Ask any student what initially attracted them to Kenyon, and the natural beauty of Gambier will inevitably be part of their response. Located on 1,000 acres of rural land, our school is renowned for its stunning campus: its tree-lined walking paths and scenic overlooks; the wildflower fields and hiking trails of the Brown Family Environmental Center (BFEC); the peaceful twists and turns of the nearby Kokosing River.
With such picturesque surroundings, it is easy for us to momentarily forget the numerous catastrophic issues driving the current global environmental crisis. Anthropogenic climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, air and water pollution and exponential rates of human-caused natural disasters have already altered countless lives and continue to pose an enormous threat to the health and biodiversity of our planet.
As a liberal arts institution that, according to its mission statement, aims to instruct students on how to “answer to changes in the world,” Kenyon has taken significant steps in recent years to fulfill its commitment to sustainability.
The presence of the Office of Green Initiatives, the Environmental Studies major, the Sustainability Council and student organizations like Environmental Campus Organization (ECO), Land Lords and the Kenyon Farm reflect a local understanding of the severity of worldwide environmental issues. In 2016, the College even signed the Second Nature Climate Leadership Pledge Carbon Commitment and pledged Kenyon to a goal of carbon neutrality, though not until around 2040.
However, my observations throughout my first few months at Kenyon have led me to believe that the daily actions of individual students matter just as much as the collective, long-term goals of our institution. Just like an entire ecosystem will collapse without the thoughtful contributions of each organism, Kenyon will fail to achieve its sustainability goals unless every community member takes responsibility for the environmental impact of their lifestyle choices.
Missing from the gorgeous photos of the Gambier landscape in Kenyon’s admissions materials or the virtual campus tour are the trash bins on campus which seem to be constantly overflowing with single-use, disposable items — plastic cutlery, water bottles and coffee cups — that could easily be replaced with reusable alternatives. I have watched people instinctively grab three, four or five paper towels in the bathroom when one can be more than sufficient, or ask for a plastic bag at the Village Market to carry home a lightweight item that could easily fit in their backpack or a reusable bag. As is the trend in our fast-paced, consumerist society, we typically prioritize short-term convenience over the long-term health of our planet.
I do not mean to suggest that I have nothing better to do than spend every waking moment judging people who have not been educated in the ways of environmental sustainability. But as someone who has learned about these issues and tries to adapt my behavior to align with my concerns and values, I have seen how simple changes can make a significant difference in an individual’s carbon footprint and waste production.
Our isolated location — at a prestigious, expensive, private college — can make us ignorant to how pollution and climate change disproportionately affect marginalized groups, including low-income communities and communities of color. Although we may not be among the locations or populations that are most vulnerable to climate change or pollution, we have an even greater responsibility to change our behavior because we have the resources available to do so.
Virginia Kane ’22 is from Alexandria, Va. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.