During our first Winter Term at Oberlin, Kathleen Keating ’09 and I gutted flood-damaged houses in New Orleans. Between shovelfuls of sludge and wheelbarrows full of ruined belongings, we learned about the tragedies the residents had endured. Sonny, who worked beside us, explained how he had waited for days on his roof until swimming out, his hunger and thirst overcoming his fear of the snakes in the black, contaminated water. As we rolled our wheelbarrows in and out of the broken houses, our minds paced back and forth on a constant path of logic: deadlier hurricanes are caused by a warmer climate caused by our greenhouse gas emissions. We took off our Tyvek suits, came back to school, and, like any Oberlin student who confronts an unjust reality, we decided to try to do something about it.
We joined another friend, Amanda Medress ’09, and together began attempting to renovate a college-owned house to shrink its carbon emissions and spread ideas for sustainable living throughout campus. The Student Experiment in Ecological Design (the “SEED House") was a simple plan, but Obies quickly learn that reality’s challenges exceed expectations.
Luckily, the school prepares its students for such demands. We reviewed the literature on ecological design with David Orr in Environmental Studies; we studied composting with Brad Masi at the George Jones Farm; we developed feasible plans with Keith Watkins and Molly Tyson in the Facilities and ResEd Departments; we assisted in designing a persuasive, green church workshop with Cindy Frantz in the Psychology department; and we made SEED’s energy monitoring system the first of its kind with John Petersen, one of the country’s foremost experts on energy monitoring systems. Even President Krislov and his daughter Evie visited us for a barbeque and offered suggestions: Evie particularly enjoyed using dirty sink water to flush the toilet, and President Krislov took the opportunity to encourage her to leave on fewer lights around their house.
With such support, we insulated, met safety codes, rewired, and replaced light fixtures, faucets, and showers. These renovations combined with quirky lifestyle changes to cut our carbon emissions (and utility bills) in half. And these humorous lifestyle changes combined with luck to put SEED House on the front page of The New York Times.
Oberlin’s support network made our successes possible. SEED demanded skills like composting, caulking, persuading, public speaking, and econometric analysis, and for each skill we required, we found an expert willing to teach it. With every question we had and every challenge we faced, a member of the Oberlin family was there to help us.
On an issue as complex as global warming, progress requires that broad range of knowledge. Climate change is a huge, unanswered challenge to our world--and to understand it, we need to understand economics, ecology, politics, psychology, and more. We need to be pragmatic, humble, and devoted. Oberlin gives us the idealism to dream change, the support to begin change, and the training to sustain change.