Down to Earth: Bringing Green Living Home
These days, “green” living is a mark of chic. It’s as common to hear people boast about their new Prius or Energy Star appliance as it is about a new house or a trip to Europe. Reducing one’s “carbon footprint” is an activity on par with yoga and Pilates. Trendy or not, the sentiment behind the effort is positive, and many Mount Holyoke alumnae are bringing the concept of “green living” home.
One such woman is Cynthia Brown Stevens ’70. She and her husband met and married in Washington, DC; he was a personal trainer, she was a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst with a thriving practice in the city’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood. They lived in the upscale suburb of McLean, Virginia, and relished the area’s cultural offerings and ample green space. However, as the country barreled into the 2000s, Stevens couldn’t escape a nagging feeling that something was a little off, as money and power began to invade their lives and those of her patients. “I could hear it in the ‘material’ of my patients as they struggled,” she says. “What did they want to do? How could they lead the kind of lives they wanted to lead?” Their intellectual tension mirrored her own. Despite their best efforts—recycling, buying compact lightbulbs, and so on—“we felt alienated,” she says. “Living close to the land felt harder and harder. Washington wasn’t an easy place to live in a green way.”
Cynthia Brown Stevens ’70 left the DC suburbs for a greener life in rural Wyoming.
In 2003, she and husband Charlie Havens began talking about moving West to someplace simpler.Today, they and their four cats are happy residents of Lander, Wyoming, population 7,000. The tiny, culturally rich community amid the Wind River Mountains boasts satellite offices of the Nature Conservancy and the National Outdoor Leadership School. They built their own home, nestled into the earth, to completely reflect a green lifestyle. “We built as green a house as we could afford,” she says. “Buying land was part of that green decision. The houses we were looking at were as much as 100 years old and very expensive to renovate. When you consider the amount of waste you generate [renovating], there was a real trade-off. Was this as green as we hoped it could be?”
The couple ended up buying 8.5 acres—a handkerchief-sized parcel in the sweeping Lander landscape—and vowed to keep that land as natural as possible, pouring their money into infrastructure instead of massive construction. Using green-minded local builders and spearheading their own design, they created a home that relies on its location, tucked into the mountains, for a good deal of insulation. It uses solar electricity and offers a wraparound porch for maximum outdoor living. “We had thirty inches of snow recently, and the temperature was in the teens,” Stevens says. “And our temperature indoors never went below sixty.”
The home is outfitted entirely with efficient Energy Star appliances and green flooring, with nontoxic grout, and a combination of tile and Marmoleum, which is made from recycled and renewable materials. And the ranch-style home is “much quieter and spectacularly beautiful,” Stevens says. “The sense of peace and serenity that exists out here is really staggering. We’re able to live in a way that’s consistent with our values.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Jennie Paige Sandler ’81. She and her husband Scott, native East Coasters, were looking for an earth-friendly place to settle. After looking in Massachusetts and Vermont, they bought a thirty-one-acre tree farm a half-hour outside of Portland, Oregon. There, they designed and built their own home from scratch, using her husband’s engineering expertise, some helpful do-it-yourself books, and friends with elbow grease. The family lived in a trailer on their property for three years (“It made it easy for the kids to yell when they were hungry and needed us while we were working!” she laughs.) until the home was livable.
“We used salvaged materials whenever possible, and much of the lumber came from our land—we hired a portable mill to come in and cut to our specifications,” she says. The ridge beams are old-growth from a barn that was being razed; cedar siding came from a lumber yard that had been flooded. Ceiling boards were once part of a warehouse loft. “The house is oriented to the south and has overhanging eaves, so that we get the solar gain in the winter, but the direct sun is shaded in the summer,” she says. The floor is poured concrete, with water tubes embedded for winter heat. The mass holds heat nicely in the winter, and stays cool through the summer. A solar water panel on the roof provides hot water. They’re also converting their lumber shed into a greenhouse. “Living where we do, it makes it easier to be earth-friendly, and it’s so beautiful,” Sandler says.
J.E. Westfall ’93 feels similarly about Atlanta, a city she says is at the forefront of the green movement. Her self-published book, Green Matters, focuses on her hometown, which she says has “one of the three leading green building programs in the United States.” In the book, due to hit shelves this winter, she talks to green trend-setters throughout the region—architects, developers, and business leaders at the forefront of this movement, most notably Laura Turner Seydel. Seydel, daughter of Ted Turner, owns what was the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified home in the Southeast. The book offers plenty of tips for civilians to green-ify their lives.
