I have always, since I’ve been a student at Dickinson, regarded our “sustainable” image with some degree of skepticism. Our use of Greenware biodegradable cups, the lack of trays in the cafeteria, even the college farm all seemed like gimmicks to sell the school to environmentally conscious applicants. As I have reached the end of this course, however, I realize that sustainability in America has something of a gimmicky image in general. It is a field of novel technologies and unorthodox methods, and at times seems to entail drastic changes in the way we live our lives. As a result, the American attitude towards sustainability seems, at least to me, to be one of passive acceptance: no one wants to destroy the environment, but many see environmentally friendly practices as a threat to their “normal” way of life. It is this tension between sustainability’s positive and negative images that Dickinson’s Earthfest on April 30th caused me to examine.
Morgan Field was the ideal setting for the convergence of local farmers, student groups, and environmental technology producers that was Earthfest; a celebration of Dickinson’s forward-thinking attitude on issues of sustainability. The clear blue skies and new spring foliage made me particularly eager to explore the various tables and stalls that had sprung up along the winding asphalt footpaths, and a healthy crowd of students had come out to do the same. Or maybe it was to ride the mechanical bull (well, mechanical shark), or to listen to the bands that were playing on Drayer porch, or to eat lunch at the giant barbeque. To be honest, some of my old skepticism had surfaced. Earthfest felt like another gimmick; a carnival with a sustainability sideshow. I grabbed a burger, the components of which had likely been produced by the distinctly unsustainable behemoth of industrial agriculture, and idly wandered from table to table. Here were the people who really cared about the “earth” part of Earthfest, and I figured that if I was going to write a blog post on this green event, then these were the people I should be talking to.
When I sat down to write, however, I realized that they were only part of the equation. As much as their zeal contrasted with the relative apathy of many students, they were there to sell sustainability. The food, music, and rides were not distractions but attractions, without which it is unlikely that a quarter of the students who showed up would have. We are, after all, a nation of consumers; we need to be sold on sustainability. The problem is that it’s a hard sell. Ecological protection comes at a price, both literally and figuratively. Green energy initiatives have to compete with traditional means of energy production, such as coal, which is both cheap to produce and a source of blue-collar employment. While families that depend on the jobs that coal power provides certainly do not want to destroy the environment, they might see environmental damage as a necessary evil of their survival. Beyond people who see sustainability as a threat, there are many more who simply do not care. It is the classic “Tragedy of the Commons” in which individuals, pursuing their own interests, damage a common resource to the detriment of the entire population. Many Americans don’t conceptualize their individual habits of consumption in terms of environmental impact, to the detriment of us all.
It is this lack of ecological thought that Earthfest most effectively addressed. By bringing together ecologically apathetic and passionate people via the use of other attractions, Earthfest represented a serious effort to sell people on sustainability. It used gimmicks to draw people in, to increase awareness of environmental issues that would otherwise go unnoticed, and to dispel perceptions of “sustainable” as “abnormal”.