The sixth borough
Columbia's newest special-interest community is the university's first 'sustainable house.'
Tuesday, November 17, 2009 - 22:28
Approaching sustainability without elitist fanfare that drives others away is a crucial problem constantly faced by environmentalists: how does a person improve his own standard of sustainable living and spread the message to others without somehow coming off as, well, a tool? To make matters more difficult, college environmentalists often must confront their peers, who, at the critical juncture of their early 20s, can be extremely self-assured and -- as they often are here at Columbia -- extremely busy.
But dorm life is where long-term patterns of sustainable or consumptive living are formed for the first time: it's where a student determines how often she needs to do her laundry before the suitors are repulsed, how much light (and what kind of light bulb) he needs to sustain an all-nighter.
At GreenBorough, a special-interest community that went active this fall, students are capitalizing the sustainable potential of college residential life. They're taking sustainability into their own showers, refrigerators and living rooms.
The brownstone on 114th Street houses 13 of the university's most environmentally engaged undergrads, who have made a commitment to live as sustainably as they possibly can for the semester or year. Brenden Cline, a junior in the college, cofounded the house with junior Liz Allocco. After reading an article about sustainable houses at other colleges, Cline and Allocco strove to create a similar community at Columbia. The green light from the university and a strong response from interested students gave them room to nuance the goal of the house, and what kind of people would live there.
"We didn't want just people who were super-crunchy or involved in environmental clubs," Cline said. "We wanted the people who were most willing to practice what they preach, and who had an openness to new ideas."
They often face the problem inherent in a sustainable community: keeping track of each other's efforts. What do you do when you notice someone has left a light on? A passive-aggressive e-mail in their long thread of daily communications? A post on their lively message board? The dreaded face-to-face confrontation?
Cline said they've been keeping these interactions light while they continue work on setting their community standards.
"In the past few weeks, whenever I've left on my light, someone will walk in, turn it off and go up to me and say: GreenBor-owned," he said.
The extent of the university's involvement has included giving the group a physical space to live in, and a yearly fund of $500 for related events. But useful amenities that can take out a lot of the work in living sustainably -- like low-flush toilets or automatic light turn-off -- are not a group goal for the near future. After two months in the house, they recognize that their own personal efforts to cut down on consumption and lessen environmental impact have just begun.
Among their achievements in the past few months are a successful shower timing system, cooking with weekly CSA shares of local, organic vegetables, composting and worm bins, a diligent recycling system, using "freegan" housewares and food whenever possible and using drying racks for laundry. While Cline said they can't "do conspicuously crunchy things like garden" in the city, they've focused much of their efforts outward to the greater university community: they recently recruited chefs to prepare a sustainable, vegetarian fall feast for raffle-winning students.
Occupying the role of college student(s) offers some inherent challenges for the group, namely, working with facilities and other bureaucratic organizations that often turn a blind eye when words like "freegan" are thrown out. But this space also allows them unique communicative abilities unavailable to the previous generation of activists: their website is not so much a list of information as it is an exchange of ideas within the group. Cline said he hopes to eventually harness this power in a network of sustainable houses at other colleges.
Networking is an important priority for the group, in and outside of the house. As often as possible, they try to eat dinner together at a table they constructed from mostly plastic bags and cardboard (which, as junior engineering major and resident Zak Accuardi pointed out, is remarkably sturdy). They painted it together while watching Dr. Strangelove. It's an unassuming highlight of the brownstone's small living room, yet effective. And it's a story.