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The Greater Green

"In the vaunted works of Art, The master stroke is Nature's part." —Ralph Waldo Emerson

By Sherri Kimmel


José-Luis Machado, an associate professor of biology who conducts research with students in the Crum Woods, leads parents, students, and alumni on a woods tour during Garnet Homecoming and Family Weekend in October. Photo by Laurence Kesterson

A year ago this fall, I stumbled around in the dusky light, making my way through trees neatly labeled. Paths crisscrossed, and I circled the campus trying to find the obscurely marked building where next day I would be interviewing for this job as magazine editor. I paused at the crest of Parrish Lawn and looked down Magill Walk, flanked by flame-orange trees.

Inhale, exhale.

I’d visited many college campuses but never encountered one so breathtaking, so neatly wedded to its natural setting. Could I picture myself here? It seemed almost too magnificent for me, a flatland-Ohio girl. But the leafy beauty drew me in, and my desire to portray this community in this place overcame my awe.

While the Scott Arboretum and Crum Woods, which filter flowers and lush plant life throughout the College campus, make the prospect of working at Swarthmore appealing, this “brotherhood of venerable trees” (thanks, Wordsworth) also heightens the College’s appeal for its future scholars.

“The natural setting attracted me to the College,” confesses Alex Ahn ’14. “The fact that we label all of our plant life and not just our buildings speaks to that. We share our campus with an arboretum. What’s nice is a focus here that is not all about putting on a show. Higher ed is, at this point, more of a business than it used to be. Swarthmore tries to run against the grain by bringing in the introspective elements.”

Ahn is a biology major and environmental studies minor who spent the summer and the fall semester working in the lab of Jorge Sarmiento ’67, professor of geosciences at Princeton University. Ahn is doing predictive and conceptual computer modeling for climate change. His work, affiliated with Princeton's Atmospheric and Oceanics Program, grew out of an extern experience last winter. He was primed for serious work on climate change after helping to found a weekly radio show on the topic, which evolved into the student organization Think Climate.

Rooted in Nature

Like many students, faculty, staff, and alumni Ahn is dedicated to treating the natural world with reverence and is committed to embracing sustainable practices and resource management not only to benefit this particular campus but the world beyond the Crum Creek that borders the campus. It is a value system one might expect to find at a college founded by a religious order that was concerned with furthering the greater good and was committed to the earth.

“It seems to me that a lot of our desire to practice sustainability comes from our Quaker roots,” says Ahn. “What particularly comes to mind is our planting and maintenance of the Crum Woods 80 or more years ago, when there was a great gothic revival among American universities and colleges. While others, like Yale and Princeton, were pouring money into gothic architecture, there was this college in a small suburb of Philadelphia—Swarthmore—planting trees for future generations. It speaks to our heritage and legacy to keep the grounds so that they inspire the monastic introspection we still see on the campus today and the likes of which hasn’t been seen elsewhere.”

A Quaker State of Mind

“Our commitment to our Quaker heritage, to social responsibility, is important to this generation of students,” confirms Joy Charlton, executive director of the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. “Sustainability is an issue that is enormously important for future generations’ survival on this planet as well as being socially just.”


Alex Ahn ’14 (left) has furthered his exploration into climate change by working with Jorge Sarmiento ’67 (right) in Sarmiento’s lab at Princeton University. Photo by Laurence Kesterson

Carr Everbach, professor of engineering and one of the College’s hardest-working and most vocal environmental advocates for the last 20 years, echoes Charlton’s reference to social responsibility. “Swarthmore is unusual in that it has a social mission built into itself. That should make it more facile in bringing practical benefits from theoretical constructs. There is a 150-year tradition of Swarthmore students actually going out and trying to make the world a better place,” he says.

The Lang Center provides strong support for students dedicated to environmental sustainability by creating and funding experiences that expose them to the issues and encourage them to participate in proposing and enacting solutions, maintains Charlton.

These include summer internships on sustainability as well as sustainability projects enacted by Lang Opportunity Scholars, such as zero-waste elementary schools. Lang Center Interns on Sustainability support the College’s Sustainability Committee (SusCom) and keep in touch with the community’s growing demand for responsible action on environmental issues. SusCom’s purpose is to make recommendations to the president and College community on policies that promote environmental sustainability and the most efficient and responsible use of College resources. It coordinates and supports campus sustainability efforts and initiatives.

