Sustainability Principles

  • Cultivate virtues appropriate to a culture of permanence

  • Think globally and act locally

  • Expand the teaching of environmental literacy

  • Explore the spirit of nature in religious study and practice

  • Rely increasingly on sustainable energy flows

  • Eat food that nourishes farmers and the land

  • Build for the future

  • Stop generating waste and stop wasting it

  • Restore natural landscapes for both practical and aesthetic reasons

  • Create and maintain a transparent planning process, and give an honest accounting of our successes and failures

Cultivate virtues appropriate to a culture of permanence

Sustainability isn’t just a technical problem or a material problem; it’s also a cultural problem involving the fulfillment of human needs—physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. In short, it involves virtue. David Orr asks, for example, “What virtues in our lives would produce actions that were harmonious in a larger commonwealth of plants and people? And what sort of communities must we create in order to encourage the harmonious action that we expect from individuals?” Orr suggests that we could learn something from cultures that preserve the virtues of humility, simplicity, moderation, prudence, frugality, hard work, neighborliness, and family stability. And he insists that, although individuals practice them, these virtues are not just individual values. They’re social values, and institutions and societies must nourish them to keep them. At St. Olaf, therefore, we’ll practice thrift, frugality, prudence, and sufficiency. We’ll nurture virtues of care and cooperation, trust and commitment. In an age when the word “virtue” sounds old-fashioned, we’ll re-fashion it for a sustainable future.

Think globally and act locally

This is a common slogan of today’s environmental movement, and it’s worth remembering. At St. Olaf, we intend to maintain a global perspective in our encounters with the natural world. In our American lives, we operate by remote control, as our everyday decisions trigger environmental impacts around the globe. We’ll pay attention, therefore, to the sources of our resources, and try to assure that we care for other environments as lovingly as we care for our own. As much as possible, we’ll procure products that protect or preserve the environment in processes of extraction, production and distribution.

But we also want to think locally and act locally, studying this particular place for its ecological lessons. We’ll nourish a new sense of place and a college culture attuned to the nature of its place. We’ll invite students to understand the diverse landscapes of our campus by encouraging a sense of place that is sensual—experiencing the land and the landscape through sight and sound and taste and touch and smell. In the process, we’ll embrace and embody a sense of wonder and a love for nature. We’ll also cultivate a new common sense of the natural resources of Manitou Heights, and of the ways in which we can become native to this place.

Finally, we also want to think locally and act globally. We intend to use our experience on Manitou Heights as an example, good and bad, for other colleges and institutions. With other colleges and universities, we hope to create a set of standard benchmarks to measure our environmental progress (or regress). We hope to use our procurement practices to affect businesses in Minnesota and around the world. And because we intend to teach our students by our own institutional commitments, we expect to graduate young adults with designing minds who will make a substantial difference in the world.

In addition to thinking in space—locally and globally—we’ll practice a new way of thinking in time. We’ll counter the prevailing “now-ness” of American culture by cultivating the art of long-term thinking, considering future generations in making today’s decisions.

Expand the teaching of environmental literacy

Because we are a liberal arts college, we’ll apply liberal arts perspectives to all of the environmental issues confronting us. The main product of a liberal arts college is thoughtfulness, embodied in people (faculty, students and staff) who are thoughtful in two ways: they know how to think carefully, and they know how to care about other people and places. At St. Olaf, we’ll teach and learn the meanings of environmental literacy across the different disciplines, and we’ll ponder the implications of knowing how nature-including human nature–really works. Outside classrooms in offices and dorm rooms, and the bookstore, and cafeteria, and the power plant, and on the grounds – we’ll teach and train each other how to make the college, and eventually the world, more sustainable. Mindful of campus ecology, we’ll consider every moment a teachable moment, and every space a potential classroom.

