Professor of English and Gay and Lesbian Studies David Collings has a simple suggestion for members of the Bowdoin community who are looking to lower their own carbon footprint. 

“Don’t have children,” he said.“Population is way beyond carrying capacity.” He also recommended that the audience buy as many carbon offsets as possible.

President Barry Mills and a panel of seven Bowdoin professors and administrators addressed a packed Beam Classroom on Tuesday evening, The panel assembled to discuss the issue of climate change and sustainability in the college community. 

The event, Reaching Day Zero: Living Sustainably at Bowdoin, was intended to teach members of the Bowdoin community about what the College is doing to face climate change, what can still be done, and how community members can contribute. 

Margaret Lindeman ’15, Courtney Payne ’15 and Anna Hall ’15 were the main organizers of the event, which was sponsored by the Green Bowdoin Alliance. 

“I was involved in early talks about divestment with President Mills,” said Payne. “It frustrated me that people on Bowdoin’s campus weren’t as actively involved and upset about environmental issues. I wanted to figure out a way to give people an opportunity to feel like they could get involved.”

“For me, it’s really important for people to know that sustainability and climate issues aren’t just for environmental studies majors,” added Hall. “My goal for this is to get people to talk about how a lot of different departments and a lot of different people can contribute whatever they know how to do to the conversation about climate change.”

The panel members represented a wide variety of departments and disciplines at Bowdoin. In addition to Collins, Professors Mary Lou Zeeman, Susan Wegner, Laura Henry, Casey Meehan, and Emily Peterman, spoke, as did Katy Longley, senior vice president for finance and administration and treasurer. Each gave a brief talk on the way sustainability affects their role at Bowdoin, and how all members of the community can help fight the effects of climate change in different ways.

“Day Zero is the day that the planet becomes part of your community,” said Zeeman, who was the first panelist to speak. “What we mean by that is it’s the day that every single decision you make has the planet as a factor.”

Subsequent talks also called on the audience to constantly keep the environment in mind. The talks advocated for specific changes in everyone’s actions and practices, ranging from the conservation of art supplies, to the purchase of carbon offsets, to the education of climate change skeptics about sustainability.

When designing the event, Lindeman was concerned that some students felt powerless in the face climate change at Bowdoin. 

“One of the most important things was just to give people agency,” she said. “We organized a screening of ‘Chasing Ice’ last month, and we [didn’t want] people to see ‘Chasing Ice’ and be like ‘cool that was great’ and move on, and not know what to do next.”  

Some of the panelists offered specific  suggestions about how an individual can reduce their contribution to climate change, and some that were more extreme.Other panelists gave broader suggestions.

“Make the best, most sustainable choices you can make with the best information you have at the time,” said Peterman, whose talk focused mainly on how each person’s specific strength can be used to fight climate change. 

Longley presented statistics regarding Bowdoin’s commitment to the environment, as well as a summary of past, present and future sustainability initiatives designed to achieve carbon neutrality by 2020. 

According to Longley, the College’s carbon dioxide equivalent emissions have dropped 24 percent since 2008. Additionally, the solar panels at Thorne Dining Hall provide energy to heat about 50 percent of the hot water used by that facility. 

“Every new capital project we do, we’re always looking for more ways to be sustainable,” she said.
Lighting upgrades, fuel cells, new windows in Coles Tower, more solar panels and electric cars are all being considered for implementation on campus. Longley also hinted that these initiatives could provide research opportunities for students interested in increasing institutional sustainability.

Once the talks were over, the panelists and Mills fielded questions from the audience, which was composed primarily of Bowdoin students, with some faculty and Brunswick residents.
Nat Wheelwright, a biology professor in attendance, was soon called on by Mills to offer his insight into the issue of sustainability and climate change. 

“We should be doing a lot more than [focusing on] Bowdoin being carbon neutral. We should be training radical new thinkers,” he said. “We need gas and fossil fuel prices to go up by a factor of ten.”

Henry responded to a question about sustainable policies with a similar idea. 

“If we had a carbon tax, that would have more of an immediate effect than almost anything I can think of,” she said.

When a student asked whether the College should adopt a sustainability distribution requirement, Peterman polled the audience. Most students in the room supported the idea of sustainability becoming one of the core academic experiences for Bowdoin students. Mills acknowledged that it was possible to create such a requirement, but he questioned its feasibility.  

The issue of divestment was only specifically addressed in one question, and neither the panelists nor Mills explicitly stated their position on the topic.

After thirty minutes of audience questions, Mills ended the event urging students to remain passionate and active about climate change at Bowdoin.

“Stay involved,” he said. “Only sustained commitment will make a difference.”