Michigan Tech, this isn’t sustainable

“Sustainability” is most conventionally defined as the ability to meet the needs of current generations without jeopardizing the ability of future generations to also meet their own needs. This definition was popularized in the Brundtland Report. It assumed that balance could be achieved by considering long term impacts across three dimensions: social, economic, and ecological. More recent definitions of “strong sustainability” embed these three dimensions within one another, as concentric circles rather than a Venn diagram, recognizing that economic systems should operate to support social wellbeing and that both social life and economies ultimately depend on ecological systems.

One immediate question we can ask about the conventional definition of sustainability is: are we meeting the needs of current generations? Globally, the answer is clearly no; we live in a world rife with poverty, unnecessary malnutrition and starvation, and death from preventable disease. Narrowing our gaze to the United States, the answer is also clearly no; events throughout the summer of 2020 highlighted the continued violence, including systemic and structural violence committed by the very institutions intended to uphold law and order and justice, towards people who are Black (and Indigenous and People of Color, hereafter abbreviated BIPOC) in America. People who have historically been marginalized and oppressed by centuries of settler colonialism, genocide, slavery, and segregation in America continue to have unmet physical, economic, and social needs including safety, wellbeing, and inclusion.

There is another way to think about this word and concept “sustainability” – we can ask ourselves, is this system as it exists sustainable, meaning can it continue to exist in the long term (like seven generations)? The systems of violence and oppression based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, and ability are not sustainable. They are quite literally tearing our country apart, as we become an increasingly polarized, increasingly violent, and increasingly unsafe nation, for BIPOC and everyone else who cares about the rights to safety from physical harm and justice through institutional process shared by every human on earth.

Finally, we can also ask, is Michigan Tech as an institution sustainable? Is its ability to respond in meaningful ways to current events, to make itself relevant to its students and the social world, supporting its ability to sustain itself as an institution of higher education? The answer is definitely and absolutely no.

Michigan Tech has failed to provide any kind of institutional response denouncing white supremacy (even when it is right here on campus) and continues to fail to provide support for BIPOC students who are categorically less safe than their white student counterparts. Every BIPOC student I work with has experienced hate in this community, sometimes at the hands of the police. Every time this is brought to the attention of Michigan Tech administrators, they respond as if they’re shocked by some isolated incident of hate rather than treating reality as it is: we live in a society that is systematically racist and oppressive to BIPOC, and it is the obligation of an institution of higher education to acknowledge empirical realities and educate their students about them.

An event at a recent University Senate meeting makes this lack of sustainability perfectly clear (start at 1:45). When a student read a thoughtful, heart wrenching open letter about how hurtful and damaging it is that the University continues to remain silent about these issues, the most senior administrator in the room asked for, of all things, a minute of silence! With a student imploring them to stop being silent, University administration literally responded with more silence.

BIPOC students at Michigan Tech know that this is an emotionally and physically unsafe place to learn. It will be impossible for Tech to increase the diversity of students on campus without addressing this reality as a systemic, structural issue. Michigan Tech is making itself irrelevant, and therefore unsustainable, in the world of higher education.

As you’ll hear if you listen to the end of the University Senate meeting, there are faculty on campus who care deeply about seeing structural changes that will better support BIPOC students. As a member of the Department of Social Sciences, I’ve been collaborating with a group of faculty and students since summer 2020 to develop a shared statement and list of commitments to action we can take at a Department level to address systematic oppression and systems of violence that harm BIPOC students, faculty, and staff at Michigan Tech. The University administration has told my Department that, although no written policy exists, we are not allowed to post that statement on the Department’s website, lest it be confused for an official university statement (which only the Board of Trustees is allowed to make). So, let me be unequivocally clear that this writing represents my perspective as a social scientist, a scientific expert in understanding social life. It is my professional opinion, but mine alone and not representative of anyone at Michigan Tech, that Black Lives Matter, that BIPOC students are not being supported in the ways they deserve, and that our University’s non-response is one indication that this University is not sustainable.


Climate Reality Campus Corps Presentation and Campaign

There is a newly formed Michigan Tech chapter of the Climate Reality Campus Corps, a national movement of University campuses associated with the Climate Reality Project. The student leaders of the Michigan Tech chapter recently hosted a 24 Hours of Reality event explaining the science, impacts, and solutions of the climate crisis while also highlighting how Michigan Tech fits into the bigger picture. The video of that presentation is now available for anyone to watch here. The Michigan Tech Climate Reality Campus Corps is asking Michigan Tech to start planning for a transition to 100% renewable energy for campus electricity. Michigan Tech can demonstrate its leadership in sustainability and resilience through this commitment, and student leaders on campus are ready to have conversations about making this campaign a reality!


