Sustainability in Kentucky


n the end, sustainability entails much more
than merely talking the talk.  Activists encountered this message
time and again at the Campus Community Partnerships for Sustainability
Conference in Berea, Kentucky, from April 21 to 23.  In fact,
with academics, organizers, and do-it-yourselfers from around the
country in attendance, it proved impossible to theorize about a
green lifestyle without making hands-on connections to landscape
and community. 

The setting for the weekend afforded an inspiring backdrop. Since
the founding of its Sustainability and Environmental Studies (SENS)
program in 1999, conference host Berea College has been steadily
building an international reputation as one of the greenest campuses
this side of the Atlantic.  Just down the quad from the conference,
its eco-village, living machine, greenhouses, and permaculture plot
hummed away in their usual, ecologically avant-garde way. 

But the rest of us have a lot of work to do yet. On Friday night,
keynote speaker Pat Murphy, executive director of the Yellow Springs,
Ohio-based Community Solution, juxtaposed an historical overview
of U.S. energy policy with a dire warning about the health of our
global climate.  Ultimately, his statistics point toward a
central question facing Americans. “The final result [of all
these forces] is going to be a very low energy way of living,”
he says. “We are going to get there violently or we can get
there peacefully.” 

But even a peaceful route requires forethought and cooperation.
 “I’m going to talk on the hope side of the equation,”
announced Michael Shuman on the following Earth Day morning. His
talk offered hopeful strategies for crafting a vibrant, locally-owned
America. Shuman, an attorney and economist from St. Lawrence County,
New York, had just authored a book,

Going Local

, in which
he studies how small business owners are taking back control from
large corporations like Wal-Mart. 

Participants then split up into workshops to brainstorm possibilities
and acknowledge roadblocks to sustainability. Joshua Bills, co-coordinator
of the Kentucky Solar Partnership, outlined practical options for
powering homes and buildings with solar power. While solar may be
growing exponentially as an alternative technology, he cautioned,
that shouldn’t be the only kind of solution we consider. Others,
like Justin Maxson, president of the Berea-based Mountain Association
for Community Economic development, proposed a more sustainably
minded state level economic policy: “We need an economic vision
that incorporates local economies and regional development models,”
he suggests. In working toward that vision, Kentucky should invest
in local processing capabilities and foster a spirit of local entrepreneurship,
rather than offer tax incentives to multinational corporations. 

Melchizedek, co-coordinator of Humboldt State University’s
Center for Appropriate Technology in northern California, explained
in her workshop that sustainable college housing should be the credo
for anyone who embraces small-scale green technologies— collegiate
or otherwise. Along with students from Warren Wilson College in
North Carolina, the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee,
Middlebury College, Vermont, and conference host Berea, she described
her campus “ecohouse” and the efforts underway to create
a more civically engaged, energy-conscious student body. Some of
those dwellings are nothing short of the future of architecture,
with composting toilets, organic gardens, and solar arrays, they
cut energy costs exponentially while spreading the word that sustainability doesn’t necessarily have to end on your dormitory

“We are living an unsustainable story,” said Daniel Greenberg,
president and founder of Living Routes, an Amherst, Massachusetts
educational program designed to teach students about environmental
ethics by placing them at “ecovillages” around the world.
Current programs feature trips to places like Auroville, India and
Findhorn, Scotland. According to Greenberg, this emphasis on “community
scale, appropriate technology” is a critical component of any
sustainable vision. 

That night, some 300 participants convened for a dinner of home-cooked
regional specialties from local farms. In his address to the guests,
Berea College President Larry Shinn emphasized his willingness as
an educator to craft a thoughtful, “upstream” curriculum
that recognizes a collective responsibility to future generations. 

Tricia Feeney, a Berea alum who followed Shinn’s speech with
a powerful one of her own, served as a literal embodiment of that
“upstream” attitude he had alluded to.  Since graduating
in 2005, she has spent the last year documenting the effects of
mountaintop removal mining on Appalachian water resources and the
communities that rely on them. “What are we leaving Appalachia
if we’re taking the coal, killing the people, and leaving the
waste behind?” she asked the crowd, encouraging everyone to
challenge the state of Kentucky’s reluctance to engage mountaintop
removal as a social justice issue. 

Indeed, if sustainability was the overarching theme of the conference,
then mountaintop removal quickly became its most pressing concern.
Assuming no new environmental restrictions, this practice of strip
mining will have destroyed over 6 percent of Appalachian forestland
by the year 2012.  Residents of rural Appalachia are currently
suffering from mercury and selenium poisoning of their streams and
soils, not to mention debilitating social effects on their municipalities
and economic livelihoods. 

After a Sunday of practical workshops on biodeisel production, solar
panel installation, and native plant gardening, attendees gathered
at the Union Church in downtown Berea to hear Berry and other notable
Kentucky authors speak out on mountaintop removal. All of the writers
in attendance have pieces in a new collection entitled



We Went to the Mountaintop But it Wasn’t

. The book offers a smattering of fiction, poetry, and
essays addressing both the ecological and psychological effects
of this practice on the land and people of Appalachia. 

“The word sustainability doesn’t mean much to folks around
here,” says Maxson. “But a lot of folks are struggling
to meet their basic needs, to recognize the value of protected mountains,
clean water, and high quality soil. And that’s the rub.”
Thus the conference may be just the thing to jumpstart awareness
and community cooperation, in Berea and beyond: “The more conferences
that relate to local contexts, the better,” he stresses. “There’s
a lot more to be done.”

Ives is a student at Middlebury College in Vermont. His last article,
“The Road to Detroit,” appeared in the November 2005 issue