Reflections on Cornell’s Sustainability Leadership Summit 2017

Today I had the opportunity to attend Cornell’s Sustainability Leadership Summit. The event was hosted by and for the President’s Sustainable Campus Committee (PSCC), which exists as a “living laboratory” for on-campus sustainability solutions. The event was split into five segments: welcome remarks by Rick Burgess, a creative dialogue panel about sustainability, learning, and innovation on campus, various workshops (I attended one on integrating strategies for community engagement within Cornell’s living laboratory), a keynote presentation by Engaged Scholar Prize Winner Max Zhang, and finally, a play about climate change. Additionally, the event emphasized personal sustainability, in addition to institutional sustainability, asking that all participants bring their own mugs, water bottles, and paperless note-taking devices, and that participants eat a plant-based meal to reduce the carbon of food production.

The event itself was a gift to go to, as engaging with sustainability outside of the classroom is always important. However, as an undergraduate, and more specifically, first-semester freshman, these are the kinds of events that inform my understanding of the challenges within the sustainability movements that colleges can specifically combat. 

One of my main takeaways from the PSCC Leadership Summit is that college campuses have the opportunity to simulate the seemingly idealistic and futuristic goals of sustainable living. During the summit’s somewhat self-aggrandizing opening, the leaders of the PSCC noted that Cornell has been voted first in Ivy League Campus Sustainability by a number of sources, and that Cornell has been extending its sustainability efforts to issues ranging from climate change to public awareness to land and energy use. The idea of a Living Laboratory is taken quite seriously here, where sustainability efforts, specifically, are experimented with on campus before they can be applied in communities filled with complex interests. There is a certain extent of realism necessary to explore sustainable solutions in campus dining, energy efficiency in residential life, and educational trail design, and there is a lot of risk in investing in those projects. However, both the faculty and students are eager to take those risks.

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Dedication means walking in 27 degree weather at 8:15 in the morning

The dedication of Cornell’s student body and faculty was best illustrated in the panel, where professors, research assistants, and students discussed the current state of sustainability affairs as well as what the future demands. When asked if Cornell should demonstrate the best practice as a campus in sustainability, the panelists responded by calling upon the idea of motivation. Michael Kotlikoff, a veterinarian and Provost of Cornell, encouraged seeing past comparisons of success in efforts of caring for the planet, and instead seeing direction in thinking about sustainability needs to address real, tangible problems. He drew upon the example of Cornell’s Climate Action Plan, where Cornell has committed to being carbon neutral by 2035. Kotlikoff noted that in order for carbon neutrality to be achieved, individuals on campus need to feel equal motivation as the environmentalists and scientists working on the design of the project. His remarks made me think back to earlier in the semester, when one of my professors showed my class a video essay about how personal efforts to change the environment will never be enough to reverse environmental degradation. I think the discourse about individual responsibility to care about the environment is very polarized, where people can easily become hopeless when they think about the hugeness of Earth and the smallness of themselves. However, Kotlikoff made a point to address that “best practice” is one where institutions and individuals are unified, and empower one another to seek change both in the microscopic and macroscopic elements of sustainable changes.

After the panel, we got to split into groups and collaborate on tangible sustainability solutions. Here, I learned about Engaged Cornell, an office devoted to understanding how Cornell can support different communities. In the workshop, engagement was broken down into three key elements: community, reciprocity, and knowledge. Each element has associated questions, included “what does community look like?”, “what are we taking by doing research in a community and what are we giving?”, and “who holds knowledge?”. For me, the workshop was a way to solidify the inspiration I gained from the panel into real solutions. For example, after discussing questions surrounding community, reciprocity, and knowledge, the people at the workshop decided that specific goals for Engaged Cornell can include Cornell becoming an anchor institution to drive sustainable enterprises in the Ithaca community, considering the application of living laboratories off campus, defining sustainability clearly in academic courses, and creating an online network that informs project ideas, designs, and success stories done through Cornell.

Community engagement as a central theme of sustainability continued in the keynote presentation, where Max Zhang outlined his three step approach for sustainability research success: create bi-directional partnerships with the communities, generate research ideas inspired by communities, and develop products for the communities.

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Max Zhang emphasized community engagement as a fundamental part of sustainability and research success

Reciprocity seems to be really important in Max Zhang’s method, and I think we can all learn about the underlying ethics behind sustainability in practice. Throughout the summit, I was struck at the respect amongst the participants. Despite the difference in demographics, where freshmen like myself were accompanied by local business owners and tenured professors, time was given to each voice. Practices of listening, intentionally communicating, and humbly asserting were encouraged, and ideas of developing trust, optimism, and unity were present in each discussion of sustainable solutions.

As someone relatively unexperienced in making institution-wide decisions and conducting research, having a place where my ideas can be heard is very rewarding. This summit highlighted that sustainability, although heavily rooted in environmental protection, is also reliant on being a generally good person. It is weird to think that right now I am studying how to be a good person, applying those lessons to my treatment of the planet. However, I think that sustainability’s reliance on “good people” is what makes it so interesting as a global challenge, and I am so lucky to be at an institution that encourages personal growth as well as institutional advocacy.

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Practical hippies wear floral bags with their professional clothes

In the words of my environmental science professor, Dr. Clifford Kraft, “You have a lot to say. Don’t be shy to use your voice.”

Nature is calling on us to speak up. It is calling on us to celebrate best practices, push ourselves to next, improved practices, embrace practical and achievable solutions that benefit both cycles in nature and people, and rethink how our intentions of change resonate with everything being affected by the change. Being in college makes this all the more possible. As students, we are literally given a playground for our ideas and failures. By attending the summit, I now realize how “saving the planet” is a realistic goal, and how cynicism is just an emotional blockade to the functional, self-sufficient Earth that can exist.

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PSCC began the summit by reminding us that a) Bill Nye went to Cornell and b) he believes in us
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