Sustainability Stewards October Meeting Focused on Michigan Tech’s Energy System

Are you interested in how Michigan Tech gets, uses and saves energy? If so, stop by the Sustainability Stewards meeting on Wednesday, October 21st at 8pm to see information from the Energy Pie-Chart, the 50% commitment to wind, alternative energy on campus, and easy ways you can reduce your energy footprint today.


Guest speakers include: Larry Hermanson from Facilities Management, Jay Meldrum from the Keweenaw Research Center, Rose Turner from the Sustainability Demonstration House, and Kendra Lachcik from the Campus Corps.

You can join the meeting via Zoom! https://michigantech.zoom.us/j/9499596761


Sustainability Demonstration House Upcoming Virtual Events

Since the MTU Sustainability Demonstration House (SDH) is limited in opening the house and its activities to the public this semester, SDH is bringing the house and all of its sustainable systems to virtual viewers! 

You are invited to join MTU SDH for a series of webinars centered around various aspects of sustainable living:


Tuesday, October 20th: Harnessing Solar Energy for Your Home & Vehicle Learn how to size a solar array for your home!

Join via Zoom! https://michigantech.zoom.us/j/81873803467

Wednesday, October 21st: Bite Down on Emissions by Changing Your Diet Learn how to save 700 kg of CO2 emissions per year by changing what you eat!

Join via Zoom! https://michigantech.zoom.us/j/89733696370

Thursday, October 22nd: Striving for a Zero-Waste Lifestyle Learn practical steps to take to achieve a zero-waste lifestyle while saving $$$!

Join via Zoom! https://michigantech.zoom.us/j/84239350917

You won’t want to miss out on these talks!

  • View live demos of the MTU SDH sustainable systems
  • Gain access to valuable tools & resources
  • Learn practical and efficient ways to reduce your impact right now

Please email sdh@mtu.edu with any questions or concerns.  We hope to see you there!


Tech Forward Initiative on Sustainability & Resilience Supports KYCA Petition

The Working Group of the Tech Forward Initiative for Sustainability & Resilience (ISR WG) recognizes the work of the Keweenaw Youth for Climate Action (KYCA) in developing the Petition to ask Michigan Technological University to divest all funds from the fossil fuel industry. The efforts of the KYCA are aligned with the goals of Michigan Tech to demonstrate leadership in sustainability.

The ISR WG endorses the effort and supports this call for Michigan Tech to begin the fossil fuel divestment process and improve transparency and participatory decision making regarding institutional investments.  

Some of the main points in the petition include the need for transparency regarding current investments, halting and then divesting from any investments in fossil fuels, and building transparency and partnership into the structure of future investments, giving students a voice in the University’s investment process. While transparency regarding investments and participatory models of investment decision making may not seem immediately connected to fossil fuel divestment, these metrics are included in the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education STAR’s system for evaluating achievements in sustainability at Universities, as sustainability includes dimensions of social engagement, participation, inclusion, and justice. 

The ISR WG recommends that Michigan Tech adopt the recommendations called for in the KYCA petition and that all future university investments are evaluated for environmental impact, social justice, and sustainable business practices. Michigan Tech must lead by example, and the future needs Michigan Tech because the future needs innovative transformation in sustainability practices that decarbonize our society, enhance social justice and inclusion, and regenerate the collective capacity to contribute to resilient ecosystems and quality human lives.


Michigan Tech Divestment Petition

Keweenaw Youth for Climate Action is leading the way by crafting and circulating a petition asking Michigan Tech to divest from fossil fuel investments. The petition can be viewed and signed here.

Some of the main points in the petition include the need for transparency regarding current investments, halting and then divesting from any investments in fossil fuels, and building transparency and partnership into the structure of future investments, giving students a voice in the University’s investment process. While transparency regarding investments and participatory models of investment decision making may not seem immediately connected to fossil fuel divestment, these metrics included in the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education STAR’s system for evaluating achievements in sustainability at Universities, as sustainability includes dimensions of social engagement, participation, inclusion, and justice. Michigan Tech is home to an Applied Portfolio Management Program within the College of Business as well as an degree program in Sustainability, Science, and Society and multiple Enterprise groups related to sustainability – these are all examples of students on campus who could benefit directly from learning about investment management processes that are socially, ecologically, and economically sustainable for the long term health of the planet (and the long term success of institutions of higher education).

