By Smith Getterman, Assistant Director of Sustainability and Special Projects at Baylor University
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: 97 percent of climate scientists agree that we are the main reason the planet is warming at an alarming rate and if we do not do something about it, we face catastrophic climate destabilization that has the potential to effectively wipe out our species. We must shop locally, buy organic, compost our food waste, turn off our lights, save the tigers, reduce, reuse and recycle. But even if we do all of that, it may already be too late.
We have to save the planet.
Part of the job of being the environmental ambassador for our respective campus is learning to navigate the expectation that you are an expert or, in the very least, well versed on whatever sustainability related issue is currently trending in the media. For a lot of us, that is also part of the fun of doing what we do. Many of us thrive on learning about new topics, new issues and new ways we can make a positive impact on the world around us. The difficulty, though, comes in trying to figure out what issues need to be shared and emphasized on our specific campus.
Let’s be honest. It’s a little exhausting. If we the professionals find ourselves overwhelmed by the data or worn out by the arguments, how must our target audience feel? Are we even sure who our target audience is any more? Each of us can walk away from a conference with a quiver full of ideas, but how relevant are they to our specific campus mission? Additionally, would these ideas and the language used to convey them speak to, and integrate well with, our very specific campus culture?
Too often, I find that environmentalists fail to see that the current way of messaging our shared goals is simply not working. Sure it gets like-minded folks fired up and engaged, but what about everyone else? To borrow some evangelical language, there is too much preaching to choir and not enough effort being made to meet the unreached where they are.
At Baylor, the world’s largest Baptist university, we have been successful by adopting a unique identity that often sees us going against the flow of typical environmental storytelling and advocacy.
You won’t find us using environmental doomsday statistics or scenarios to galvanize our constituents. We make every effort not to overwhelm our campus with all of the different sustainability or environmentally themed “days” that can be celebrated throughout the year, such as Campus Sustainability Day, World Water Day, and so on. In fact, when it comes to Earth Day, you won’t find us calling it that. Instead, we celebrate Creation Day, usually on April 22nd, but if the date works better for the campus community to celebrate it on another day in April, we’re open to doing that without hesitation.
Photos courtesy of Baylor University
Since we began approaching sustainability in this way, we have seen record numbers in recycling rates, energy curtailment, student involvement and advocacy, sustainability curriculum integration and a significant increase in our STARS score. All without telling people to save the planet.
Our counterintuitive approach has been successful primarily for two reasons:
- We have closely aligned the mission of the Office of Sustainability with the Christian mission of the university.
- We focus on our role as educators of a community, rather than simply acting as caretakers of a place.
Like any campus, our sustainability initiatives are always evolving and we are continually working to ensure that our university is a good steward of its resources. Our primary goal, however, will always be to ensure that anyone that visits our campus will walk away with a renewed perspective on, and appreciation for, God’s creation. We have created a community of people that understand they have a role to play in bringing hope to this world through their careful consideration of how they use it.
Our choir now swells in new memberships every year, but still, there are more we must reach.