Earth Month 2021 has come to a close, but we environmentalists are back at it again. In the face of the climate crisis and challenges to campus sustainability, our work extends far beyond a mere month in the year. As I finish up my year on the YCC Executive Board as the inaugural YCC sustainability co-chair, I would like to highlight what is often overlooked in “Year in Review” or “State of the Global Climate” reports: the spirit of our unfinished, ongoing work, and who we call on to partake in it.
A year and a half ago, we established the Climate Action Pledge Series as part of our Small Steps, Big Impacts initiative. It was coordinated by the YCC, Yale Sustainability Liaisons and the Yale Student Environmental Coalition. Nearly every month since then, students have filled out a colorful Google Form with checkmarks imploring them to use a solar charger, thrift instead of splurge and bring their own mug to a coffee shop.
Of course, the pledges include more substantive and intellectual points. There is an expectation that Yalies will educate themselves on equity and indigenous sovereignty in the environmental movement, vote and hold legislators accountable to values of environmental justice, purposefully identify and shop from women- and BIPOC-owned local businesses and practice climate journaling or other forms of creative reflection that promote health and well-being, to name a few.
You might have looked at our pledge and wondered: “Does this really matter? Does this single water bottle, disposable coffee cup, should-be-composted banana peel or climate pledge even make a difference?”
I have paused on this, too, and have been consulted by friends on it more times than I have recycled — that is, a lot. And let me assure you: It. All. Matters.
Yale and schools like it have an obligation to institutionalize policies and programs that put sustainability and the climate crisis on all students’ minds, for it is no longer possible to turn a blind eye to the current devastation wrought by decades of climate negligence. And while critical to the cause as a whole, the YCC’s advocacy for this high-level institutional action on the climate crisis should not absolve other Yalies from doing their part.
Our college years are some of the most formative of our lives. We will carry with us what we have learned and the communities we have built. Certainly, some students arrive at college without prior exposure to sustainable ways of living; others have long been concerned with reducing their environmental footprints. Regardless of where you stand or come from, as individuals we all have an obligation to think about and act on the issue of climate change.
Cultivating this collective commitment to act starts with empowering students to make more sustainable choices in their everyday lives. Personal actions — and inaction — have consequences. Highlighting environmental efforts that promote equity and justice helps build sustainable lifestyle habits and place-based environmental values. It also helps us become better allies and more empathetic individuals.
The monthly climate pledges have done just that.
Let me be clear: I don’t think that a metal straw or reusable mug will radically transform the average student’s college experience, nor will it singlehandedly neutralize global carbon emissions. But I do think that continuous exposure to small sustainability initiatives — like the climate pledges — will make our generation of scientists, engineers, policymakers, teachers, investors and creators think critically about their stake in these issues as we head out into the world.
Beyond the pledges, this empowerment should be present at the start of every student’s Yale experience, with a special session during first-year orientation dedicated to living sustainably at Yale and in New Haven, and it should continue through Commencement. From organized trips to local green spaces, to guides to plant-based eateries in New Haven, to teach-ins on the latest environmental controversies, we need consistent programming that takes Yale students out of the bubble, plants them into the realities of the climate emergency and demonstrates that a low-carbon lifestyle can be accessible and meaningful to everyone. It is my sincere hope that such exposure to resources will normalize a culture of sustainability at Yale that students are inspired to carry with them beyond their years here.
This is the unfinished work I hope future YCC administrations and students will continue to take up and see through.
My friends and family often say that the planet needs people like me to save it. I appreciate that they think what I do is valuable, but I’m also a little troubled by this. They place me in a special, separate group — those of us taking care of things so that the average person can worry less. But trained environmentalists are not the only ones who can, and must, make an impact. Their words and actions alone cannot carry all of us through this crisis.
“The environmentalists” disrupt your inbox or your football field so that the disruption of the climate crisis to your everyday lives is minimal — for now — and so that our most vulnerable communities don’t have to upend their livelihoods as severely as scientists predict they will.
We are all human and all weighted with this beautiful and frightening responsibility to our Earth and to each other, 365.25 days a year.
The reports are in, and there’s more to do. You’re in this with us, Yalies. Take the pledge. We need people like you.