Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A One Step Journey

By Jon Lindenauer

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
~Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, wrote this in his foundational Chinese text “Tao Te Ching” (or “The Book of the Way”). Much of Taoist thought is understood to be centered on nature and harmony. This philosophical tradition began over two and a half centuries ago and today many of its cornerstone values are held by another group: the Ramapo College sustainability organization 1STEP – Students Together for Environmental Progress.

So what exactly does a sustainability organization do? Putting together and partaking in a slew of events and activities every week, the short answer for this student group is: plenty. But with a group that undertakes such a wide array of tasks, this simplification hardly does its well-over-a-dozen core members justice. Especially for an organization with pursuits that face the stigma of inaccuracy, misrepresentation, and controversy in the eye of the public and the media on an everyday basis.

“I’m not a card-carrying, apocalyptic climate change enthusiast in the sense that I don’t think the end of the world is coming toward us on a speeding train,” says Brendan Flanagan, a Board of Directors member for 1STEP, speaking about jaded perspectives regarding the group.

Brendan Flanagan speaks to a crowd at the 2010 Relay for Life

“Whether we’re facing an energy crisis or not, the fact is that America is an energy dependant nation,” he continues. “We import millions and millions of tons of gasoline every year, and the fact is that energy could come from right here.”

Sporting their distinct recycled cardboard aesthetic, personalized with permanent marker, the group strives to make their presence and cause known in anything they are associated with. That includes partaking in the 2010 Relay for Life, in which recycling bins were outfitted with cardboard signs stating “green facts.” It also includes hosting the NJHEPS (New Jersey Higher Education Partnership for Sustainability) Sustainability Summit, which was catered with food from the organic and environmentally conscious pizzeria Pizza Fusion. It also entails regularly arranging Green Late Nights, which advocate measures students can take to maximize their sustainable living, with 1STEP’s constant unwavering visibility giving new meaning to the notion of “sustainability.”

But what is sustainability? Terms such as “green initiatives” and “going green” and “environmental awareness” and “sustainability” may tend to run together in the mind of many college students. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sustainability as “a method of harvesting or using resources so that resource is not depleted or permanently damaged." Supporting this might seem like a simple task. After all, who in their right mind would want to deplete or permanently damage any commonly used resource? Yet there is a surprising amount of backlash, though it may come in the form not of what people are doing but rather what they are not doing.

In an Indiana University sociology survey described in the IU News Room online article “Sustainability study shows gap between what students say and do,” despite sustainability having an average importance rating above poverty, racial issues and national defense, 56% of those surveyed were found to have behaviors indicative of an “extra large” carbon footprint. The article blames this on a riff between “what students care about and what they’re willing to do about it.”

Speaking with Paul Corragio, 1STEP Board of Directors member and President before the current executive board arrangement, 1STEP is clearly not at a shortage of caring or things to do.

Paul Corragio, top left, poses for a photo with members of 1STEP's 2010 Relay for Life team

Paul has been at the heart of the organization in a leadership role since the organization’s conception at Ramapo his freshman year. Since then, the group has blossomed in its outreach with other on and off campus sustainability and environmental groups, seen a surge in campus-wide green initiatives and experienced a general boost in awareness regarding 1STEP and its objectives.

“The main overarching idea is that sustainability doesn’t mean living with less,” says Corragio. “It does mean reducing your lifestyle. It doesn’t mean living like a caveman and reverting [to primitivism.]”

He continues, “It means sometimes using less and making less become more.”

Under the umbrella of Ramapo Green, the organization has successfully pushed for a number of projects and programs that have now come to fruition. Flanagan harps on the distorted public view of these programs and the numerous others in the pipeline.

“People see science fiction films and there’re the wind farms, there’re the solar panels, etc, etc,” says Flanagan. “But the fact is they have them in New Jersey.”

The past several years have seen a boom in Ramapo College campus green initiatives. The Sharp Sustainability Education Center finished construction during the Fall 2009 semester. A Master of Arts in Sustainability Studies program has just been unveiled this year. A lineup of Sustainable Living Facilities, certified by LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) standards, are now available for students, in conjunction with a sustainability educational program. Corragio notes that Ramapo College received the highest grade of any college campus in New Jersey, with an overall grade of: B.

This surge in awareness and concern regarding environmental issues led to an initial interest meeting that drew over 100 students.

“Whether we had 100 individuals or we have 15 to 20, we have that group that can get things done,” says Flanagan.

Organizations 1STEP has worked with on past projects and events have not been as lucky. With the dissolving of R-CORE (Ramapo Community Organizing for Empowerment), the group’s budget was assimilated by 1STEP. The timing could not have been better, as this came just in time for Earth Week, an annual environmentalism celebration and exhibition that culminates with Earth Day, April 22, and gives the club a chance to truly spread its wings. But according to the sentiments of its members, 1STEP is not about having a large budget or bodies present for meetings, it is about a mission and an evolving goal.

“It means going back toward community and less toward abundant living as individuals,” says Corragio, encapsulating his grand vision of sustainability that harbors a flare of Taoist thought. “It’s about living with each other, living within our means and living in harmony with the planet.”

For more information on 1STEP, check out their official page on Facebook.

Jon Lindenauer is a senior at Ramapo College majoring in Communications Arts with a concentration in Writing. He has written for the "Ramapo News" and the online media publication "Sonic Eclectic," with the ambition of pursuing a career in media journalism.

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