Charlton also mentions the Lang Center–funded Green Advisers—students who promote sustainable practices in residence halls. In addition, the center boosted campus sustainability by hosting a full-time, 10-month sustainability coordinator, whose term ended last spring, and brought to campus for this academic year the first sustainability-focused Lang Visiting Professor for Issues of Social Change (for more on Giovanna Di Chiro, click here).

While the Lang Center is a major conduit for student environmental interest in and out of the classroom, the College’s interdisciplinary environmental studies (ES) minor encourages students to explore the nitty-gritty of sustainability through a multitude of lenses.

Working All the Angles

“Given the mission of this college, it is very appropriate for the College to think about sustainability from many angles,” says Peter Collings, Morris L. Clothier Professor of Physics and coordinator of the ES program.

“If the College is going to stay true to its mission, it has to do what it can to make sure it’s being socially responsible and active. It has to ask about the effects of its policies and how it goes about doing its business. Where it really gets interesting and has many ramifications is the education part of it. If the College says it should be a good citizen of the earth, then we should be educating the faculty and students about how we can be good inhabitants of the earth. The commitment of the College to having a program in an academic arena in which faculty grow and learn and students take courses that apply to their lives after Swarthmore can only help Swarthmore College in these efforts.”

Currently there are 17 ES minors and four special ES majors in the junior and senior classes. In addition, 53 percent of students take at least one course in the program.

Developed as a concentration two decades ago, the ES program received a major boost recently when the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Swarthmore $591,000 to support the creation of an integrated Tri-College (Tri-Co) program with Haverford and Bryn Mawr.

Now in its second year, the Tri-Co ES program enables students to take part in case-study–based introductory courses, capstone seminars, and a large number of ES elective courses at any of the three campuses. This spring, Richter Professor of Political Science Carol Nackenoff, who coordinated Swarthmore’s ES program before Collings, is teaching the ES introductory course with Everbach on water politics and policy, centering on China. She hopes to incorporate onsite learning in China and language study.

A second Mellon grant, a $1 million challenge to be matched 2-to-1 by the College, has endowed a new tenure-track position in environmental economics that will be integral to the ES program but housed in the economics department. The new professor will have teaching responsibilities in ES and economics.

A Tuned-in Generation

Ellen Magenheim, professor and chair of economics, observes that this generation of Swarthmore students is particularly attuned to environmental issues. “I’ve felt there was a gap in the curriculum, and there is a growing interest in the environment and environmental studies.” The new position, for which she, members of her department, and ES program faculty are now reviewing candidates, will close that gap.

Despite the growth of Swarthmore’s ES program in recent years, more could be done to strengthen it, according to Collings. “If the College wants a program it can be proud of, it needs to offer a major.” He notes that a few ES students, led by Ben Goloff ’15 and Julia Carleton ’15, wrote a creative and carefully considered proposal for just such an expansion this fall. As a result, the ES committee will discuss the possibility of making a formal request to the College’s Council on Educational Policy for an ES tenure-track faculty position.

Ahn, who says he was marginally involved with the proposal, contends that the lack of full-time ES faculty (professors who teach ES courses are tenured faculty in departments such as physics, sociology, engineering, religion, history, biology, English literature, philosophy, chemistry, and political science) is a deficit. “I would hope that Swarthmore does establish a track major or even a certificate program like those at Wellesley or Wesleyan,” he says. “I think we have a lot of examples to look at to get something done in that regard. It also would be nice to have a physical space for the ES program.”

Although Ahn feels that “Tri-Co has been an improvement, I think travel between the three Tri-Co colleges presents an inhibition for students wanting to go that route. It involves huge chunks of time before and after class, and shuttles don’t always align with when courses start and end.”

“There is no question that the Tri-Co program is a much richer and broader opportunity for students, but there are logistical problems—getting students and faculty from one campus to another,” confirms Collings. “Carol Nackenoff, who helped write the proposal with colleagues from Bryn Mawr and Haverford, really made it a possibility. It’s my job now to make it happen.”

