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Remarks by Sam Welch, Class of 2010
Two years ago, professor Karl Ulrich, working with a team of researchers at the Wharton School of business at the University of Pennsylvania, released a study titled "The Environmental Paradox of Bicycling." At the time of its release, the study received a fair amount of press, partially because Ulrich was an esteemed member of a respected school of business, but mostly because of the studyís somewhat backward findings. Ulrich and his team of researchers had concluded two things: Firstly, that riding oneís bike to work everyday in place of driving a car greatly reduced carbon emissions, inner city traffic congestion, and air pollution levels. Few saw anything wrong with this portion of the study. However, Ulrich went on to claim that the exercise involved in riding oneís bike to work every day would likely extend the riderís life by a little more than one year on average, and that in that extended lifespan, the human in question would consume more resources, emit more carbon and cause more environmental damage than they would have if they had just continued driving a car and died 12 months earlier. The study was, to say the least, controversial, and though Ulrich is himself an avid bicycler who supports pedal powered transportation, and though the study itself makes broader claims about the social benefits of an extended work-lifespan and human health, one canít help but balk at such a morbid implication. I mean, bicycling is good, right? Its responsible and healthy and active, regardless of the bottom line. And yet, itís a disconcerting thought that by strapping on your helmet each morning you actually may ultimately be doing the world a disservice. What results truly is a paradox, and yet, I think the real question that arises is whether or not we should be taking the questions of environmentalism to such an extreme level.
The beauty of the Sustainable Living Center comes through as a response to questions like that. Sometimes, wrapped up in the warm blankets of our Academic Ivory Tower, huddled over bubbling Petri dishes and scribbling notes into our logbooks worrying about the fate of the human race, we tend to forget to look out the window. Environmentalism is, after all, a movement rooted in literally the air around us. Itís in the trees and the mountains and the streams, the biotic life that inhabits all that moves under and over and around our feet. Itís a science of community, a study of the way things interact and play and grow off of and with and in spite of each other. We would be utter fools to think that it is something that can only be measured in inches or dollars or years of increased lifespan.
At the SLC, part of what we are aiming to accomplish is a focus on the simpler things. Despite all the science that goes into environmentalism today, arguably the most effective things we all can do are still the simplest things. We can take the stairs. We can insulate our houses with more effective materials. We can try to eat locally and sustainably. The Wharton School of Business can throw millions of dollars at as many off-the-wall research proposals as it likes; if at the end of the day its members arenít turning off the lights when they leave the office, then what really are they trying to accomplish?
The proposal for a Sustainable Living Center has been on the docket here for quiet some time now. Various forms of it were crafted and constructed and brought to bear, denied and reshaped, rethought and readmitted, until finally in 2006 a few then freshman members of the Class of 2010, along with Scott Stokoe the farm manager and some upperclassmen, began forming what was to become the current proposal for a Sustainable Living Center located on campus. After nearly a year of work, the college accepted the proposal and granted us permission to use North Hall in the Choates cluster however we saw fit. What first had existed only in the minds and hearts of a few devoted individuals, namely Jon Wachter, Dan Susman, Marissa Knodel, Jessica Rush and Hannah Dreissigacker, had then been drawn out over and over again on whiteboards in the basement of Robinson hall on long winter nights, debated and molded through countless meetings with administrators and advisors, and had finally manifested itself in a real, concrete building. The feeling was deeply satisfying.
Since being granted the building almost a year ago, we have spent countless hours planning for the arrival of our initial days inside. And I can say that after holding our first communal dinner together this past Wednesday, some of us sitting cross-legged on the floor because the couch was already full, laughing about horror stories from the first day of classes while eating a local, home-cooked meal, I began to see how all of it, the emails and the meetings and the endless debating, all of it was truly worth it. We, together with the college and the students and the community, have created something good, something simple, something healthy. This is truly "the start" of so many wonderful things to come.
The SLC is in theory a three-part organization, a tripod of sorts that favors no leg but counts on each to support itself wholly. Firstly, and most obviously, we are a dormitory. There are 19 single dorm spaces in the Sustainable Living Center, and as of now each one is inhabited by a student doing their best to reduce their environmental impact through changes to their daily lifestyle. Secondly, we are an academic organization. We posses a model of the most basic unit of modern society: a home. We aim to involve every department in this institution in the retrofitting, assessment, monitoring and operation of it. We want economics students studying the costs and benefits of buying local foods. We want engineering students designing our toilet system. We want Medieval and Renaissance Studies Majors performing sustainable reenactments of jousting contests on our front lawn. We want all them, and we invite them with open doors. Finally, we are a community organization. We want the people of the upper valley to know that this is where they should go if they need to know about CFLís or Gray Water or worm bins. We want people who still havenít even heard of sustainability knocking on our doors and asking us if we really think global warming is occurring. I might even go so far as to say that we donít want these things; we need them. In fact, the extent to which this organization succeeds will likely be measured in the depth to which it can penetrate life around here and change it for the better.
Personally, I take the Malthusian stance regarding Ulrichís paradox. I plan on riding my bike to work every day, on eating healthy and locally and sustainably, on turning off my lights when I leave the room and only taking the up escalator when Iím really, really tired. Iíll take the gamble that in the extra year of life that I gain, Iíll be able to be a part of something so beneficial to the world that it will off-set the costs of keeping me alive. I truly believe that the last year Iíve spent working on this project has already done just that, and I would encourage all of you to ride your bikes to work, to the store, or even to the SLC, and try to make sure that the rejuvenation youíll get from interacting with nature is repaid by good deeds to the earth. There have got to be a million other little things we could be doing to save the planet; I hope we all use our extra time here to make sure they get done.