, and the privilege to turn my back if I so chose. The residents in Chester have no such privilege. They bear the very real and unequally distributed repercussions of our human footprint in every hacking cough, every puff of an inhaler, every single day.
The problems are far-reaching and easy to lose sight of when we rationalize our own place and seemingly inconsequential impact on a global problem. Yet the action and compassion that we need in our current environmental crisis only arise when we view our decisions as influential parts of a very impressionable whole. Almost as if our trail of waste enters our own lungs, because it truly does. We need not sacrifice our identities to embrace our environment. We simply need to realize that the environment should and does play a part in every identity, to which we must better respond as a collective human body.
This blog was submitted to the Greening Forward Blog Competition by Jasmine Xie.