Sustaining Sustainuary

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.”

“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.” So begins Aldo Leopold in his famous essay “The Land Ethic” from A Sand County Almanac, a work that changed the course of the American conservation movement.

It is this concept, applied to our campus, that underlies Lawrenceville’s approach to promoting sustainability: We try to promote a community-oriented approach to sustainability problems, emphasizing small, individual actions over large-scale efforts. Throughout Sustainuary in particular, the initiatives and events are even more visible. Students strut down the KAC stage, draping garbage bags and cut-up Lawrence issues in the name of sustainability. We sign a banner pledging to take part in Sustainuary efforts and even spend an Irwin dinner in the dark during Valentine’s Day.

What’s striking about these efforts, however, is that while they certainly aren’t pointless, they address the problems facing the earth only in superficial ways, with very little reference to the science behind those problems or the true impact of our school’s actions. We never stop to define sustainability itself, for example—the closest we got to a definition in any of the past few years’ events was recent school meeting speaker Alize Carreré’s explanation of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. In reality, much of our sustainability effort is confined to the bare minimum—collecting compost without processing it, for example—or performative, designed more to give us moral license to neglect our duties to the earth than to actually respect the earth. We pat ourselves for buying a sustainuary water bottle, for example, then ignore the need to sort recycling without a second thought. We tell ourselves we are ‘woke’ and ‘eco-friendly’ and turn those labels into social credit rather than thinking of the earth itself.

Perhaps the explanation for this superficiality is that we don’t know the extent of the problems our planet now faces. Of course, no one can see the full reach of the ecological damage wrought by climate change, and it’s nearly impossible to focus on all the dimensions of sustainability, from soil conservation to habitat conservation to agricultural development to food production/GMOs, and on and on and on. Yet we in the industrialized world are the ones who consistently see the least of these problems. We are not farmers—we don’t see what happens to the earth or the adaptational part of sustainable life outside of the occasional photograph. But if, as Carreré emphasized, our country is leading the mitigation effort, should we not understand the lives of the people who must adapt?

Leopold continues, “A land ethic cannot prevent the alteration, management, and use of these resources, but it does affirm their right to continued existence, and, at least in some spots, their continued existence in a natural state.” If we as a school truly want to honor Aldo Leopold’s legacy, we need to live by that maxim all year round and in more sustained ways. It doesn’t take becoming an ecological activist to be a responsible member of this community, to protect what must be protected. But to do that, we must understand the community in which we now live—how it functions, what it needs to grow and thrive.