Of course, not all of us are descendants of Ted Turner. Westfall acknowledges that right now, it’s often cost-prohibitive to live entirely green. But she predicts that this will change. “Five or ten years out, there will be a huge shift in this country,” she says. “The economy has grown at the cost of the environment. What’s neat about green in general is a lot of people are saying that the revitalization of the economy, in large part, will take place around this industry.”
Naturally, she and husband Michael Eastman mirror in myriad ways the green lifestyle she discusses in her book. In addition to festooning their home with the ubiquitous Energy Star appliances, they also make use of low-emittance windows. They suppress solar heat coming through the windows, and keep homes cooler in the summer. This reduces reliance on air-conditioning units. Westfall also uses window exhaust fans, which circulate air and bring in fresh, cool air from the outside.
She’s also cutting down on silent energy-suckers. “Forty percent of the electricity used in a typical home comes from things that are kept running all the time, even when they’re not in use,” she says, such as cable boxes and computers.
Westfall and her husband also take their passion for green living outdoors. To “encourage our neighbors to think ‘green’ as well,” she says, “we’re in the process of certifying our yard through the National Wildlife Federation.” This involves making the area hospitable to wildlife, such as by providing food, water, and shelter sources like plants, ponds, and shrubbery. “We’re really into gardening and grow our own herbs and vegetables throughout the summer, which means far fewer trips to the grocery store. We grow everything from tomatoes to squash, lettuce, basil, onions, and blueberries … tons of things!” Westfall and her friends host harvest parties throughout the summer, sharing local produce.
Redesigning our personal lives to accommodate green innovation is undoubtedly wonderful. But some alums take the commitment one step further, making it part of their life’s work. Conservation and preservation is a booming industry these days, albeit a frustrating one at times. When Jennifer McCabe Reynolds ’99 worked for the Southeast office of the Wilderness Society, an organization devoted to protecting America’s public lands, the group faced an uphill battle there when the Bush administration came to power. “It was like hitting a brick wall,” she says. “All of these policies were just getting reversed overnight.”
Today, she’s a PhD student at the University of Georgia, specializing in marine biology and ecology. Reynolds’s firsthand research has exposed her to the harsh realities of a changing environment: “Global warming is one of the big large-scale factors that affect coral reefs, and it’s hard to hear people say that climate change doesn’t exist,” she says. Reynolds hopes to teach after completing her graduate work, educating college students about the precariousness of the environment.
So too does environmental and public-health consultant Ann Blake ’85, who says her whole life is “about finding ways to move us all to a more sustainable relationship with the planet.” She works with local governments, national and international NGO coalitions, and emerging sustainable industries to eliminate the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing and consumer products. She also chairs a nonprofit board that creates worker-owned, eco-friendly home-cleaning businesses for Latina women in the San Francisco Bay area. “Increasingly, I’m seeing that people are making the connections among issues as varied as poverty reduction, food security, microfinance of local economies, worker and community protection from toxic exposure, climate change, and broad impacts of globalization,” she says. Moving to “local, sustainable economies fueled by renewable energy, safe, dignified jobs, and healthy communities is the collective work of our lifetime, and I am thrilled to be part of it.”
But as alums on the other side of the world attest, it’s an uphill battle. Jocelyne M. Takatsuno ’00, originally from the Bay area herself, now lives in Kitgum, Uganda, where she works with the International Rescue Committee. Although the effort is not part of her job description, she tries her best to educate people about the positive effects of green living. “At a household level outside of the capital, ‘carbon footprints’ are unheard of. What green living occurs is because of a lack of less-green options. Green living isn’t intentional in Africa, but the carbon footprint of each household is very high considering how little they have to begin with,” she says.
In Uganda, there are NGOs that focus on park conservation, and Takatsuno says, “Increasingly, relief and recovery organizations are being asked by their donors to consider the environmental impacts of their programs, and I consider this a hopeful sign. However, I would have a hard time asking a child-headed household affected by violent conflict to conserve their use of plastic bags and to practice more environmentally friendly farming techniques.”
Back in South Hadley, Mount Holyoke is making headway in the green arena, too. The College Sustainability Report Card is the only comparative evaluation of campus and endowment sustainability activities at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. MHC’s overall grade on the 2009 report card was B- (fewer than one in three schools earned a grade that high), with A grades for its commitment to green building and recycling, and for students’ devotion to engaging campus sustainability.
