How can I be sustainable in college?

Abby, in nature.

Abigail Murphy (she/her); Bethesda, MD—

Hey Abby,

I got to college about a month ago, and I’m now responsible for many more decisions than I was at home. With that in mind, I want to start leading a more environmentally sustainable lifestyle! Do you have some tips for that?

Hey collegiate environmentalist,

First, I’ve gotta make it clear that I learned most of what I know about college life from Rory Gilmore’s experience at (SPOILER) Yale in the 2000s masterpiece of a TV show Gilmore Girls. Maybe take all this advice with a grain of salt.

(But, like, you should take all my advice with a grain of salt. I’m an 18-year-old high school graduate with a Taylor Swift obsession.)

Anyway. Here are some tips (in order of importance):

  1. Vote. If you’re not registered, register ASAP. And vote. Vote.org is a great resource. Use it to check your registration, register to vote, request a mail-in ballot, become a poll worker, etc. This election year is huge for the future of climate action—from the presidential ballot to local elections. 
  2. Organize. If you want to help with a campaign, look at the candidate’s site for information on phone banking or text banking. If you don’t have time for that, start by talking to your friends. Make sure they’re voting. Recruit them to campaign. 
  3. Support the ~revolution~ except, for legal reasons, this is a joke. 
  4. Take environmental studies courses. We all know the world is ending, but don’t you want to know how it’s ending?? I process crises better when I understand them; maybe you feel the same. Regardless, if you want to be an environmentalist, you need to know what you’re talking about. You need practice engaging in conversations about the climate, especially if you’ve never lived in an area of the country most impacted by climate change (i.e. you’ve never been without food, your neighborhood isn’t ten degrees hotter than neighborhoods a few miles away, you haven’t had to rebuild or outlast a severe natural disaster, your community isn’t ravaged by cancers and rare diseases from toxic waste or pollution). Chances are, if you’re white and wealthy, you need to do some extra studying on environmental justice and the history of racial exclusion in environmentalism  before you get too involved.
  5. Get involved with your college’s sustainability office (hopefully they have one). Join some projects they’re working on. We need to demand environmental change in our institutions.
  6. Join progressive action or environmental groups at your college. No matter which school you attend, they exist. Research organizations like the Sunrise Movement and the Climate Reality Project.
  7. Find out if your college invests in the fossil fuel industry. If they do (and they probably do), find your college’s movement to divest from fossil fuels. If the movement doesn’t exist, go start it. Create some ruckus. 

Quick break!

I want to stress the climate crisis isn’t coming from your individual actions. The world isn’t going to end because you ate too much meat. The world is going to end because we are eating too much meat. So, the most important things you can do aren’t going to be individual actions. They are going to come from the actions listed above, the ones that create a movement capable of making systemic changes and the ones that help you better understand the movement capable of making those systemic changes. 

But, still, if many consumers make little changes, an industry might feel forced to change. Capitalism doesn’t work unless people buy into the systems. So, rock the boat. I’m pretty sure my pescetarianism won’t make Tyson Foods (that meat company) pollute less water in my home state of Virginia. But my sister’s vegetarianism five years ago inspired my pescetarianism three years ago. And my pescatarian diet helped inspire a good number (at least five, probably more) of my friends to cut down on their meat consumption. And our generation, along with Millenials, created a market for vegetarian foods. I’ve never ended up at a restaurant where there’s nothing for me to eat—because now there are so many vegetarians that the food industry has to adapt to fit our needs. 

Now, back to the scheduled program:

  1. Eat less meat. Meat production uses much more land and water and produces much more carbon emissions than plant-based food production. But if cutting down on meat is too hard, start by eating only less red meat. Or, drink less dairy. Or, become a pescatrarian. Or, try a vegan diet before 6:00. There are so many options. Make a plan to lower your meat consumption, and stick with it. 
  2. Stop supporting fast fashion. Or, go thrift shopping more often. Have a clothing exchange with your friends. Look into apps that sell secondhand clothes like Depop and Poshmark. Fast fashion has a huge environmental footprint from production, disposal and transportation, and these clothing companies almost always exploit and underpay their workers.
  3. Go to a farmers market. Food at farmers markets is grown locally—meaning fewer fossil fuel emissions from transportation. Small local farms also use fewer pesticides and fertilizers, and they generally don’t have the abusive conditions for farm workers (and animals) that large-scale industrial farms have. Plus, this can be a fun excursion with your new college friends! Everyone loves food—go bond over that.
  4. Get a bike, and bike around campus! Then, you can become a biking pro for when you leave college and enter the real world. Who needs a car? Not you! 
  5. Use a refillable water bottle. That’s like the bare minimum. Reading this article is definitely not the bare minimum. It’s a pretty wordy article.
  6. Turn off the water when you’re brushing your teeth. Take shorter showers. You probably have heard this for years, but actually do this. It’s super easy, and no one likes a shower hog anyway. I like to listen to music in the shower, and if I get through more than two songs, I know I’ve been in there too long.
  7. Go hiking. Maybe if we give the Earth enough attention, she’ll be like, “Joke’s over! I knew y’all would come running back for help from me eventually!” And climate change will become a thing of the past.

I’m proud of you for reading this. For wanting to learn more. For doing research. It can be really hard to maintain a desire to stay educated when staying educated means learning more about our seemingly inevitable doom. 

To quote many politicians from the Democratic Party, don’t agonize; organize. But eh. You can agonize sometimes. It’s terrifying. Take your time. Just remember that sitting in that terror isn’t going to help you or the planet. There is some hope. Keep researching facts. Keep looking for solutions. Keep working.

Best of luck,

Abby

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