Students at Maine's Unity College Walk the 'Sustainability' Talk

May 6, 2015

This story is the third installment of Beyond 350: Confronting Climate Change.

UNITY, Maine - Unity College in central Maine is known for being the first college in the nation to completely divest from fossil fuels. It was also the first to make sustainability science the core of its curriculum. And it was the first to build a certified energy efficient "passive house."

This month, 120 students will graduate from the small, environmentally-focused college that has a big mission: to teach students to "think, work and live sustainably."
And some of them are taking on that role.

 As a youngster growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, Clark Crawford says he always wanted to be a zoologist. And then he learned about climate change and the threats it poses. By the time he'd finished high school, Crawford had shifted gears. He's now a senior in sustainable energy management, about to graduate from Unity with a job aligned with his major. He starts in two weeks.

"I've been working on and off throughout the school year with ReVision Energy who's a professional installer based out of Liberty, Maine," he says. "And I found out about them freshman year, Unity College, mainly because they've done all the solar arrays around campus. So I've had their name in my head freshman year."

Crawford interned with the company and says he discovered he had a passion for the business. "The renewable energy industry and the solar industry, in particular, is just growing so rapidly and it's - there's always a new technology right around the corner, and it's just really exciting to be part of something that's growing."

As the semester draws to a close, Crawford is one of 16 students taking Professor Michael Womersley's senior-level Global Change class. The focus is climate change. And on this day, the last lecture of the year, Womersley is discussing climate realism and foreign policy.

"You can't solve climate policy as long as you have any one great exporter of petroleum that is not getting out of that business, at least over the next 50 years," he says. "They don't have to get out of that business tomorrow, but they have to be out of that business eventually, right? And so you've got to have a way of making them do that politically."

It's a daunting goal, but one for which student Clark Crawford says he's well-equipped. "Something I'll take away from Unity is this trans-disciplinary approach to solving environmental problems where we're all from different ways of life, like conservation, law enforcement, sustainable energy and, like, wildlife management," he says, "and we're all coming together to solve complex problems and I think that really prepares you for how tackling climate change is going to work in the real world and how - that's how it's going to be."

"I've caused a lot of family arguments, you know, definitely, with my views on consumerism and criticizing buying choices and trying to promote using public transportation, driving less, buying organic," says Tim Hill, of Lansdale, Pennsylvania.  

Hill is also a senior who graduates in December. He's has chosen a different career path for himself: His major is environmental writing and media studies. He plans to use his skills to be an advocate and an activist on the front lines of the environmental movement.

This past September he and another student organized a trip to New York for the Peoples' Climate March. "For someone who is not religious, who identifies as an agnostic, it was as close as a religious experience as possible."

With a crowd estimated at 400,000, it was the largest climate rally in history. "Probably my favorite moment is - this march of people was about four miles long - and at one point we had this message to be silent. We had about 30 seconds to a minute of silence and just, the silence, just trickled down the line of people and we just, everything just stopped. And then we just exploded back with our protest cries and rallying, and it was, it was utterly mind blowing to be in that community and be in that group of people."

Included in the group was Tim Hill's father. It was his first climate action. Hill says he persuaded his dad to go. And despite some of the family arguments, Hill is still working to convince his father to adopt other practices he's learned at Unity.

The same is true for sophomore Gunnar Norback of Cheshire, Connecticut.  "This is our magic box," Norbeck says. "And if you look in here, there are rigid plastic pipes that connect each of the rooms together."

Norback, who is an earth and environmental science major, is taking me on a tour of TerraHaus, the first college residence hall in the U.S to be built to the highest international standard for energy efficiency. It's two stories tall, with massive, insulated windows and no oil tank.

A large concrete kitchen counter absorbs radiant heat through the windows during the day and releases it when the outside temperature gets cooler. "So without using any energy, electricity, fossil fuels, we're able to heat the house at night."

Like the other eight residents of TerraHaus, Norback is expected to be committed to an energy efficient lifestyle. He is. And his enthusiasm for it has even spread to his parents, who are both real estate developers. Norback says his father is now on board.

"I'm always trying to get him to implement some of the sustainable building techniques that I've learned here at Unity," he says, "and, believe it or not, my 62-year-old
father, who's been building homes for nearly 35 years now, actually takes my advice."

Chris Crawford, Tim Hill and Gunnar Norback say Unity has taught them to start small and think big about living sustainably on the planet. They remain optimistic about meeting the enormous challenges posed by climate change. To be anything else, says Norback, is to extinguish the possibility that adaptation and even mitigation can be achieved.

Coverage of our year-long series, "Beyond 350," is made possible by the Doree Taylor Charitable Foundation.