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What Can We Do? A University Dialogue on Energy

By Carrie Sherman, The College Letter, liberal arts newsletter
February 21, 2007

© Lisa Nugent, David Ripley, center, in Englehardt Hall with, left to right, Sarah Russell, Sarah Linz, hall director, Nicholas Wolf, and Becky Noyes.

Now in its second year, the University Dialogue engages the UNH community in a series of discussions and activities that explore a common theme. This year’s topic is energy. For first-year students one of their required textbooks is a packet of essays written by the 10 Discovery authors, all UNH faculty members, representing every facet of the university. The essays are also available online.

Throughout the year, each Discovery author will explore the topic of energy from the vantage point of his or her discipline, be it as a glaciologist, chemist, business administrator, computer technologist, or environmentalist. In September, the panel of Discovery authors gave its first presentation. In the question and answer period that followed, a first-year student asked: What can we do?

Here’s how the three Discovery authors in the college have each approached the topic of energy.

The power to understand

“… But, surely ordinary Americans would never harm Indonesian farmers and other poor people around the world who never harmed the United States. Or would we?”

—Ruth Sample, “Overpowered: American Domination, Democracy, and the Ethics of Consumption”

With only five percent of the world’s population, is it right for the United States to consume approximately 25 percent of the energy produced worldwide each year? Is it justifiable to impose the costs of global climate change on those around the world who did not agree to the consumption patterns that created them?

If not, who is ultimately responsible? Business? The government? Citizens?

To answer such questions, students of philosophy professor Ruth Sample must probe beneath the public rhetoric surrounding national energy policy to the basic moral and ethical assumptions guiding—and justifying—our behavior.

Sample has contributed a Discovery Dialogue essay that asks readers to imagine the situation on the island of Java circa 2050, based on population and climatological forecasting. It is a tragic narrative of poor refugees displaced by rising sea levels and distant policy-making in which they had no part.

It’s a classic case of unjust harm, in which one party (the U.S.) harms another (Java) without consulting either the Javanese people or its own U.S. citizens.

“I thought it would be useful for our students to try to empathize with those who will suffer more severely,” notes Sample, “and to try and think critically about the ethical problems of energy use from a different perspective.”

© Lisa Nugent, Ruth Sample, right, with first-year philosophy student, Warren Billings

Sample’s recent book, “Exploitation: What It Is and Why It’s Wrong,” analyzes such ethical questions in greater detail. This fall, she teaches social and political philosophy and moral philosophy and, with other Discovery authors, participates in numerous campus discussions on energy.

As a philosopher, Sample finds the engagement with Discovery authors from other departments invigorating and challenging. “I like getting to know colleagues in different disciplines,” she says. “I think we all agree that something needs to be done. The real debate is over what we should do.”

The power to change

“But, there is another kind of energy equally as important as those related to unlocking the secrets of matter: the energy of the human spirit, heart, mind, and soul.”

—David Ripley, “Energy’s Human Face: Immigrant Stories in Song”

David Ripley’s capacious studio space contains his desk, a grand piano, well-worn Oriental carpet, a couple of comfortable chairs, and bookshelves crammed with CDs and snowed over with musical scores. A classical singer of international renown, Ripley is a dedicated and gifted teacher. This is a place where a young singer can safely stretch his or her arms out and sing fully.

This afternoon, Ripley plays a CD of Stephanie Blythe performing Alan Smith’s “Vignettes: Ellis Island.” He listens intently. Her voice sounds a bit strident. Ripley shakes his head. “Wait,” he says. “It changes.”

Blythe sings the words of Anna Zagar Klarich, who was born in 1902 and immigrated to the U.S. from Yugoslavia in 1920 at age 18: “I didn’t really have too much to pack. I had a new pair of shoes, and I was walking barefoot because I wanted to save my new shoes for America.”

When Ripley first heard the vignettes performed in 2003, he thought, “This is amazing! We could stage this for the opera program at UNH.” He then collaborated with composer-colleague, Michael Annicchiarico. The result? Next April, 25 singers will perform the vignettes as part of the University Dialogue on Energy.

This same creative drive inspired Ripley to become a Discovery author. “I want to collect the stories of UNH students who are immigrants themselves or whose family history powerfully engages this immigration story,” he says. This story, he writes, reminds “us of our common humanity” and that our solutions regarding energy must be “founded on global respect.”

This fall Ripley met with interested students in Englehardt Hall to share his project and to hear their stories.

Nicholas Wolf, a first-year student majoring in political science, had a grandfather who immigrated to the U.S. from Ireland. He said: “I feel like that energy is still present in my own life. My parents taught me that one of life’s great challenges is to make a better life for the generations that come after you.”

Becky Noyes, a sophomore majoring in music education, admired the “psychic energy” of immigrants who immigrated to the U.S. as teenagers. “My generation faces different challenges, including the moral ones of energy use.”

To Ripley, their words are like music.

The power of examples

“At the end of the day, we all experience [energy] insecurity…. We control the choices we make as individuals. We also control the demands we make of each other and our business leaders and public officials.”

—Stacy VanDeveer, “Our Energy (In)Security”

This fall, political scientist Stacy VanDeveer teamed up with materials scientist Carmela Amato-Wierda, another Discovery Author, to lead a discussion after the film, “An Inconvenient Truth.”

“The MUB Theatre was filled all weekend. Hundreds of students saw the film,” says VanDeveer. “At our showing, students asked Carmela a lot about renewable technology. And they wanted to know more about climate change skeptics. They also had nice conversations with each other. That was great. In fact, I wrote a paragraph about the event and sent it to ‘Global Environmental Politics,’ a listserv I subscribe to. A number of other campuses are doing this as well.”

This is typical VanDeveer. He’s fluent in political scales—local, regional, national, and global and moves easily from one to the other, in any order, creating connections and networks as he goes. Usually, one might imagine those scales weighted in descending order from global to local, from the Kyoto Protocol down to a UNH undergraduate who researched biodiesel in Egypt last summer.

But in VanDeever’s framework, all levels inform each other and the local is, at this juncture, critical.

“I encourage students not to underestimate their larger influence,” says VanDeveer, who this past October presented a paper at a national conference on sustainability and the role of higher education. His paper outlines the major ways that universities can affect change (curriculum, operations, research, and engagement).

Universities, according to VanDeveer, almost create a new scale in the political continuum. “We get to sit a little bit between conventional boundaries at a university,” says VanDeever. “We can engage with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), national and state government, and local communities. We can make policies in our own communities. Plus, our communication with all of these entities is varied; we’re not just an advocacy group.”

And since U.S. universities teach approximately 14.5 million students each year, the influence of this group is considerable.

At UNH, VanDeveer is on the board of the Climate Education Initiative with the Office of Sustainability Programs and is a member of the Energy Task Force. In addition to being a Discovery Author, he is the faculty adviser to the University’s Energy Waste Watch Challenge that engages students living on campus in an eco-competition.

How is UNH fairing as a “green campus”? Very well. Two recent newsworthy examples are: UNH earned the first EPA Energy Star rating for efficient dorms this past spring; and this fall, according to the UNH Office of Sustainability’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory report, UNH reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by five percent from FY 2003 to FY 2005.

As for VanDeveer? Last spring, he helped organize a two-day workshop in Washington, D.C., on “Climate Change Politics in North America,” held at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “I just thought it would be interesting to connect all of this interesting dialogue about policy development and bring it to the capital,” says VanDeever.

The last line of VanDeveer’s essay is “Let’s get busy.” Through the structure of this University Dialogue and other venues on campus, there are many empowering ways for students to engage in this energizing debate.

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