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Hundreds Converge on BC Campus for Sustainability

It’s official. The first annual Campus-Community Partnerships for Sustainability Conference was a unanimous success!

First annual Campus-Community Partnerships for Sustainability Conference

The conference, held at Berea College April 21-23, drew environmentalists from Kentucky and neighboring states seeking to discover new ways to move towards a more sustainable society. More than 350 registrants spent their weekend engaged in stimulating lectures and discussions, informative presentations, and hands-on workshops. The group also enjoyed meals with food grown and prepared by local farmers.

The idea for the conference came from Berea’s director of Sustainability and Environmental Studies (SENS), Richard Olson. The event was one of many as part of a year-long celebration of the Ecovillage, dubbed the Year of the Ecovillage. “I thought as part of that we could highlight the interaction between not just the Ecovillage, but the campus and community” Olson said. “From that came the idea for a conference that would look at those partnerships. There’s no way we can have a sustainable campus in isolation from the community or the region. Everybody has to work together and bring their own strengths to the table.”

The event kicked off with a thought provoking presentation on the perils of peak oil by Pat Murphy, the executive director of Community Service Inc., a group committed to the growth of small, sustainable communities. Murphy presented the grim facts pertaining to the decline in global oil production and suggested using “relocalization” to combat the negative effects of the over-consumption of the world’s energy resources. Relocalization involves creating “small, local communities that are energy efficient, sustainable, and where life is better,” he said. Murphy warned, though, that changes must be made soon. “Things are changing so rapidly that I fear for the future,” he said. “Our grandchildren will be saying, ‘Grandpa, why didn’t you know? Couldn’t you have used less? Couldn’t you save us something?’” However, Murphy congratulated Berea College on “being one of the leaders” in the areas of sustainability and relocalization.

The next day’s events began with speaker, Michael Shuman. Shuman, who is an attorney, economist, and author, spoke to attendees on the importance of “choosing wisely” to move toward a localized economy, or what he calls that “The Small-Mart Revolution.” “Globalization has flooded our system with cheap goods and services,” he said, and advocated a switch to doing business with locally-owned companies. Shuman claimed that the problems of peak oil create a questionable future for big business, and provide the perfect opportunity for local economies to take over. Shuman gave the numerous benefits of moving to a locally-owned economy, and provided ways in which citizens can support these small economies and decrease their dependence on large, unstable corporations. “Everything I’ve talked about is feasible,” he said, “Everything is being done somewhere.”

Berea College President Larry Shinn was in the audience for Shuman’s presentation. “I thought Shuman's talk was excellent,” he said. “It was grounded in good theory, good practice, and imaginative prospects for the future.”

After Shuman’s presentation, participants had their pick of nine concurrent workshops to attend. The workshops focused on sustainable topics such as green landscapes and buildings, alternative energy, transportation, and facilitating campus-community partnerships in sustainability. Amelia Challender and Geoffrey Steen, students from Warren Wilson College, were among the workshop participants. As an Environmental Education major, Challender sat in on the Campus-Community Curricula workshop, while Steen, a future farmer, attended the Local Food Systems seminar. Both students hoped to take what they learned at the conference back to their campus in an effort to make it “more green.”

Berea College student Sarah Spellman also found the workshops rewarding. Spellman visited the workshop on Ecovillages since she and her sister, Corrie, will be traveling through Europe this summer, and spending time at similar communities along the way. “I learned about 15 or so different types of Ecovillages, what they provide, and that a community is able to do more than one person,” she said. Spellman also made a valuable connection with Donald E. Pitzer, the Director of the Center for Communal Studies at the University of Southern Indiana, who offered to help the Spellman sisters in their summer Ecovillage tour.

On Saturday night, guests were treated to a delicious meal with foods grown and prepared by the Berea College Local Foods Initiative and MERJ Market. At the dinner, President Shinn spoke on the meeting he held earlier that day with various Kentucky leaders on promoting sustainability in their respective institutions. President Shinn met with Berea Mayor Steven Connelly, representatives from the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville, and Eastern Kentucky University, as well as other important area officials. “We discussed best practices at all of our institutions or governments,” he said. “I made a presentation on what Berea has done the past decade...and I asked all of us at my session to pledge to attend next year, as well.” Speaking on the role of educational institutions in promoting sustainability, Shinn said, “If colleges and universities are not the leaders, who will be? But we must lead in knowledge and action—together.”

Even more enjoyable than the food was an impassioned speech by Berea alumnus and Compton Fellow Tricia Feeney on the devastation of mountaintop removal. Feeney, who graduated last year, is now working in the mountains on protecting the water supply from the pollutants of coal mining. In her talk, she spoke about the ruin of not only the land, but the people of the Appalachian region as a result of mountaintop removal, and what needs to be done to stop the devastating destructive trend. For many, Feeney’s moving speech was the highlight of the conference.

On Sunday, participants had their choice of hands-on workshops, including photovoltaic system installation, biofuel production and stream monitoring. Later that evening, the exciting weekend concluded with "Missing Mountains," an event that featured readings by Kentucky contributors to the book also entitled Missing Mountains. Readers who shared their contributions included the former director of Berea’s Appalachian Center, Loyal Jones, poet Christina Lovin, author Erik Reece, and the famed Appalachian writer Wendell Berry. The contributors shared their feelings on the devastation of the Appalachian mountains as a result of mountaintop removal, and urged the audience to join Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to help preserve Kentucky’s mountains.

Kathy Hogan, a Montessori teacher, and Bob Fairchild, an alternative energy engineer, came to the conference from Dreyfus, KY. The couple enjoyed all aspects of the symposium, but were particularly moved by the Missing Mountains closing ceremony. “I was inspired to get more involved in the mountains,” Fairchild said. Hogan agreed, saying, “We live it [sustainability], but we need to be more vocal,” she said. “I try to live by example, but sometimes that’s just not enough.”

Ultimately Richard Olson feels the conference was a success. Now those who attended the conference must put what they learned into action. At the opening event, Olsen said, “The goal [of the conference] is to increase knowledge, skills, and develop contacts for partnerships to address environmental problems. If we don’t take the knowledge and skills we learn here and apply them to make concrete improvements, then we’ve failed.” After the conference, though, Olson was optimistic about what possibilities lay ahead. “I think people are going to take this information and the contacts that they’ve made home and do a million different things, but because they’re working locally in their own context” he said. “I do think that we’ll be more sustainable as a result of this conference.”

(Photos contributed by Kris Hammons, Tyler Castells, and Alice Ledford.)

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