This petition is just one recent example of student leadership at Michigan Tech in the domain of sustainability. Students across campus are interested in using their educational experiences to make real world change, within the institution and across our local community and beyond. Thank you for your leadership, Keweenaw Youth for Climate Action and students across campus who are championing sustainability through direct action and engagement!


Michigan Tech recognized as a leading University working to “drive sustainability forward”

Michigan Tech is highlighted in a recent article on studyinternational.com news on universities that drive sustainability forward. Specifically, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is highlighted as a sustainable choice for students “ready to become a responsible engineer.”

It is wonderful to see Michigan Tech highlighted for its strong programs in Civil & Environmental Engineering that teach sustainability and engage students as future leaders in sustainability in engineering. Michigan Tech also offers an undergraduate degree in Sustainability Science & Society and has multiple opportunities for research and campus engagement associated with sustainability.

The future needs Michigan Tech because the future requires we find ways to enhance sustainability and resilience, locally and around the world. If you’re looking for ways to contribute to a better future through your education and career, Michigan Tech provides opportunities for learning, leadership, and making a difference in everyday lives through your studies and your future profession.


Alternative Spring Break: Long Way Home in San Juan Comalapa

This is a guest blog post from Zofia Freiberg, who can be reached at zjfreibe@mtu.edu.

Photo of mural panel taken by Bryan Watts and used with permission

 Over 200,000 people were killed and 83% of them were Mayan. Some called it a civil war, and some called it genocide. A United Nations backed report concluded that of all the human rights violations, 93% were carried out by state forces and military groups. With the war having only ended in 1996 and the continual political turmoil, three-fourths of the rural population lives in conditions of abject poverty.

 In San Juan Comalapa, a mural spanning 182 meters depicts the town’s history. Teachers, artists, students, and other residents of Comalapa painted the history of their culture, not to reinvent a sense of belonging in their nation, but to reclaim their past. Much of the mural features the violence of war, cultural suppression, and building collapse from earthquakes. Contrastingly, the final panels illustrate children attending school, carrying books, and embracing their Mayan culture. 

Matt Paneitz was stationed in Comalapa during his Peace Corps service. He decided that he wanted to be part of the positive force making the final few panels of the mural a reality. He founded a non-profit organization called Long Way Home. 

Long Way Home both physically and conceptually built a school system called Centro Educativo Técnico Chixot. The curriculum focuses on student-driven, community-based projects that address genuine needs. What is called “Hero School” is a place of democratic education built upon the idea that self-determination and democracy are fundamentally linked. Ultimately, the goal of the school is to empower students to build their own democratic systems and arm students with critical thinking skills to better handle symptoms of poverty. Education facilitated by cultures of privilege and power often become an indirect form of colonization. LWH actively works to avoid this; the curriculum is developed and facilitated by community members and taught in the native Mayan language Kaqchikel.

Photo taken by Kelsey Farrell and used with permission

Prior to establishing the school, Matt was struck by the amount of trash floating through Comalapa. Though people depend on the land to grow food as their primary source of income and subsistence, trash is routinely dumped in a ravine that floods and pollutes the surrounding watershed. This motivated Matt to use alternative building techniques that combine naturalistic building with waste mitigation efforts.

Photo of tire retaining wall taken by Kelsey Farrell and used with permission

Over spring break, a group of Michigan Tech students, myself included, travelled to Guatemala to volunteer with LWH and learn about their community impact and the Green Building Techniques used to build their campus. Equipped with sledge hammers and shovels, we learned how tires that were previously headed to the dump can be packed with sand and trash to create retaining walls or a structure for a home. Plastic sacks are placed on the bottom of the tires to hold in the sand that is packed down. Miscellaneous pieces of trash are also placed inside the tire. 

Photo of cob being mixed taken by Rochelle Spencer and used with permission

As we unlaced our shoes and grabbed buckets of material, we learned how to make cob: 3 buckets of clay earth, 2 buckets of sand,  2 buckets of water, straw, and a funny foot feeling later we made our first batch of cob. There were many more to come, since cob is a staple material on-site due to the similar properties it shares with traditional concrete. It is used on-site to fill in space around tires for interior and exterior finishes as well as to build walls between concrete structures.The volunteers on the campus tuck their single-use packaging into plastic bottles to create eco-bricks. These-eco bricks are used as fillers in cob walls. Liter sized plastic bottles are cut into shingles for roofs to protect structures from both rain and sun. Using trash as building materials is especially effective because it minimizes what has to be brought to the site and elongates the useful lifecycle of items already on site. 

