How do you make people care about the choices they make if they cannot see the consequences? How do you rally a student body not known for collective activism around a single cause?
The challenges in sparking student commitment to carbon neutrality are colossal; but behavioral changes are part of the College's plan to neutralize its greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.
Every individual on campus must reduce their annual carbon footprint by 500 pounds of CO2, and while this component of the overall reduction may be minimal, it is a critical one, according to Coordinator for a Sustainable Bowdoin Keisha Payson.
"In the bigger scheme of things, it's really a small part of the overall campaign, but it's an important part because we're a college and we wouldn't be doing our job if we weren't trying to raise awareness among the students here," she said.
So far, the College has achieved a 16 percent reduction in annual emissions: down to 16,085 metric tons of CO2 in Fiscal Year 2011 from 19,153 metric tons in FY 2008, which is serving as a baseline for comparisons.
The College's strategy states that 28 percent of the overall reduction will derive from on-site efforts, mostly having to do with fuel combustion, while just 5 percent of this 28 percent will come from behavioral changes.
Though effecting these behavioral changes is a minimal portion of the larger plan, it also poses some of the greatest challenges.
"Beyond the choir"
Inspiring the necessary behavioral changes is the focus of the Working Group on Sustainability (WGS)—chaired by Professor of Environmental Studies Phil Camill. Chapter three of the 2011 update to the Carbon Neutrality Implementation Plan (released last month) lists the group's strategies to engage students.
Many of the group's proposals are likely to draw people who are already concerned with carbon reduction: participants in events like "Climate 350" and a new "sustainability and climate-focused pre-Orientation trip" probably already turn off their lights.
"We want to move beyond the choir," said Camill, who added he and Payson have wrestled with the challenge of engaging students and staff members unaware or uninterested in climate issues.
"We're not asking people to be hippie tree-huggers or an Occupy Bowdoin outpost," Camill said. "We've got the institutions at Bowdoin that make sustainability and carbon neutrality work, we just need to get more buy-in from people across campus."
Although Bowdoin received an 'A' in student involvement on GreenReportCard.org's 2011 Climate Report Card, it lacks the degree of environmental activism that peer schools like Middlebury boast. For instance, eight Middlebury seniors concerned with arsenic legislation testified before the Natural Resources and Energy Committee last spring at the Vermont State House in Montpelier. The students had studied arsenic levels in well water in an environmental studies senior seminar, collaborating with the Vermont Geological Society, the Vermont Department of Health, and state senator Virginia Lyons.
That spring also saw 10 percent of Middlebury's student body travel to Washington, D.C., for Power Shift, a gathering of more than 12,000 students concerned with combating climate change.
Bowdoin's carbon neutrality campaign was started by two Class of 2007 seniors, Katherine Kirklin and Holly Kingsbury, who presented their independent study research to Mills, prompting him to sign the American College and University Presidents' Climate Commitment.
Despite the proliferation of clubs and student representatives on climate committees, since 2007 Bowdoin has lacked student initiative rivaling Kirklin and Kingsbury's.
Payson and Camill both named the annual dorm energy competition (the advertising of which notoriously encourages participants to "do it in the dark") as the most successful sustainability event in terms of cross-campus participation.
"I feel like that's probably the biggest single event that we have over the course of the year that gets everybody involved, whether they care about the environment or not," said Payson.
The contest tracks the energy usage of the residence halls on campus and sparks particularly fierce rivalries between College Houses. Its success lies in its recognition that Bowdoin likes a good competition, be it on the ice or in the dark.
The hope is that participants will continue to employ the energy-saving strategies they develop during the competition long after the winner is announced. The plan, despite all odds, appears to be working.
One would think that daylight saving-induced darkness would mean more lights on, but Baxter House, which took first place in the contest, has not slacked off since its victory this year. In fact, the house is doing even better than it did during the contest. Baxter has only exceeded its electricity usage last month on five days so far according to the Building Dashboard, which records the energy consumption of many residence and dining halls as well as academic and office buildings. It is worth noting, however, that residences that performed poorly (like last-place Howell House) have only gotten worse since the competition.
Camill said that the WGS is striving to bring the energy of the competition to other initiatives on campus, which have historically been more passive.
"I think in the past, like with Climate Days and things like that, it's more been, 'Bowdoin's got this plan, we're going carbon neutral, rah rah,'" said Camill. "It's just sort of the introduction that Bowdoin's committed to this and it never asks people to do anything."
It's asking now. The WGS is currently in the process of compiling a list of "action items" that will both enable people to see the amount of carbon that parts of their daily routine, like taking the elevator, emit and allow them to pledge to reduce their footprint.
The pledge component is characteristic of the new approach to engaging students. For instance, the EcoReps may start going door-to-door in the dorms soliciting signatures from people promising to recycle items from bag lunches. Payson said that a number of sources she has read show that people are more likely to follow through with something if they have signed saying they will.
The imminent bag lunch recycling campaign also reflects a new emphasis on specificity, which Payson believes will help enable students to act.
"You can't be vague, like 'hey, let's be carbon neutral.' You say that to somebody and it's like, well what does that mean? What do you want me to do?" she said. "People get fatigued when they feel like they're being asked to do too many things. And so we're not telling you to "recycle! Recycle everything!' It's 'recycle these contents in this bag lunch.'"
Yet the underlying problem remains: compelling students to unplug appliances is tough when carbon production—and its consequences—are invisible.
One approach Payson says she and her staff might pursue is striking an emotional chord.
"You need to somehow strike an emotion in them that will make them want to act," she continued. "And that's a hard one; what's the emotion around a bag lunch?"
Payson presented a poster prototype designed to move the less aware to action: it depicted a post-apocalyptic-looking trash dump boasting mountain ranges of refuse. Emblazoned across it were the words: "Where will your bag lunch end up?"
Whether images like this one will rally non-believers remains to be seen; how many smokers have quit after seeing lungs that look like they were dredged out of the La Brea Tar Pits?
Probably more than a few.
At Bowdoin, there are courses in departments ranging from art history to philosophy that address sustainability in some way.
"Here, I think faculty don't have a whole lot of leeway for developing new classes,' said Camill, citing the pressures professors face in teaching the introductory, core and senior seminar courses required of them. "When you take the number of faculty and you divide it among all those classes, there are not many leftover classes to say, 'hey let me develop a completely new course on sustainability this semester.' It just can't happen."
Despite the constraints of Bowdoin's four-course system (which has the advantage of attracting faculty committed to their research) Dean for Academic Affairs Cristle Collins Judd said faculty still have gerat freedom when it comes to creating new courses.
It comes down to faculty interest.
"When faculty at Bowdoin have courses that they're passionate to develop, they develop them," said Judd.
The Curriculum and Educational Policy Committee vets proposals for new courses, majors, concentrations and faculty searches; so far, no courses focused exclusively on sustainably have appeared.
"Sustainability, as a consideration within or beyond majors has not been something that's been formally requested at CEP," said Judd.
"I think the reason for that is sustainability is a hard concept to nail down; it's kind of vague, and it's not clear exactly what that means specifically," said Camill. The lack of a sustainability-specific course of study does not indicate that it is unimportant to the College, according to Judd. After all, there is no major in the Common Good.