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Warren Wilson College State of Sustainability

by Marshall McCollum, guest writer

Geography professor David Abernathy instructs one of his classes

Sustainability ties Warren Wilson to some of the country’s most progressive colleges, and draws in much of our uniquely conscious student body. Though it is easy to get caught in the fact that we are many years and many thousands of tons of coal away from being a self-sustaining institution, it is important that we not forget what are doing well and what we can feasibly work to change. We are moving forward every day through work, service, and academics, and each year Warren Wilson College sends a group of graduates into the world who understand the social, environmental, economic, and spiritual elements that make up the complex web of sustainability.

The Environmental Leadership Center (ELC) recently distributed a survey to faculty and staff to assess our sustainability practices on campus. The responses to which brought to light a wide range of suggestions, concerns, and commendations relating to the college’s commitment to sustainability. The survey focused on understanding the role of sustainability in the Warren Wilson educational experience, and the bigger picture issues that we need to improve upon.

A strong backbone of experienced mentors and professionals exists at our school; all of whom have different approaches and techniques to addressing our commitment to social and economic justice, as well as environmental responsibility. The first part of this three part series looks at how Warren Wilson professors view sustainability and how they teach it in a way that inspires and motivates students.

Inherent in the philosophy of a work college is our equal value of work with the hands and labor with the mind. In their survey responses many professors emphasized the importance of well-balanced courses and their integrated approach to teaching sustainability. Most of these integrative classes begin by teaching theory (be it ecological, social or economic) and culminate in an application of the course material through service, study abroad, or an in-depth final project. For example: students in Susan Kask’s Environmental and Ecological Economics course model the sustainability of a groups on campus and in the local area, Professors Dongping Han and John Brock lead a study abroad service trip to China where students learn about the country’s marginalized class of “waste pickers.” Kathryn Burleson has taken groups of psychology students to South Dakota for a service trip with the leaders of the Lakota nation to work on food security problems. These are just a few of the many courses offered that help to motivate students to change from passive recipients of information to critically thinking participants.

“Knowledge provides context and tools for understanding and applying any practice effectively,” said Ben Feinberg, professor of Anthropology and Sociology. It is in our classrooms that we learn how to plan, organize, and understand the most effective strategies for sustainable action.

From this survey, it seems that the most popular way for professors to address sustainability in their classes is through a multidisciplinary approach, exploring the intricate and interrelated issues associated with sustainability, a privilege unique to a liberal arts school of this size. Many of the majors and courses offered here reflect this emphasis on a holistic education, and teachers frequently bridge the gaps between social sciences, natural sciences, and economics. An excellent example is our business major, which previously had multiple concentrations but has been combined into one Sustainable Business degree focusing on the Triple Bottom Line, people, planet and profit. Faculty members like Mark Brenner, professor of Biology and Environmental Studies, came to Wilson to teach an array of interdisciplinary courses that focus on human interactions with the environment. His classes emphasizes the connection between where our resources come from and where our waste goes, and include visits to waste dumps, power plants, and waste water treatment facilities.

Becoming familiar with and discussing sustainability is only the first step. Students in classes like Laura Lengnick’s Sustainable Agriculture course are learning how to use integrated sustainable decision making practices. Curricula that focus on the decision-making process, from small scale individual choices to big-picture policy arrangements are prevalent at Warren Wilson and increasingly focus on the extent to which our decisions influence the condition of the world.

Geology professor Robert Hastings reminds us that “sustainability is the process of evaluating our actions so as to not have an effect past our own lifetime, to not impinge on future generations’ resources and quality of life”. This ongoing process is the area in which we can always improve, regardless our current successes. From this survey we were able to glean several suggestions for improvement including: not letting our good intentions fail to launch into action; putting the same value on knowledge and context as tangible results; coming up with a plan for the responsible investment of our endowment; connecting with Swannanoa community members in the same way we do with those in Asheville; creatively matching long-term thinking with a four year college environment; fully understanding the power of our personal choices; and accepting a dynamic definition of sustainability that will evolve as we gain a deeper understanding of the inequities we face.

So what is the state of sustainability in education at Warren Wilson College? We are in no way lacking commitment, passion, opportunity or expertise, but in order to stay a leader of institutions in this growing field we must continually raise the bar and address the issues we know are holding us back. As one professor put it, “We may have a long way to go to achieve our green goals, but what sets us apart is our ability to set those high standards.”

If you have any inquiries or concerns relating to the state of sustainability at Warren Wilson College please contact the Environmental Leadership Center at greening@warren-wilson.edu or visit us on the third floor of the Morse science center.


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