Environmental awareness is everywhere at Mount Holyoke, from campus speakers to “Lick It Green,” an event designed to expose students to green opportunities across campus (while they enjoyed mint ice cream cones). The Center for the Environment connects academic and “real-world” environmental concerns; hybrid vehicles are part of the campus fleet; environmental stewardship is a vital element in the college’s strategic Plan for 2010; the campus is maintained using green cleaners; and students are involved in everything from a community garden to contests to reduce residence-hall energy consumption. These are just a few of the large and small ways that our college’s commitment—matched by the efforts of her students and alumnae—continues to grow.
—By Kara C. Baskin ’00
Kara Baskin is editor of the Boston Globe’s Lola magazine. Her first book, Size Matters, came out in 2008. This article appeared in the winter 2009 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
Green Living at MHC
• How Green Is Our Campus?
• Selected Results of Eco-Initiatives at MHC
• How Does MHC Compare to Other Campuses?
How You Can Live Green
• EcoTips: It Can Be Easy Being Green
• Green Alumnae: Creative, and Dedicated
• Quizzes: How Green Are You?
• Additional Reading about Green Living
- Goals: To ensure that students a) develop a critical understanding of fundamental environmental issues and the interactions between people and environmental systems; b) explore social, cultural, historical, political-economic, and scientific dimensions of environmental concerns; c) make direct connections between academic studies and real-world issues, problems, and solutions; and d) understand the connections between cultural diversity and biodiversity.
- They do this through public events and guest speakers, the Environmental Leadership Series (professionals coming to campus), the curricular trail (allowing students to study “a variety of ecological processes and their responses to human activities” on-campus), a film series, the springtime Roots of Community Festival (this year’s theme is environment, equality, economics), the Kill-a-Watt Energy Conservation Competition, and the nationwide RecycleMania.
- The Plan for 2010 says we must “accelerate our progress toward systematic practice of environmental stewardship, providing an excellent example of synergy between curricular and administrative efforts and a clear focus on cost-effective applications of environmentally responsible principles.”
- Environmental Indicators: 4 percent decrease in energy consumed per square foot (because of a decrease in thermal energy use); greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 7 percent; recycling rates increased by 4 percent; importance of maintaining natural areas on campus; capturing and treating storm water to maintain and restore the health of Upper Lake, Lower Lake, and Stony Brook
- Recycling and Waste Reduction: residence halls; offices; public areas; composting
- “The Big Turn Off”: minimizing energy consumption on campus
- Green Computing: enabling power management on monitors; disabling screen savers; turning off the screen and printers on nights and weekends; reducing paper use; properly caring for laptop batteries
- Hybrid Vehicles: Two Honda Civic hybrids in our fleet since 2003; gasoline-powered engine with an electric motor; saves gas and reduces carbon emissions
- Biodiesel Use: a 20 percent biodiesel blend (B20) is used by Facilities Management in all off-road diesel-fueled equipment.
- “Green” cleaning products have been used since 2002.
- Water-Conservation Efforts: a student-initiated project to install lower-flow faucet screens.
Environmentally Responsible Building
- Environmentally Responsible Building Principles
- Environmentally Responsible Building Guidelines
- New Residence Hall: fifth building on campus to be LEED certified; anticipated to receive a LEED Silver designation.
Environmental Action Coalition
A student group focused on ecological responsibility; campaigns include Tampaction (which aims to eradicate the use of unhealthy, unsustainable tampons and pads); Campus Climate Challenge; Focus the Nation (examining global warming solutions); Go Cold Turkey (encouraging students to unplug all appliances while away on breaks); Million Monitor Drive; and the Farm Initiative (developing and supporting a sustainable food system on campus).
- • Putting 2,800 computer monitors in power-save mode saves the college enough to light 460 average homes for a year. At energy rates of 10.5 cents/kWh, MHC saved about $49,000 in 2005. Read more.
- • Student residence halls compete in a “Kill-A-Watt contest” to reduce energy use. MacGregor Hall was the winning dorm in September’s contest, with a 22.7 percent decrease. The dorm received $100 and unlimited bragging rights. Read more.
- • Recyclemania pits colleges against one another to see who can recycle the most material. At MHC, 26.73 pounds of recyclables per person were recycled in 2007’s RecycleMania, putting MHC in thirty-fifth place out of 180 participating schools. Read more.
- • Last year, MHC saw a 7 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, attributed partly to making natural gas a larger proportion of the college’s fuel choice. Read more.
- • The college also saw a 4 percent decrease in energy consumed, attributed to a decrease in thermal energy use resulting from conservation projects and programs such as a heat-recovery system in Carr Lab. Read more.