Confronting Moral Dilemmas

A frequent contributor to the ES program since its inception, Mark Wallace, professor of religion, is teaching the senior capstone course at Swarthmore this spring. The Extraction Industry and the Liberal Arts will “look at the impact hydrofracking and other such practices have on colleges like Swarthmore,” Wallace says.


“Swarthmore students are going to have to lead the way in learning how to adapt to climate change,” says Professor Carr Everbach. “A big part of sustainability now is trying to figure out how to deal with the hurt that’s going to occur and make the best out of a bad situation.” Photo by Laurence Kesterson

The course will explore thorny questions, he says, such as, “ ‘Should we be continuing to tie our endowment to the fossil-fuel industry? Is it possible to divest from the industry to make our endowment morally responsible to the value of sustainability?’ The class wants to struggle with articulating a new human vision for a future that is no longer addicted to fossil fuels.”

Wallace likens the decision on whether or not to divest from holdings in fossil-fuel-related companies to the question of abolishing slavery, which the Quakers grappled with in the 1860s, when the College was founded.

Divestment is an issue the Board has seriously addressed but is not considering at this time, according to Board member David Gelber ’63, a veteran news producer who is developing a TV series on climate change.

“If fossil-fuel companies drill and mine all their proprietary resources, the earth’s climate is certain to go haywire,” he says. “I’d love to see Swarthmore help put together a leadership group of colleges and universities on this issue. As shareholders of fossil-fuel companies, the schools could challenge coal and oil corporations not to extract any more fossil fuels than our world can tolerate.”

Pressuring Fossil-Fuel Firms

To address climate issues through proactive shareholder efforts, the College has joined Ceres, a network of investors, companies, and public interest groups seeking to promote sustainable business practices. The College plans to co-file shareholder resolutions related to climate change.

Being a leader in issues related to sustainability “is completely consistent with what the College has always stood for,” Gelber says. “The leadership of this school understands the importance of the issue and is building toward playing a major leadership role in this area. Swarthmore is and should be a beacon on what I see as the single biggest issue of our time.”

Integral to leading campus efforts in sustainability, which may someday propel the College into national leadership on the issue, has been Ralph Thayer, director of maintenance. “This College would be so far behind on sustainability without his commitment to this issue,” says Charlton in her soft voice. “He’s quietly proactive about sustainability, and I have so much respect for all that he’s done.”

Thayer defines sustainability as “utilizing our resources efficiently and working in concert with nature. It’s also a social experiment requiring the community to have a common goal. It touches on energy but also on matters of waste and whether we really need flowers from Peru in the dead of winter. Fiji water should remain in Fiji. There’s plenty of good tap water here.”

But Thayer doesn’t just talk the talk. Visit his house in winter, and you’ll find out. But wear your fleecy. He keeps his thermostat at 60 degrees. “Put on some socks and sweats, and you’ll survive,” he says with a grin. This reserved, diesel-car–driving man also is a stickler for turning the lights out when he leaves a room.

He applies his home philosophy on campus, resisting widespread purchase of motion sensors that automatically turn off lights in rooms. Instead, Thayer hopes that flicking off lights will become learned behavior. “If you send people into the world [without awareness], they’ll expect the world to turn the lights off for them,” he says matter-of-factly. “They need to understand that somewhere a generator is spinning.”

Besides helping to lead the College’s all-campus voluntary energy-reduction efforts that have yielded cost savings on utilities, Thayer co-chairs both SusCom and the Climate Action Planning Committee, the latter of which is expected this month to issue guidelines for advancement toward carbon neutrality.

Keeping College Energy Use in Check

“Our ability to keep our energy use in check is one of the most wonderful things about the College,” Thayer contends. “We got a jump on the [American Colleges & University] Presidents’ Climate Commitment [the ACUPCC, which Swarthmore’s Rebecca Chopp signed in 2010]. We’re well on our way to meeting our goal.”

The College had vowed to realize a 20 percent drop in carbon emissions from its peak in 2005 to 2020. “We met that in 2012, despite adding nearly 200,000 square feet to the campus,” Thayer says with satisfaction. “Being carbon neutral by 2035 is a harder nut to crack.”

Signatories to the ACUPCC agree to do a campus emissions inventory; set a target date and interim milestones for becoming climate neutral; take immediate steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions; integrate sustainability into the curriculum; and make the action plan, inventory, and progress reports publicly available.