Picture of building cob wall with eco bricks taken by author

In addition to the school for the local community, Long Way Home runs a Green Building Academy where participants come to learn about sustainable building methods while simultaneously contributing to current projects on the campus. The profits from the academy go towards funding the school. LWH demonstrates a model of service where contributions towards community development goals are not a zero-sum game where what is given up by one actor is gained by another. Instead, the transfer of value from one to another is a reciprocal exchange.

This was certainly true for the experience of the MTU students. Sitting in the airport waiting to depart, we discussed our expectations for the week. The consensus was that we had no clue what to expect. Yet  in true Husky style, we were eager to put in hard work and help another community. Sitting in the airport waiting to return, the conversation had flipped from what we thought we would be giving to all the value we had received. 

Top Row:  Students Nathan Summers, Thomas Basala, Levi Walters, Zofia Freiberg, Lily Frank, and Kelsey Farrell
Bottom Row: Advisor Rochelle Spencer, LWH Volunteer Coordinator Abby, and Student Sara Schrader

What I found to be most valuable from the trip was a newfound understanding of what makes for effective volunteerism and foreign aid. Ultimately, I don’t think we directly helped another community so much as we became a part of the LWH community and their collective efforts towards positive change. Offering up what you have to give as an empathetic outsider may be generous, but it is more efficacious in the long term to first become a member of the community you intend to help. Then, you no longer have to guess at what a community’s needs are because your needs and that of the community become one in the same. 

On the final panels of the mural in town, once just a vision, there is an illustration of the existing LWH school. Though LWH has a Hero School, they do not try to be the heroes of Comalapa. Instead of attempting to uproot and recreate existing social and economic systems, they build upon what already exists and give locals an avenue to become the heroes of their own community. 

Attempts to decipher the best mechanism to make humanity better can be dizzying to the extent of paralysis. To make matters worse, incremental progression is easily diminished with a glance to the news. When the news becomes an omnipresent noise, it can be comforting to just accept that people around the world live differently. However, cultural acceptance shouldn’t be used as a justification for global inequalities. It is a heroic act in itself to acknowledge what incremental good you can do in the face of all the bad. Let a focus on what it is you do have to contribute strengthen your will to act. 



Tips and Suggestions for Living Sustainably at Michigan Tech and Beyond

This is a guest blog post from Nathan Hatcher, who is a Sustainability Science & Society Major at Michigan Tech. He can be reached at nrhatche@mtu.edu

Sustainability includes social, economic, and environmental aspects. Over this past spring semester, I became more aware of the sustainability activities that were going on behind the scenes at Michigan Tech. I learned about and attended events, like an Open House of the Sustainable Demonstration House  and the planned (but put on hold because of the current pandemic) Waste Reduction Drive. Others dealt with more logistics, like universal recycling containers across campus. 

The question of ‘How can we improve?’ became an interesting challenge. Improvements are essentially never ending, and can be implemented at various levels in the system, from individual student behavior, to the university leading the local community. 

Below are some suggestions that Michigan Tech may be interested in looking into, followed by tips designed for the individual. Whether you’re a fellow student at Michigan Tech, part of the Houghton/Hancock community, or stumbled upon this online, these tips may help you think about how you can live more sustainably or how your workplace or school can become more oriented to sustainability in its practices.

Suggestions for Michigan Tech: In your search for how to become a better representative of sustainability, please consider some of the following ideas or their concepts.

  • Website adjustments
    • The university website platform could provide a place for students to be easily aware of recycling locations both on and off campus, which can help with reducing recyclable or reusable material in the landfill.
    • The tips mentioned for individuals may also be of help. The list is meant to be expandable.
  • Campus accessible gardens over winter (Indoor gardens).
    • This may provide a way to enhance the social aspect of sustainability. Community, working together, building trust and relationships with others, helps improve sustainable practices. 
    • It can provide an active exercise for consideration of how others. A valuable tool, when determining the impact of an action/project on other people.
    • It can also help address the Food Insecurity concern on campus.
  • Course(s) regarding cooking and gardening.
    • This provides a hands on way to understanding sustainability. From how crops are grown, to how food is prepared, and what can be done with leftovers. Composting, and organic growing methods can help with better understanding of the land and soil, and what might help improve it for continual use (taking fertilizers and related chemicals like pesticides out of the equation).
    • Trading practice could help with the face-to-face interaction, knowing where food comes from or how it is handled. It also helps support the local economy in cases such as farmer markets. Farmers may be inclined to produce what gets more support, including how the food is grown (fertilizer or none, labor, permaculture, etc.) Students understanding the value of supporting others and how to support actions of interest may improve the quality of decision making.

