Vassar Today

Campus Ecology: Studying Sustainable Alternatives

By Scott Murray ’01

Most people tend to think of the environment as something “out there”: vast expanses of evergreen forest, high-elevation tundra, and national parks where tourists make pilgrimages “back to nature.” But Vassar’s young environmental studies program — and the students enrolled in its senior seminar course ENST 301: Campus Ecology — have learned that “the environment” also includes our immediate surroundings, everything from our local landscape to the people we love and the air we breathe.

Rather than focusing their semester-long seminar project on a remote patch of Amazonian rain forest, the students decided to act locally and scrutinize Vassar’s own ecological footprint. Their goal was to find practical ways to make the college more sustainable, thereby enhancing the quality of its immediate environment. After some initial research, the seniors decided to deal specifically with fossil-fuel consumption, researching its impacts and alternatives. While one group began assessing Vassar’s entire fleet of vehicles, another group looked into methods of minimizing oil use, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and improving air quality.

Professor of Psychology Randy Cornelius, who teaches the course, wanted students to take a broad view when examining “the totality of energy use” on campus. A “zero-emissions” electric vehicle, for example, may initially appear greener than a gas-powered one; but in actuality, their emissions simply occur at, say, a coal-burning power plant rather than from the car’s exhaust pipe. External costs like these can be difficult to quantify; yet outlining them is essential for an honest look at long-term sustainability and doing a credible job involves expertise in a wide variety of disciplines.

Examining problems from different perspectives comes naturally to Vassar’s environmental studies students. Emily Ellickson-Brown ’03 explained, “The program requires majors to decide on two areas of concentration: one natural science and one social science.”By integrating curricular divisions, the program prepares its students to approach environmental issues with multidisciplinary knowledge.

Cornelius acknowledges that money, too, was a big issue throughout the project. Students’ solutions, he said, were to be “sustainable and cost-effective — which is in itself a kind of sustainability.” For example, it’s easy to recommend installing solar panels, but who’s going to pay for it? Associate Professor of Geology and Chair of the College Committee on Sustainability Jeffrey Walker agrees. To him, long-term sustainability depends also on strong “community relations and economic responsibility.”

In the end, the class recommended that the college phase out its gasoline-powered passenger cars in favor of gas-electric hybrids where possible, reducing fuel consumption by about 38 percent. Hybrid vehicles are slightly more expensive than their traditional counterparts, but the extra cost could potentially be offset by various government rebates. Also, for about $3,000 to $5,000 each, the college’s existing 12-passenger vans could be converted to use compressed natural gas, a less expensive alternative to gasoline that emits 25 percent less carbon dioxide and up to 97 percent less carbon monoxide.

The seniors recognize, of course, that hybrid and natural gas engines are not necessarily sustainable solutions themselves, but the engines are at least steps in the right direction. The college, meanwhile, supports the students’ endeavors. Colton Johnson, dean of the college, has already met with members of the class to discuss their work and looks forward to meeting again once the project is complete. As Courtney Mersereau ’03 appreciatively puts it, Vassar has “put so much faith in us and given us an opportunity to change the school.”