By Paige Clifton Steele
After 187 miles and four separate conversational uses of the word “keen”, Steve and I arrived at the hotel. He parked his 2006 Toyota Prius (tan, with a tastefully colored console that told us how much energy we had consumed on the drive) and we stepped out into the crisp December air. Together, we were there at Berea College of Berea, Kentucky, to investigate the limitless possibilities of sustainable energy.
With us were Megan Quinn and Pat Murphy, who didn’t look nearly as Scotch-Irish as their names would suggest. Megan is their outreach director for Community Solution to Peak Oil. Pat is that organization’s executive director of community service, besides which he is married to the granddaughter of Arthur Morgan. The drive was filled with conversation illuminating and entertaining, especially about Steve’s past work. But when Steve wasn’t talking about his time in the jungles of darkest Africa, he was meditating on his place at Antioch:
“It must be a big change for you to be running a school,” suggested Pat after Steve told him about his work in nonprofits abroad.
Steve kept his eyes solemnly on the road. “There’s a large degree of empathy between running a business and higher education. But…it could have been a mistake.”
Other Steve musings included the possibility of putting local businesses kiosks in Sontag-Fels building when the people in my hall elicited the following suggestions for what such a kiosk should sell: cigarettes, lighters, rolling papers, and White Castle.
Once at the hotel—the Boone Tavern Inn–we repaired to our separate rooms. An hour later Megan and I returned to the lobby and there we found Dr. Richard Olson, the director of Berea’s sustainability and environmental studies program. Under the watchful eyes of Daniel Boone, whose buckskin-clad person glared out of a portrait on the far wall, the three of us conversed.
A man in his mid fifties, Richard’s eyes shone with a hungry intensity—or maybe just with hunger. We waiting for Steve to arrive so we could go to dinner, after all, and Richard had that curious hollow-cheeked look that you sometimes see in students who have spent too many winters feeding from the Antioch Caf.
With our president yet to arrive, the Berea professor asked Megan what she hoped to achieve from the trip. As far as I had seen, the purpose of the trip was to expose Steve to an idea of what he could do at Antioch, in order to better our potential for sustainability. Megan suggested that Richard play tour guide for Steve to Berea’s progressive programs and “eco-village”.
Richard’s lips twitched sardonically. “Do you want me to tell him the truth, or do you want the PR story?”
“How about…an optimistic view of the truth?” said Megan.
But there was no such thing for Richard Olson. “There’s a dissonance there,” he said. “Right now, we’re between A and B. C is not even on the radar. We’ve basically stalled. I’ve looked at your website, and you’ve got your PR, like we’ve got ours. And my sense is that you don’t really live the PR, any more than we live it here. But it’s not good enough to have half steps…Antioch has to be poised to jump in fully. If they fail, they’re no worse off than the rest of us. We’re all going down together. And if they succeed, Steve could go down in history.”
A moment later, the potential history-maker arrived, and we took our places in the dining hall. Lawry, party of five.
At dinner, Steve maintained the look of schooled attentiveness while Richard regaled him with a prediction of the impending economic crisis, coupled with dire implications for Antioch. As Megan would say later, “I don’t think Steve was anticipating how much of a radical Richard was.” The professor would sometimes break from his torrent of inconvenient truths to mention positive developments in Berea’s program. It was possible, for instance, that some of the greens in my salad, or some of the flesh in Steve’s tenderloin were locally grown by Berea Students who work various jobs as part of their curricular requirement. Possible, said Richard Olson, but in that season unlikely.
Steve made tentative attempts to put in a good word for Antioch’s own environmental program, but Richard was having none of it. “Can you say,” Richard asked Steve, “That your students graduate from Antioch College and reduce their net drain? What Berea does is catapults kids from Appalachia into the middle class, so they can live the American Dream and increase their footprint. But wouldn’t it be ironic if Berea and Oberlin and Antioch were all bad for the environment?”
This was all still before the entrée had arrived.
“Movement in the right direction is not enough,” Richard continued.
“You’ve got to get to a certain place and if you don’t get there, you’re dead. When the grid goes down in central Ohio, it won’t do any good that you have green credits to set up a windmill somewhere in California.” (Ouch, Janice Kinghorn.) “Unless you have a power cord to that windmill.”
Steve footed the bill, the student waitresses took the plates away, and in that plushy appointed dining hall, it was hard to imagine the energy crisis finding us there.
The next day we went to the Eco Village. There, in a small neighborhood of highly efficient student housing built for single parents, we found a humid greenhouse that Richard called a “living machine”. In a series of aerobic and anaerobic vats, one adorned by the local school with vast murals, the village filters and purifies its wastewater. Of course, Richard noted wryly, state codes require that the majority of the water be put back into the sewer system, to be sent to the city processing plants, to be filtered all over again. So for now, at least, the project remains educational more than functional. Also part of the eco village was a SENS (Sustainability and Environmental Studies) house. There was no active heating system, and the house toilet was a commercial unit designed to use compost to filter its water. Again, the state codes frowned on this and prohibited the reuse of that water for all purposes except refilling the actual toilet bowl itself.
A glossy blue photovoltaic panel generated two-thirds of the house’s electricity. At the moment we entered the house, one of the SENS’ house’s residents was using one of those thirds for his laptop, where he was probably checking his Facebook news feed.
The SENS house and eco-village were replete with things that we should be doing here, but won’t or can’t. Instead of using the dryers on sunny days, they use a rotary clothesline. On a whiteboard in the hall, they kept a running tally of the week’s trash output, water use, and electricity use, among others.
Just next to the row of eco houses lays the school for the students’ children. It was a pleasant day and the kids were out and about.
Nurses herded passels of kiddies from one end of the eco village and back again. “Where’s Nikki’s super efficient eco house?” a nurse would prompt, and a proud three year-old would correctly identify the building.
In the spacious community center, Steve and Richard debated the merit of sending Antioch kids abroad. Richard had said earlier: “On your website, I saw that some 75% of Antioch students are sent abroad. So you are basically giving them the message that ‘it’s worth giving you five times the resources of a Bangladeshi while you learn…We’re going to send you that far, because you’re special.” Steve however was adamant about the benefits of education abroad.
Richard shrugged. “In ten years, it won’t happen. Antioch students won’t be flying overseas—they just won’t. I promise not to say ‘I told you so’…” He trailed off.
At an apparent impasse, we left the ecovillage.
Richard had suggested that the president of Berea College, Larry Shin, would sing a different tune. He did. From what I had heard, he had spearheaded much of Berea’s environmental progress, and he took an enormous satisfaction in how far his school had come. He spoke passionately about environmentalism, profit, and profitable environmentalism. I got the feeling that he might have held green credits for windmills in high esteem.
“If you try to reduce energy consumption by only 15%, it will cost you more than if you try to reduce it by 40%, because payback is so much greater,” he said gleefully over lunch. Steve seemed to be in cautious agreement, and more in his element at this particular meal. Larry Shin, at least, was at least not predicting doom for him and his institution.
The two appeared to bond over the difficult business of running a college, and over meat. That was another thing Steve had been unable to share with Richard, who had spoken of vegetarianism as a vital component of sustainable living just before Steve’s steak arrived.