- • The equivalent of 180 tons of greenhouse gasses were offset when MHC bought enough green energy to power all student computers for the entire year in 2006. Read more.
- • By adding two Honda Civic hybrids to the Mount Holyoke fleet, 525 gallons of gasoline (and 10,269 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions) were saved in 2005. Read more.
- To reduce carbon monoxide emissions by up to 20 percent, a 20 percent biodiesel blend (B20) is used in all Facilities Management off-road diesel-fueled equipment. Read more.
- • A 2007 student-initiated project to install lower-flow faucet screens caused a 77 percent reduction in water use (an annual savings of approximately 7,318,500 gallons or $29,274). Read more.
- • A “Vending Miser,” a motion sensor and control box that shuts the machine down when nobody is near, was installed on 26 MHC soda machines in 2006. That reduced energy by 35 percent and saved 27 tons of carbon dioxide. Read more.
- • Switching the type of lighting in Kendall Hall (the gym) reduced energy by half yet increased the brightness by 135 percent. Read more.
- • $53,000 is saved every year by the energy-recovery loop installed in the science building. It reclaims heating and cooling energy from the building exhaust. Read more.
- • Changing 1,000 lightbulbs on campus from incandescents to compact fluorescents saved $20,000 (and 65 tons of carbon offsets each year.) Read more.
• The College Sustainability Report Card is the only comparative evaluation of campus and endowment sustainability activities at colleges and universities in the United States and Canada. The report card rates institutions on campus and endowment sustainability. MHC’s overall grade was B- (fewer than one in three schools earned a grade that high), with A grades in the “green building,” “student involvement,” and “food and recycling” categories. See our whole report card here and read more about the general survey results.
EcoTips: It Can Be Easy Being Green
Thanks to these alumnae for the suggestions below: Kelly Ferguson ’05, Ginger Burr ’78, Sherri VandenAkker ’87, Beth Mullin ’77, Vicki Bensley Burke ’92, Denise Davies ’96, Marcia Worth-Baker ’88, J.E. Westfall ’93, and Alison E. Raymond ’00.
1. Buy locally made products, including food, clothes and toys.
2. Buy sustainably grown products (coffee, chocolate, and bamboo, for example).
3. Carry reusable shopping bags. (Keep them in your car/on your bike so you won’t forget them.)
4. Buy compact fluorescent lightbulbs.
5. Choose recyclable products (use as few plastics as possible, since they’re made from fossil fuels), then recycle them.
6. Shop mostly at second-hand stores to help others “recycle” clothing and household goods.
7. Buy products that are of the highest quality you can afford; they’ll last longer, thus reducing your participation in “throw-away culture.”
8. Scale back on holiday gifts, and packaging, and shipping. Read Bill McKibben’s Hundred Dollar Holiday: The Case for a More Joyful Christmas (you can check out an excerpt here.) Or replace some or all of your holiday gift-giving with charitable giving.
9. Buy LED holiday lights for your tree and home.
Around the House
1. Replace older furnaces and appliances with more efficient models.
2. Turn down the thermostat an extra three degrees in the daytime and eight degrees at night and when you’re away from home.
3. Turn up the thermostat on the air conditioner an extra five degrees, using them only in the room you’re in … or use fans instead.
4. Use natural household cleaning products (or if you hire a cleaning firm, choose one that uses them).
5. Use cloth napkins, and cloth diapers, instead of disposables.
6. Turn off the lights when you’re not using them.
7. Reduce “silent energy-suckers” by using a device such as the Smart Strip, which cuts power to devices like DVD players when they’re not in use.
8. Recharge iPods, cell phones, and MP3 players, by solar power using a “Solio.” (Solio charges itself while stuck to your car’s windshield with a suction cup.)
9. Instead of chemical fertilizers and insecticides, use natural fertilizer (compost, manure) and scented cedar bedding. (Humans love, but most insects hate, the smell.)
10. Make food from scratch rather than buying premade food.
11. Cut back your junk-mail by removing your name from catalogue mailing lists.
12. Use fewer gas-powered engines. (For example, reduce driving; no leaf blowers; shovel when it’s possible instead of pulling out the snow blower).
13. Increase your home’s insulation and other heat-trapping features such as weather-stripping and storm doors/windows.
14. Consider adding solar panels to your roof to generate electricity.
15. Give your dryer a break (or away) and dry clothes on a line.
1. Increase your car’s gas mileage with Air Alert, a valve cap that lights up when your tires need more air. (Cars use more gas when tires are flatter.)
