Glacial melting. Amphibian and honeybee populations in precipitous decline. Ocean dead zones. Rain forests burned to make way for agricultural fields. Some days it’s hard to know which we should worry about first.
Fortunately for the rest of us, the alumni you’ll meet here aren’t wringing their hands waiting for somebody else to take action—they’ve made sustainability the focus of their life’s work.
At some point, each had an unexpected epiphany—one at a lecture, another during a conversation, one while looking for new product markets, another while teaching young children, and one upon realizing the chronic unnecessary waste of resources inside the university. They found the courage to shift from being advocates of environmental causes to being activists—from a stance of participation to one of leadership.
People across the globe feel a visceral connection to their land. It anchors families, unites communities, and lends flavor and character to an area. Tennessee has some of the most magnificent natural and historic landscapes in the country, says Jeanie Clinton Nelson—and they are worth every effort to preserve them.
In 1999, Nelson and then-Nashville Mayor (now Governor) Phil Bredesen co-founded The Land Trust for Tennessee. Nelson had spent years involved in what she calls the “dirty side of the environmental movement,” volunteer lobbying for legislation that would force companies to clean up spoiled areas, campaigning to fix environmental problems, and feeling as though she were constantly in pitched battle with both industries and environmentalists. During the Clinton–Gore administration, she served as general counsel for the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. By the late ’90s she’d returned home to Nashville, bone-weary and ready to tackle the lovelier and permanent side of conservation.
One day Bredesen pulled her aside for a chat. He and Nelson had worked earlier to set aside tracts that could be banked as parks for the next 100 years, leading to the development of Shelby Bottoms and Beaman Parks in Davidson County. When his term as mayor ended, he said, he wanted to start a statewide land trust for Tennessee.
“But you know,” he mused to Nelson, “if you’ll do it with me, we could just go ahead and do it now.”
Ten years later The Land Trust for Tennessee has helped conserve more than 42,500 acres across the state—some of it for parks, but much of it to protect privately held acreage for perpetuity.
Landowners donate their development rights in order to keep their property unblemished. Descendents can sell the property or give it away, but it will always have restrictions that prevent it from being sold for, say, a strip mall or parking lot.
The Land Trust has preserved tracts as small as a half-acre near Vanderbilt, up to a 4,500-acre park in Shelby County. It has protected 14,000 breathtaking acres to safeguard parts of the South Cumberland Plateau, including 3,000 acres that connect the 10,000-acre main campus of Sewanee: The University of the South to an 8,000-acre state forest. Those new 3,000 acres will be used as an outdoor learning laboratory.
“Buffering our streams with protected lands is the best way to keep our water pure,” Nelson says. “Saving our forests is one of the best ways to protect against atmospheric and climate-change issues. Our forests allow birds and our souls to keep singing. Plus, they give us areas to hunt and fish and they keep tourists coming. So all of this is good for our economy, too.”
Private conservation easements form a symbiosis with public lands. While park systems must deal constantly with visitors, pollution, litter and upkeep, private lands can serve as a protective shield to preserve the beauty of the surrounding area for people visiting the park, for property owners near the park, and for wildlife that traverses both boundaries. The Land Trust also has protected prime agricultural soils so that working family farms can remain intact for future generations.
Imagine this: Thousands of fans attend a Vanderbilt football game. The lights come up, the vendors sell their wares, Vanderbilt wins, the fans go home happy—and the game has left no (as in zero) carbon footprint.
“We can do this,” says Brandon Daniell, a co-founder of the sustainability strategy and marketing firm Abeo Partners LLC. “If Vanderbilt were to take the lead in offsetting carbon footprints, the amount of PR they’d get would be phenomenal. They’d start a movement. Every college football game in America could have a positive environmental impact. Rock concerts are now going sustainable. Vanderbilt football could, too.”
Although 94 percent of Americans intend to promote environmental causes, says Daniell, only 11 percent actually take any steps to do so. The goal of Abeo Partners, which includes co-founders Steve Cook, Bob Isherwood and David Cross, is to close the “environmental action gap” by helping institutions and businesses incorporate sustainability and health-and-wellness practices into the workplace. In other words, Abeo initiates organizational changes from within by mentoring employees who want to set up a platform of action—whether it’s establishing an internal recycling program, hosting a community clean-up day, or installing water conservation systems.