“Rebecca’s signing the Climate Commitment was a significant statement,” agrees another campus sustainability leader, Claire Sawyers, director of the Scott Arboretum. “If the framework is established at the leadership level, it creates the potential for lots of dialogue.” The Campus Master Plan, an assessment of the campus’ physical structures, buildings, and layout that is being developed over the next several months, has taken the natural assets into account. “It shows the Crum Woods coming into the campus more,” Sawyers says with delight. “It is bringing a sense of the woods more into campus.”

From her perspective, the innovative use of horticulture and plants not only creates beauty but addresses a lot of ecological conundrums. As one example, she invokes the College’s green-roofs protocol, led by Jeff Jabco, director of grounds and coordinator of horticulture for the Scott Arboretum.

Green roofs are rooftops that sport waterproof synthetic membranes topped by live plants. While attracting birds and insects, green roofs also reduce air-conditioning costs and have a longer lifespan than conventional roofs. They also help with storm-water management, enabling the capture and use of 50 to 90 percent of the rainfall.

The College arboretum has several green roofs—on Alice Paul and David Kemp residence halls, the Scott Arboretum Wister Center, a storage building at Papazian Hall, and a new one planned for the Lang Performing Arts Center next summer. “LPAC is the largest flat-roof building on campus, and this will have a big impact [in reducing the amount of water that runs down the roof and into the Crum Woods],” Jabco says.

Powered and Empowered by Activist Students


Ralph Thayer, with one of the campus heating boilers, says that although the College has made advances in energy conservation, there is “room to grow in the future for water conservation.” Photo by Laurence Kesterson

As Thayer quietly goes about powering up the College’s sustainability efforts and powering down energy use, he is always mindful that the students are the wind at his back, the voice in his ear.

“If you look at the history of Earthlust, one of the early green groups, they pushed on a lot of this stuff,” Thayer says. “They pushed for wind power and getting alternate sources of energy. They’ve always been on SusCom, and it’s been a real benefit to have them. A fresh group every year brings new ideas to the table.”

But they also can bring impatience. “They sometimes are disappointed that the administration doesn’t move more quickly,” Thayer says. “They want to see progress in their four years. But projects and changes in operations have to get in line for consideration by the administration.”

Students have helped the College’s cause by providing money from the student-founded Renewing Fund for Resource Conservation to install energy-saving lights in many places on campus. This has resulted in considerable cost savings. Thayer returned those savings to the fund and has been approved for another loan to continue the project.

Camille Robertson ’13, a biology and educational studies special major who served on SusCom for several semesters, worked on the Climate Action Plan in fall 2011 and was a student gardener, contends, as do most campus sustainability leaders, that a full-time sustainability director should be hired.

For years, Everbach has served in that role in a de facto manner, wedging it in between his duties as a full-time faculty member. “The No. 1 thing we need is a sustainability director, someone who has the time and expertise to deal with this, because we’re all amateurs and we’re all too busy,” he says. “I’ve put in hundreds of hours on this, but I still don’t think I know what I’m doing.”

A sustainability director, concurs Thayer, “would keep the wheels spinning, make contact with other institutions, and find out the best practices that might have traction here. A lot of colleges have already established this. We’re kind of on the tail end of it.”

Mindful of this pressing need, the Board will consider the proposal for a position this winter.

As with all major movements for the greater good, there is much still to be done, a fact that President Chopp readily admits. “We are not where we want to be yet, which is why we instilled a recommendation in the strategic plan to invest in sustainable environmental practices so we can get to where we need to be. We need to balance a culture of individualism with a deeper commitment to the community good. The Quakers gave us a good model for this.”

Looking at the road ahead prompts a look back at the last 10 years. To Wallace, who has taught several courses on religion and ecology, the decade can be likened to “a green fire sweeping across campus. We’ve made progress on how we manage energy, buildings, and storm water. We encourage walking, biking, and taking the train to campus rather than the car. A lot of the time, sustainability is the baseline for what we do here. It saturates our curriculum—we have an intellectual gumbo of different disciplines around climate change.”

For more about sustainability efforts at Swarthmore, go to

To watch how to build a green roof here.

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