Spencer Lawrence ’11: Environmental sustainability – the 21st century challenge

Guest Columnists
Thursday, November 11, 2010

 I recently read some above-average graffiti in a bathroom stall: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Props to Socrates and the lawless student who rewrote it 2,500 years later. Let us apply it, for now, with an environmental lens. Every object we see around us came from the earth: this newspaper, the various materials that compose that building over there, the sandwiches we enjoy from the Blue Room. Unfortunately, our methods of harvesting, processing and transporting these materials simply aren’t sustainable, and if we hope to continue to enjoy them, we need to adjust.

Even a small sampling of statistics presents an alarming picture. At least 36 U.S. states could face water shortages within the next three years. Some estimate that up to 80,000 acres of forest are cleared each day. Biodiversity hotspots that once covered 16 percent of the Earth’s surface now cover less than three percent. Environmental degradation has been a serious issue since the dawn of the industrial revolution, and has grown exponentially in the last 60 years. Achieving an environmentally sustainable society will prove to be the greatest challenge of our generation and of the 21st century.

To help us Brunonians get started on our quest, we can break down our impact and make it more manageable conceptually. The majority of our environmental impact as individuals comes from four areas: our use of energy, water, materials and food. By focusing on these four, we can make a realizable commitment to making our own lives zero-, or at least lesser, impact. Many of us do make and follow through with such commitments on a daily basis. This is absolutely essential, but it is not enough. To make real change, we need to work together. We need to communicate, organize and act.

You don’t have to consider yourself an environmental activist to make a difference. This movement has a place for everyone, and the movement needs everyone. Perhaps you’re thinking of going into film or media; consider the impact that “An Inconvenient Truth” had on bringing environmental issues into living rooms across America, and ask yourself, can you uncover the next “Inconvenient Truth”? Perhaps you are thinking of applying to medical school; what are your thoughts on America’s obesity epidemic and ways to combat it? Political science and international relations concentrators know the increasing salience of these issues in national debates, as well as emerging international conflicts over scarce resources such as water and oil. Chemists might discover new ways to remove pervasive toxins from our ecosystems. Teachers can pass this knowledge on to their students and inspire the next generation. Are you an engineering student? Some of the most exciting breakthroughs in the 21st century will revolve around improving clean energy technology.

Environmental issues are not just for bleeding-heart liberals who want to do good for the world and save a couple of trees. These are serious opportunities to design innovative products, energy-efficient buildings — and to make money in the process. COE concentrators and our more business-minded students would do Brown’s alumni coffers wonders by setting up shop in what will be one of the largest industries in the 21st century: the clean energy economy. John Rockefeller P’1897 and Andrew Carnegie made it big with oil and coal, because energy is one good that is, has always been and always will be in high demand. Clean energy is the next frontier; which of us might fill their shoes? Climate change, despite what some deniers may believe, is not to be trifled with. High-speed rail, solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles: these are elements of the clean energy economy that will come to dominate in the 21st century. The U.S. is currently lagging behind China, Germany, Spain and other countries in developing them. It’s up to us to change that (and make millions and solve global warming along the way, NBD).

Brown has a wealth of intelligent and driven student minds, combined with a world-class faculty. We all share these common problems — or should I say opportunities? The issues are current and urgent. The task at hand is great; it will require a combined effort from all of us. There are many groups on campus that are working on these issues: some impart environmental education to children (OLEEP); do environmental consulting (SCP); promote local food options (SuFI); deal with climate change, composting, water and advocacy through environmental coalitions (such as emPower); and many others. I encourage everyone to check out one or more of these groups or contact them to start your own project. If we communicate with each other, organize with each other, and act together, we can and we will create an environmentally sustainable society.

Spencer Lawrence ’11 is excited to

work with you on these issues.

He can be contacted at

spencer_lawrence (at)