Tips for the individual:

It does not matter who you are or where you are from, these tips are meant for everyone. Feel free to copy this list and expand on it if you would like. These tips may vary in value depending on your own situation, or lack-there-of. The goal is to become more aware, or mindful, of daily actions and what might improve them.

Rethink, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

  • Rethink: Asking yourself some of these following questions may help you become more aware of what you are spending, and if it is really necessary at the time.
    • Do I need it? (Is it a necessity or a want?)
      • How much do I already have?
      • Will it spoil before I use it? (Applies to anything with a date)
    • What do I need it for? 
      • Do I need it for daily tasks? (Cooking, Cleaning, Hygiene, Work, Relaxation)
      • What will I do with it later this week?
    • How much do I need
      • Will I run out before my next shopping trip?
  • Reduce
    • Only get what is needed
    • What kind of waste will I generate by purchasing this? (plastic that cannot be recycled, non-reusable or non-recyclable packaging)
    • Buy in bulk when it makes sense and is possible. (Does not expire for a long time, or, a lot is used in a short period of time.)
  • Reuse
    • What did I purchase or have that I can repurpose? (Large glass jars, tin containers, boxes, etc.)
    • Glass jars can usually be washed in a dishwasher and be used in various ways. Like a coin bank, a detergent container, juice, salsa, screws, nails, magnets, etc.
    • Boxes are helpful for moving, packing, and organizing. They can fold flat too without compromising the structure of the box. Do you know someone who needs some boxes? By offering boxes to them, you reduce what would have been waste, and they get a few boxes they may need.
    • Some packaging material may be worth holding on to, if it is intact, and you know someone who could use some packing material, ask if they would like it.
  • Recycle
    • Check what all can be recycled in your local area and how to prepare the material, if applicable.
    • Cardboard (there are a couple different types of cardboard)
    • Various plastics
    • Glass (usually jars or bottles)
    • Paper (usually printer paper and magazines. Shredding it before recycling may be an option)
    • Bags (paper ones are usually ok, plastic ones usually need to be dropped of at a retail store)

The overall goal is to provide ways of reducing how quickly your trash bin fills up, and therefore, reduce what goes to the landfill. This is not a set list of instructions; rather, they are tips meant to spark awareness or maybe some ideas as to how each one of us can play a part in living more sustainably. It may even save you some money!


The Ramifications of Your Rationalizations: Compensatory Green Beliefs and the Rebound Effect


Zofia Freiberg contributed this guest blog post. She is a systems engineering major at MTU. 
She can be reached at zjfreibe@mtu.edu 


Photo Taken by Kayley Roche kmroche@mtu.edu. Used with permission. 

After installing better insulation, do you think  you would turn up your thermostat? If you purchased an electric car, do you think you would drive more? These behaviors illustrate the rebound effect – behavioral change that offsets efficiency efforts to reduce emissions. This phenomenon is observed with pro-environmental interventions on the scale of an individual’s behavior. In these scenarios, the rebound effect is often attributed to compensatory green beliefs. 

A compensatory belief is based on the idea that the effects of a positive act can counteract the effects of a negative act. Take, for example, the use of a morning run to later justify grabbing a donut for breakfast. Once applied to environmental actions, it becomes a compensatory green belief, or CGB for short.

When asked whether they agree or disagree with behaviors like “I do not often use a dishwasher, so it is okay to have longer showers,” the majority of people tend not to openly endorse CGBs. While someone may not consciously endorse CGBs, their behavior can still be influenced by them. One study on CGBs added open-ended questions regarding CBGs in addition to simple agree/disagree scenario questions. This research confirmed that most people disagree with CGbs when asked about them point blank. Contrastingly, in the interview section, participants often described behaviors that suggested compensation regarding environmental acts. Participants stated things like,  “Well I’m allowed a bath once every couple of months if I have a shower all the rest of the time” and “I’ll often catch the school bus or I’ll walk in the morning to school and then I often think well I’ve cut down on that so if I’m going out in the evening I ask my dad to give me a lift.”

Additionally, both studies found a strong negative correlation (R = -.54)  between endorsing CGBs and reporting behavior and identity traits that are pro-environmental. In fact, the absence of CGB endorsement was a better predictor of pro-environmental behaviors than environmental values or identity. These differences in the qualitative and quantitative findings are concerning. The people who presumably care most about the environment are not objectively acknowledging the CGBs we know they hold. Compensatory beliefs may offer an appealing solution to rationalize behaviors that are unaligned with long term goals or values. Though the rebound effect can be discouraging, it’s vital to note that there is controversy around the magnitude of industry-scale rebound effects. As for the ability of CBGs to counteract eco-friendly acts, that’s up to you.