“One of my goals at this point is to see a SENS course cross-listed in every program” says Compton Chair of Sustainability Nancy Gift, nearing completion of her first year here at Berea College. Among other things, Gift and Ashley Cochrane worked on integrating sustainability principles across the Berea College curriculum.
The following is a partial transcription of our conversation reflecting on her position and the importance of sustainability at Berea College.
Bethany: So how much muse-inspiring are you doing?
Nancy: Most of what I’m trying to do is not so much tell people, but make sure they know their field relates. I’ve had a lot of individual conversations with faculty from business and marketing, to computer science, to art, to women’s studies, to peace and social justice, and English—with the message, “I know sustainability is part of your field. I’d love to hear more about it, and I’d love to see it in a way that’s visible.” Whenever possible, I hope that people will be brought to sustainability because they see that they’re a part of it already. What I sometimes like to say is, “I don’t care if you buy an LED light bulb and use it because it’s pretty, or because it’ll last, or because it’s going to save you electric money, or because it’s sustainable—I don’t care at all. I just want you to do the right thing.” And my hope is that all of the reasons for doing the right thing are going to come into play. And I mean the fact that you won’t have to buy another light bulb again for another ten years, maybe that’s fine—it’s really annoying to get up on a high ceiling and replace your light bulbs. Whereas I think the SENS curriculum, in an ideal world, is more about explaining to people the whys, and giving that whole background. But you can change behavior without always giving the whole picture. If you get people to walk to work because they’re going to be healthier and because they’re going to enjoy their commute more, do you actually care that they think that they’re doing it for environmental reasons?
Bethany: Berea College started very much with social justice and racial equality in mind, and so I feel like that value has always—
Nancy: It’s a pervasive value.
Bethany: Yeah it’s pervasive, it’s kind of always been there. And I mean, I’m sure there have been ebbs and flows of trying to re-center curriculum around those themes…
Bethany: …But how do you see sustainability in relation to the value of social justice?
Nancy: I think it puts us in a really good position to be leaders in improving the field of sustainability… So green businesses will often pop up and they’ll chose to use green resources so that they’re more sustainable, and then from there they’ll find a good price for their product so their business has economic future to it. But what’s left out, is the fact that the only people who can afford LEED certified houses are rich.
Berea, on the other hand, has approached the whole world from the opposite perspective. Everyone should have equal access to resources, whether those resources are land, housing, clean water, or clean air—any of it… So we’re starting from the perspective—“change whatever you want—but it has to have equity.” I think that’s actually a really fantastic place to start environmental change and sustainability related stuff. If, for example, we’re talking about food access, then Grow Appalachia looks like a really good organization because it starts with the people who need the food instead of starting with the farmer who owns land and then figuring out how that farmer will make money…
Bethany: It seems to me that sustainability is big everywhere, and not just because it’s necessary, but because it’s trendy, you know? But it definitely feels like Berea College is moving toward making sustainability one of its main tenants.
Nancy: Yeah I mean one of the nice things about beginning with facilities—which is what we did—is that the facilities are very long term. So that makes it a visible presence no matter whether we talk about it or not… On the other hand, nobody is sitting around debating whether we should do social justice work. It is understood—you could not possibly leave Berea without learning about social justice. In the same way, don’t want sustainability to be something that you can leave Berea without learning about. At the same time, I don’t necessarily want to be the only way that people get there. It’s not going to be that everybody takes a class with Nancy Gift—it’s that—I know that Berea faculty already have the expertise to teach this. They may not have the confidence right now, but they actually do have the expertise, and I want all the faculty and students to know that whatever field they’re in there’s a place at the sustainability table that needs that voice….
Bethany: So what do the business folks teach here at Berea College?
Nancy: My dad was an economist. Economics is associated with studying money and how to make more of it. But Vulcar has said that he believes economics is actually the study of how people get happy—the currency of happiness. To the extent that money can buy leisure time, or to the extent that money can buy food security, there’s a certain amount of it that you need. Beyond that, statistics show that once a person is above poverty line there’s no correlation at all between their income and happiness. So people who make more are not happier. You can look at lots of other factors (that make people happy), but among them are community and health. And community and health are all about environment. Your community is partly about how you relate to each other spatially, so like in an Eco village or in very separate—suburban hell kind of spaces. And then your health is—whether you think about it or not—is related to your water and your air. I mean people talk about heart disease like it’s all about whether we eat bacon or fat, but the reality is that people who live in areas of high air pollution have a much higher rate of heart disease. We don’t talk about that because you don’t typically have a choice about where you live. But if you live in an area of high particulate matter, the particulates in the air don’t go to your lungs, they skip your lungs and go straight through your lungs and into your bloodstream. And that can cause hardening of the arteries. So your health and your environment are intimately linked, and if we don’t know that it’s because we’re not talking about the right things.
Nancy: So, to answer your question back to the economics and business program, my sense is that the economists and the business people who are here; if they were interested in purely making money, they would not be here.
Nancy: This is actually a self-selected group of the most open to social equity—open to environmental values—types of economists and business people you could possibly have. They’re not making the salary that they could make out in the business world. If you have an economics major you can make a lot more than a Berea faculty member. It means sometimes it’s hard to staff our positions, but it also means that when someone comes here and stays, they know what they’re here for.
Bethany: So how did you end up here?
Nancy: One of my favorite high school teachers was a Berea Graduate. I remember one of my classmates going to Berea, and how proud of her he was for getting in, and I remember just thinking that that was really neat. Berea was not an option for me because my dad was a professor. It’s kind of funny to say, but one of the things I think is saddest about Berea is that the students who come here didn’t have a choice in a lot of cases. It was either this college or none. And because they didn’t have a choice, I don’t think they realize what a gift it is to be here. Berea was the one place I couldn’t go. I went to Harvard. I could go anywhere I wanted, and even though we weren’t rich, I was going to get financial aid because of my grades. But I couldn’t go to Berea. I saw this as kind of a magical place—that there were lots of educations I could get in this world, but I couldn’t go immerse myself in Appalachia at that work college and be in that beautiful place. And so it’s always had that allure for me, of the one thing I can’t have. So I grew up in Lexington. Went to Harvard, got masters at UK, went to Cornell for grad school and then went to U of Chicago for four years, living just south of the Obamas. Then I moved to Pittsburgh, and now I’m here.