Another Word for Frugality: Sustainability

Editor Maura Stephens comes from a family of frugal folks  —  call them early sustainability advocates.  

“Don’t buy that brand; it’s packaged in plastic.” “Keep that candle end; we’ll use it with other scraps to make a new one.” “Your sister can wear that; I’ll recut the neckline for her.” “Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.”

Those last three words would become the slogan of an environmental movement years later, but my mom and dad used them regularly — and, trust me, my folks were anything but hippies. They were children of the Great Depression and, like so many of their generation, had made tremendous sacrifices during World War II. They had learned to live on less and to save money. Even when they became more secure financially, they saw no reason to waste.

Mom packed our lunches in the same containers every day. We used cloth napkins; milk was delivered in reused bottles. Vegetable waste went back into the garden to make compost.

My dad, an engineer, believed strongly in getting the United States away from its dependence on fossil fuels. He had an early electric car, and he seriously investigated getting a windmill. He used to talk about saving money and saving the future for our grandchildren. Grandchildren as a concept were impossible for us kids to imagine, but the word Dad introduced us to, “sustainability,” wasn’t that difficult at all.

“Sustainability” as a concept has grown from the early years of the global environmental movement, when it was defined principally in ecological terms. Now the term also implies fiscal responsibility and social well-being and equity. Collectively, these ideas are sometimes called “the three principles of sustainability.” I like to call them “planet, purse, and people.” Many practitioners, including me, believe there is a fourth principle that is integral to the idea of sustainability: individual and civic responsibility toward the common good.

You’d think that with my own early education I’d be a good citizen of Earth. I do reduce, reuse, recycle, and I am careful to buy responsibly, with the good of the planet in mind. As an adult I was for many years a farmer and grew almost all of my family's food; what we couldn’t manage, we traded for with neighbor farmers. I am no longer a farmer, but whenever I can I purchase local goods and organic foods. But the sad fact is I fared pretty badly when I recently took the “ecological footprint” test. This is a method developed by Mathis Wackernagel, founder and executive director of the nonprofit Global Footprint Network, which works to shift economic and public policy toward sustainability. The test is a simple program that calculates roughly how much of the planet we each consume based on our living habits. By Wackernagel’s reckoning there are roughly 4.5 acres of planet available per person, assuming other species get nothing and there is no population growth.

My own footprint tells me that I hog some 22 acres. The average U.S. American’s lifestyle uses up about 24 acres. As Wackernagel puts it, we are running on ecological debt, and if everyone around the world lived this way, we’d need about six planets. My own culpability comes from my transportation choices. I commute 46 miles alone in my car each day, which costs me a substantial amount in gas money, and I take several airplane flights a year. I can’t see myself giving up the distance travel, so I am trying to find a way to make the drive to work less consumptive and less purse-draining. I see a hybrid car in my not-too-distant future; it just makes sense. Dad would be pleased, but he'd still tell me I need to do more.

In this issue you can read about Ithaca College’s sustainability initiative and how the College is at the forefront of a very forward-thinking movement. And you can read our cover story on the new outdoor adventure leadership major, which is pretty innovative in its own right. And don’t miss the story about the dynamic physics faculty, who are putting Ithaca on the map in ways both global and intergalactic.

We hope you enjoy reading about all the exciting things happening at IC these days, and we hope you’ll send us your feedback on the stories we are pleased to share with you.