For Daniell, the ride into environmentalism began in the lands Down Under. After Vanderbilt and then culinary school in France, he moved to New Zealand for eight and a half years where he started that country’s first organic coffee company. Organic foods were taking off in the United States and Europe, but there was a big “white space” in the markets of Australia and New Zealand. Simply being organic wasn’t enough to attract customers; what appealed to shoppers, he realized, was the idea of fair trade. Fair-trade products offer a fair price, a better work environment, and a good return on investment for the grower. Consumers liked the idea of enabling farmers around the world to make a good living on their own terms.
From this idea grew the marketing strategy firm Lighthouse Ventures, which sells the Scarborough Fair brand of coffee, tea and chocolate. That brand is now sold in five countries and is the largest fair-trade organic food brand in the Southern Hemisphere.
Last year Daniell moved back to Nashville and branched out to cast an even wider environmental net with Abeo Partners. In April 2008, Abeo invited two Vanderbilt undergraduate marketing classes to come up with ideas that promote sustainability in the business world. The company pronounced the students’ video presentations as brilliant. Said one of the judges, “The students succeeded in making sustainability irresistible.”
Abeo is taking the best presentations to Australia, where students at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology will build on those ideas.
Today the world. Tomorrow Vanderbilt football.
Keith Bergman’s conversion happened because of a spur-of-the-moment decision made while his daughter was on a college tour of Vanderbilt. It was a Monday afternoon in March 2006, and Bergman heard on the radio that former Vice President Al Gore, ’73, would be speaking about global warming at Middle Tennessee State University later that day. He made a quick, executive family decision—over the strenuous objections of his daughters—that they would drive to Murfreesboro to hear the lecture. Gore spoke for a mesmerizing 90 minutes, without notes or slides, and the entire Bergman family became believers.
“It was what I’ve come to call ‘Al Gore, Unplugged,’” says Bergman, who is the town manager of Littleton, Mass. “It changed my life. It opened up to me this whole issue of climate change and global warming. At the time, I was town manager of Provincetown at the tip of Cape Cod. When I got back to the Cape, a group of us started the Cape Cod Renewable Fuels Partnership. Our purpose was to look at alternative fuels and to make a community-wide effort to be more conscious of our carbon footprint.”
A short time later Gore founded The Climate Project, a Nashville-based nonprofit organization focused on a grassroots approach to solving the climate crisis. Gore also embarked on his Inconvenient Truth tour, with a book and film about climate change, and he put out a call for an army of volunteers to help spread the message.
Out of thousands of early applicants, Bergman was among the first 50 trainees chosen to deliver the Inconvenient Truth story to the public. He has mentored and helped train 200 additional volunteers since then.
“When I introduce the Inconvenient Truth slide show to an audience, I tell them that when I attended Vanderbilt University 30 years ago, I studied political science, not climate science. But the global climate crisis is as much a political issue as a scientific one,” he says.
Bergman admits that he is a latecomer to the issue of global warming—not some aging tree-hugger who suddenly decided to step up his game. “I tell people,” he confesses, “that I’m having my ‘midlife climate crisis.’”
As a public servant he has come to realize that climate issues play a major role in many of the challenges all communities face: pollution, growth, and the cost of energy. In Massachusetts his audiences tend to be receptive to the ideas he presents, and often use his discussions as jumping-off points for finding solutions to reduce their negative environmental impact. Despite tough economic times, his constituents continue to value public funding for environmental conservation, for preserving parks and open spaces.
The United States is now on an untenable path that threatens the future of human civilization, Bergman insists. Interestingly, he puts his faith in capitalists and entrepreneurs to come up with business models that will force legislators to put the right public policies in place. That, Bergman says, is the ultimate goal of The Climate Project.
Jennifer Casale had always been a proponent of good environmental practices, but she never truly appreciated the earth’s delicate balance until she lived in the desert. After earning a Vanderbilt degree in English, Casale worked in the music industry for a few years before pursuing a graduate degree in creative writing at the University of Arizona in Tucson. There she took a part-time job teaching elementary students about recycling and water conservation. These young children understood the challenge.
“Water is becoming a critical issue,” Casale says. “The environment is so extreme that people who live in the desert are forced to be more aware of how to interact with it and how to survive there.”
