Students’ small enviromental efforts make the biggest impact

Taking steps towards environmental conscientiousness has become a trendy staple of collegiate institutions in recent years. St. Olaf as an institution staunchly claims to have been committed to environmental sustainability long before it became a fashionable trend. While the claim seems a bit holier-than-thou, St. Olaf does demonstrate a strong track record of taking institutional steps aimed towards environmental conscientiousness. From curbing carbon emissions to locally composting all cafeteria food waste, St. Olaf stresses fostering and creating an environmentally sustainable campus.

Yet, the institution is not inherently altruistic. It likely would not be as amicable towards implementing environmentally conscious practices without two crucial motivations: enhancing the institution’s image and pressure from outside forces.

To satisfy the former motivation, stressing environmental sustainability works wonders for the institution’s public relations. This is not to say that a lack of benevolence invalidates what the institution does for environmental sustainability. Striving for carbon neutrality, implementing environmentally friendly architecture – especially Regents Hall – and restoring the Natural Lands benefit both the institution’s reputation and our community’s natural environment.

However, one major problem with the campus utilitarian usage of sustainable implementation is that the institution devotes the totality of their attention to major projects – such as achieving electrical energy carbon neutrality – and ignores micro-projects that could greatly improve the campus’s sustainability but would not be spectacular enough to garner much positive PR attention. Together with these macro-policy changes, the St. Olaf student body strives to go beyond the institution’s implementations and works daily to ensure that micro-sustainability remains a vital part of the St. Olaf experience.

I want to make clear that I’m not trying to insinuate St. Olaf students possess some homogeneous commitment to environmental stewardship. We represent a diverse amalgamation of beliefs, ranging from environmental apathy on one hand to something akin to “eco-mysticism”on the other. Nevertheless, as a collective force St. Olaf students continue to have a tremendous impact on campus sustainability.

No shortage of environmental clubs, outreach groups, or pedagogical programs exists at St. Olaf. The Environmental Coalition (EC) perhaps demonstrates best how students with proper initiative can take matters of sustainability into their own hands. EC is a student run organization that focuses on engaging and organizing other St. Olaf Students around matters of environmental sustainability or environmental conscientiousness. The coalition does much to promote concrete environmental action such as – but not limited to – organizing campus clean ups, writing an environmentally focused campus newsletter and instituting the No Waste Challenge. Recently, the group has successfully lobbied the institution to insert compost bins in the Buntrock bathrooms for discarded paper towels. Also aiding in the battle for micro-sustainability efforts are St. Olaf’s Student Naturalists. These select few foster community involvement with the College’s natural lands and teach our human community about the larger natural community we inhabit here at St. Olaf. Oles Under the Sun (OUTS) deserves mentioning as well. This student led group organizes affordable opportunities for students to engage with the outdoors through activities such as hiking and backpacking trips.

In addition to these organizations, the Environmental Conversation program invites incoming first-year students to apply for this environmentally themed first year living-learning community. The organizations listed above constitute a fraction of all the student environmental groups present on St. Olaf’s campus; to list the remaining groups would fill the remainder of this article. Oles have no reservations about creating and participating in a variety of programs that foster environmental conscientiousness.

In addition to the multitude of student environmental organizations present on St. Olaf’s campus, Oles demonstrate on a daily basis their commitment to environmentally conscious action. Take a look at any student around campus; chances are they’re accompanied by their sticker-cloaked Nalgene or some similar reusable water bottle. Additionally, an increasing number of students participate in The Cage’s “Mug Club”– a program encouraging the use of reusable mugs instead of disposable cups. Many students will also carpool or bus, or walk when not constrained by the brutal Minnesota winter into town to reduce transportation emissions. Generally, St. Olaf Students are not just efficient environmentalists who practice sustainable practices when convenient. Instead, they carry out environmentalist practices on a daily basis without hesitation.

I’d be hard pressed to say that the campus could take no further measures to increase environmental conscientiousness. The institution could work to further decrease carbon emissions from building temperature control and the transportation of goods to and from the campus. Students could drive their cars less, take the stairs more, and opt for a sweater instead of turning the heat up in their dorm rooms. Nevertheless, the St. Olaf community clearly demonstrates a commitment to both increasing environmental sustainability, and fostering environmental conscientiousness.

John McDaniel ’20 ( is from Waukesha, Wis. He majors in history.

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