Explore the spirit of nature in religious study and practice

Because we are a college of the church, we’ll also apply our religious perspectives to these issues. We’ll explore the roots of environmentalism in the gospel, and in the scriptures and spiritual practices of the world’s religions. Individually and collectively, we’ll practice our own religion as an art of connectedness. We’ll strive to integrate environmental stewardship with the religious commitments to social justice, recognizing the interconnectedness of caring for the Earth and caring for our fellow human beings. In the words of Larry Rasmussen, “Redeeming the planet means embracing its distress. Christian theology “insists that environmental justice is also social justice and that all efforts to save the planet begin with hearing the cry of the people and the cry of the earth together.” 1Indeed, the word “religion” comes from the Latin “religare,” and it means “to bind together,” so it’s meant to bind people to God, people to each other, and people to the creation. In Genesis, God creates the earth and declares that it’s good. Because the earth is good, because it embodies the intentions of God, we are called to be good stewards of this garden. And at a place like St. Olaf, we can be religious about that calling.

Rely increasingly on sustainable energy flows

As the Hannover Principles suggest, “Human designs should, like the living world, derive their creative forces from perpetual solar income.” The college will move in that direction. We will

  • conserve energy in offices, dorm rooms, computer labs, the cafeteria, etc.
  • reduce dependence on fossil-fueled cars and trucks
  • look for cleaner energy sources
  • consider generating our own power

Eat food that nourishes farmers and the land

As Wendell Berry says, eating is “inescapably an agricultural act, and . . .how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, the way the world is used.” The cafeteria is intimately connected to farm fields around the world. In our food service, we will try to serve meals that

  • support local agriculture, reducing transportations costs (financial and environmental)
  • support practices that reduce soil erosion, and herbicide and pesticide use
  • support re-sourcing of food—like fair-trade coffee—that guarantees the livelihoods of growers

Build for the future

As David Orr suggests, architecture is pedagogy. The college can build on a fine and frugal tradition of long-lasting architecture, building only what we need, and building it well. Future buildings should incorporate “state of the shelf” (and sometimes “state of the art”) ecological design into their planning and construction. They should exemplify ecological design in siting, structure, materials, lighting, utilities, etc. And they should be designed as teaching machines so that the lessons of good building are communicated to all who enter the spaces.

Stop generating waste and stop wasting it

“In nature,” says architect William McDonough, “there is no such thing as waste, so the first thing we must do is eliminate the concept of waste.” We need to use less stuff, and we need to be more creative in disposing of it. To McDonough, today’s waste should be food for tomorrow’s regenerative projects, both natural and industrial. Working from the Hannover Principles, we will work to optimize the full life-cycle of products and processes, emulating natural processes to minimize our waste. We will become very materialistic, respecting and conserving the materials of nature through programs of refusal, reduction, recycling and repair to decrease the amount of waste manufactured and disposed of on campus.

Restore natural landscapes for both practical and aesthetic reasons

St. Olaf College rests on land that was, at one time, sustainable. The college will work to restore a dynamic landscape that is regenerative, incorporating the cycles of nature into the cycles of campus life. We will continue our work to “recreate” the prairies and woodlands that existed in this area before European settlement. We’ll continue to restore wetlands and to incorporate them into the water cycle of the campus. We’ll continue experimentation with sustainable agricultural practices on our agricultural lands.

Put our money where our values are

In purchasing stuff and paying bills and investing the endowment, we’ll put our money where our values are. In procurement, we’ll look for green alternatives to paper, copying materials, cleaning supplies, etc. In investing, we’ll look for socially and environmentally responsible alternatives. In all of our economic operations, we’ll try to practice full-cost accounting, taking into account the real costs—social and environmental—of the products and services we use. We’ll put ourselves on an energy budget, and we’ll stick to it.

Create and maintain a transparent planning process, and give an honest accounting of our successes and failures

We’ll include the whole St. Olaf community—students, staff, faculty, alumni, friends of the college, and neighbors in Northfield—in our conversations, planning, and activities. Sustainability isn’t something that can be imposed on a community—it’s something that must grow from the conversations of a community, both internally and externally.

Finally, we will share our stories of success and failure so that others may learn from our example (good and bad). As we turn our attention to the arts of sustainability, we will learn a lot from other institutions that are making the same turn. With any luck, we’ll also have lessons to offer. In a collegial spirit of cooperation and collaboration, we’ll offer our story—on the website, at conferences, and in publications—as an object lesson for people with common concerns.