Soon Casale was informally consulting about ways to be more environmentally conscientious and advising people on where to get organic and planet-friendly products. Although she could find these products, she had to drive all over town to get what she needed. She decided to open a one-stop shopping place for an array of “green” products—an old-fashioned general store for a new generation. She considered Nashville ripe for such a venture, so she returned to her college town and opened The Green Wagon on Murphy Road, only a few miles from Vanderbilt.
The problem with most “natural” products, Casale says, is that they are unregulated. A company may repackage an old product, slap a “green” label on it, and sell it for a higher price—and consumers have no idea they’re being duped. Casale personally vets and scrutinizes ingredients in every product she sells—from toothpaste to organic mattresses to biodegradable balloons. The idea is to assist the community in reducing its carbon footprint in ways that are affordable and accessible.
“One main way that I make sure accessibility to the product is not cost-prohibitive is by using local suppliers,” she says. “Because the majority of products I sell are made in Tennessee, the carbon footprint of the store is reduced and it helps me keep costs down. I’m not paying for shipping, and I know a lot of vendors personally, so it’s a nice personal connection, too.”
Another way to keep costs down is to sell supplies in bulk. The Green Wagon has a “filling station” where customers can bring in their own containers and fill up on soap, shampoo, laundry detergent or dog biscuits. Casale spreads her message by offering a variety of gifts made from recycled materials, and by hosting private “green” birthday parties, baby showers and wedding showers. She has begun sponsoring community events where patrons can learn how to make, for example, their own household cleaning supplies from readily available items.
Casale plans to open a second store in East Nashville that will feature not only general merchandise, but also organic foods, locally grown and raised, as well as a catering service.
“People come into the store and they’re happy,” Casale says. “This is a positive space to be in every day.”
Luke Boehne believes wearing deodorant is simply unnatural. “I realized it’s not healthy to put on antiperspirants that keep you from releasing your natural toxins,” he explains. “These smells indicate your personal identity, your natural signature, and they’re important for sexual attraction within the species.”
Wait a second. Is Boehne ditching his Speed Stick so he can become a chick magnet?
“Well, yeah,” he answers.
Boehne is only half-joking. To him environmentalism is a matter of ethics. The cognitive studies major who graduated from Vanderbilt in May was known around campus for drawing attention to wasteful consumption and addictive consumerism. Sometimes a guy has to go radical to get his point across.
“We now think humans can experiment on anything without repercussion,” he says. “In actuality, the universe and humans all cycle in an intimate way. My empathy extends to all life forms.”
When he first arrived at Vanderbilt, he was appalled by the amount of wastefulness he saw. People were throwing away tons of perfectly good paper, office supplies, notebooks, furniture, textbooks, computers, cell phones and electronics—which could have been donated to needy freshmen, public schools or shelters, or could have been refurbished and recycled.
Then there was the food. Boehne joined the campus organization SPEAR (Students Promoting Environmental Awareness and Recycling) and became its vice president in charge of dining and composting. He began protesting the amount of food being wasted on campus by eating only leftovers, and he didn’t even have to go dumpster diving (which he does not oppose) in order to eat three square meals a day.
Every department in every building at Vanderbilt hosted events, and every event served an excess of food, says Boehne. So he attended a lot of events, and afterward he would load up on the available food to try to save it from being thrown away.
“Every trash receptacle on campus is loaded with pounds of food by the end of the day. And in Tennessee, any post-consumer food waste is classified as a hazardous material on the same tier as sludge and industrial byproducts,” he says.
Through SPEAR, and with the support of Vanderbilt Dining Services and other campus offices, Boehne took the lead in creating a compost demonstration site at The Commons. Since its inception, hundreds of gallons of discarded food from the prep kitchen of The Commons’ dining facility, as well as coffee grounds from its coffeehouse, have been composted and will be used by the university for soil enrichment and tree rejuvenation across campus.
Post-graduation, Boehne hopes to take an advocacy role in the revival of local folk wisdom and in clean energy. He also wants to serve as an umbrella voice, asking healthy questions about the true energy consciousness of Vanderbilt and whether its students and academicians are following the mission of the university to better the world.
Boehne certainly has walked the talk. As a student he spent, on average, no more than $20 a week, which included food, gas, entertainment and philanthropy.
That alone should make people stop and take notice.
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photography: DANIEL DUBOIS, JOHN RUSSELL
Conversation guidelines: Vanderbilt Magazine welcomes your thoughts, stories and information related to this article. Please stay on topic and be respectful of others. Keep the conversation appropriate for interested readers across the map.