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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

An Inconvenient Truth About Carbon Neutrality

Last week, the Campus updated us on Middlebury’s plan to become carbon neutral by 2016.  The degree of precision found in this initiative is incredible. To cite but one example, Middlebury collects data on where each and every woodchip burned in our biomass plant is harvested and milled.

This seems like a rational approach to limiting our carbon impact, but it is precisely the opposite approach we take with our students. The detailed accounting standards laid out in the 2008 Climate Action Implementation Plan have plenty to say about woodchips, but do not include any similar consideration of the impact of the student body.

Of course, students are not woodchips. For one, students exert a far larger impact on the climate. Woodchips can be transported thousands at a time in the back of a truck. By contrast, most students fly to campus or take a personal car. The woodchips make a one-way trip; Middlebury students come and go several times throughout the year. And while Middlebury scrupulously limits its woodchip consumption to a 75-mile radius of the college, we proudly trumpet the fact that Middlebury students hail from all 50 states and over 70 countries.

Middlebury’s definition of “carbon neutrality” requires us to assume that students miraculously appear in rural Vermont every September before mysteriously vanishing once again every May. We are eager to track and quantify our carbon footprint — at least as long as it does not require us to make the painful choices that true carbon neutrality would entail.

The only real reason for excluding students from the carbon calculus is that it would be too hard — hard not just because the climatological impact of student air travel would prove nigh on impossible to mitigate, but also because true carbon neutrality would require us to compromise on other values we hold dear. In an age where long-distance travel is only possible through burning fossil fuels, how can we credibly claim to be both “carbon neutral” and “global”?

Maybe some would make the case that Middlebury is only responsible for travel it directly funds, and thus we are justified in excluding student travel from our calculations. But this is a slight-of-hand argument that masks the inconvenient truth that Middlebury College is just as responsible for student travel to and from campus as it is for burning thousands of gallons of no. 6 heating oil. It is not as though the College is passively witness to an onslaught of students who happen to arrive each fall. Rather, we actively cultivate a diverse, geographically disparate student body through dedicated recruitment efforts and financial subsidies in the form of aid, knowing full well that this leads to an increase in carbon emissions.

If we truly care about fighting climate change, there are hugely significant actions the college could take immediately. I do not mean the existing feel-good measures: turning off the lights in unoccupied rooms, having students ride the bus to the Snow Bowl or switching food suppliers in the dining hall. I mean drastic cuts that would vastly reduce the carbon emissions associated with students travelling to and from campus. These include closing the C.V. Starr-Middlebury Schools Abroad, revoking all financial aid to international students, suspending our participation in the Davis Scholars program and ending the Chicago Posse as well as the new Los Angeles expansion. Middlebury could even limit admission to those who reside in the Northeast by requiring that students use mass transit to and from the college — both Boston and New York are accessible by bus and train, and there are more than enough qualified students from these two cities to fill future freshman classes.

But these options are not even on the table — and with good reason. The answer is simple: we accept — nay, encourage — the cultivation of a global student body despite the climatological costs because it is worth it. In addition to our relatively recent commitment to carbon neutrality, we also have a longstanding institutional commitment to diversity. Too many people take a fundamentalist approach to saving the environment while ignoring the fact that all actions have costs and benefits, and, sometimes, the benefits of burning carbon may indeed outweigh the costs. I happen to think that a pound of carbon spent furthering the educational mission of Middlebury College is a pound we are justified in spending. Judging from the fact that most students willfully emit thousands of pounds of carbon each year in their journeys to and from campus, it appears that nearly all my peers already agree with me.

This is not to say we should not strive for greater efficiency. But “carbon neutrality” is only possible through arbitrary accounting and heroic assumptions. Being a responsible steward of the environment is an important ambition for Middlebury College, but it should never be our only goal.

MAX KAGAN '14 is from Freeport, Maine. Artwork by TAMIR WILLIAMS.