2. When you buy another car, choose a hybrid or other low-emission, high-gas-mileage vehicle.
Pass On Your Eco-Ideas
1. If you’re a teacher, teach your students about steps they can take to reduce their own impact on the world. Aim for a “ripple effect.” If even twenty students a year decide to live more “greenly,” and their households average three people, that’s an additional sixty people a year who have decided to lower their impact on the planet.
2. Lobby for change where you work. For example, get recycling bins; use coffee mugs instead of disposable cups; and ask the cafeteria to stop using Styrofoam containers.
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
1. Carry your own lunch bag and silverware to work. (Check out this website for reusable cloth lunch bags that are fashionable and washable!)
2. For those of you who like to party—carry your own beer cozy so you don’t have to use napkins at bars.
3. Reuse whatever you can.
4. Shop mostly at second-hand stores to help others “recycle” clothing and household goods.
5. Reduce your meat intake, or eat vegetarian/vegan.
6. If people where you work aren’t recycling, provide containers and put up signs encouraging them to do so.
7. Recycle kitchen and yard waste with a compost pile (which also creates free fertilizer).
8. Instead of landfilling unwanted items, offer to give them away at your work, neighborhood center, or place of worship. Or post your offering on the local Freecycle site.
Green Alumnae: Creative, and Dedicated
• Donna Albino ’83 uses a blender she bought at a yard sale to combine paper junk mail and water recycled by her dehumidifier to create pulp from which she created handmade paper for art projects. Check out some samples!
• Sara Stiltner ’02 is a “bike commuter, vegan, secondhand shopping, communal living” student in sustainable-business program. Even after suffering a broken leg after a car hit her while she was biking, she refuses to get a car. (“What, and make the roads even less safe by adding another car?” she asks.)
• Ever since reading Gary Paul Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat, Mary McClintock ’78 has increased the percentage of locally grown food in her diet. She also has organized community education projects, and writes a weekly column for her local newspaper on the topic. “Eating local isn’t a deprivation, but something to be enjoyed,” she says.
• Elizabeth Cossin ’06 works for a Jewish environmental-education organization, teaching students how to take responsibility for the Earth. As part of the program, each student (and each staff member) makes a brit adamah, or contract with the Earth, to do one small effort to help the environment.
• Sherri VandenAkker ’87 says small actions can significantly reduce a household’s carbon footprint; they’ve reduced theirs by an estimated 10 to 20 percent. “It seemed like the problem was so vast, there was little to do. But we’ve decided to take a myriad small steps to reduce our negative impact on the planet. We believe our small efforts add up, and because each is small, they’ve been easy to take and to sustain.”
• As chair of her son’s preschool’s parent auxiliary, Vicki Bensley Burke ’92 started a Green Committee to expand recycling efforts. They recycle ink cartridges, cell phones, bottles, and batteries. We also work with teachers to reuse in classroom projects things we can’t recycle. The idea of being “green” cannot be a novelty to the next generation; it has to be an ingrained part of their lives.”
• When 1964 alumna Gretchen Hays’s house in Malibu, California, burned in 1993, she built a “green” home of reinforced concrete. It provides excellent insulation, is energy efficient, uses recycled materials (steel and foam and very little wood), and provides better fire resistance.
• Jane Barber North ’60 was “green” at age five, “picking tomatoes from the vines and consuming them right there in the back yard ‘victory garden’ during the Second World War.” In the years since, she lived among subsistence farmers in Mali, found a way to grow vegetables while living in a city, learned traditional agricultural ways from French farmers in the Pyrenees, and spent years “building the soil and shepherding a viable cheesemaking and sheep-products business.” Now she’s passing on all that knowledge to a new generation of “those interested in sustainable agriculture.”
• Take Forbes magazine’s “Just How Green Are You?” quiz here.
• Try Kiplinger’s quiz, which tells you how to save the planet and make money at the same time.
• Test your “eco-IQ” at National Geographic’s Green Guide.
• An essay on the joys of line-drying clothing, by Marcia Worth-Baker ’88, was published in the July 23, 2006, New York Times. Read it here.
• The November 18, 2007 Boston Globe Magazine’s “Living Green” issue includes a list of “84 Ways You can Help the Planet.” Read it here.
• An Inconvenient Truth Web site has many tools to help individuals solve the climate crisis by determining their own carbon footprint and taking action personally, locally, and globally.
January 31, 2009