It’s funny how easy it is at Middlebury to be passively environmentally-friendly. That is, much of the work required to reduce our impact on the planet is done for us. Our classrooms have lights that turn themselves off, much of our dining hall food is locally-sourced and our toilets are low-flow. Our energy sources are renewable, our buildings, sustainable and by 2016 we will (hopefully) be entirely carbon-neutral. These are all good things, but I would argue that they take away from our sense of personal responsibility in regard to the environment. This point doens’t frequently manifest itself in obvious ways, so allow me to tell a quick story:
I just recycled an empty beer can that has been sitting in the corner of a staircase in Hepburn. Let me rephrase: I just recycled a beer can that has been a resident of this building for at least as long as I have.
I remember first walking past the can on move-in day, now nearly a month ago. I felt no disdain for the can then; rather, I recall regarding it warmly, perhaps as a fitting sign to mark my return to college.
I was burdened with cardboard boxes, and could not spare a hand to lift the can. “Somebody,” I though, “surely somebody will pick it up.” I was younger then, perhaps naïve, but I held on to that foolish hope that a stranger would come along and do what had to be done.
As the days became weeks, the beer can remained. I passed it each morning on my way to class, wondering if today would be the day that I would return to find the can gone. Yet, without fail, the can remained in its spot on the staircase, ready to greet me upon my return.
This carried on for a while, and the can and I began to develop a more-or-less amiable relationship. After a hard day of work and a rain-soaked trudge back to my dorm from the other side of campus, the can was there to meet me like a loyal dog greeting its owner with a wagging tail. The can became a familiar sight to me, and yet familiarity breeds contempt. It was garbage, after all, and I dared not let myself grow attached.
I began to see the can for what it was: refuse, filth, the hollow remains of something that had once brought happiness, but no longer. Soon I grew distraught. The can became impossible to ignore. It was no longer a simple piece of litter – it was a blight; a ghastly disfigurement on an otherwise pristine staircase. It haunted me.
I took dramatic measures to avoid passing the can. I could no longer stand to walk past again and again, day after day. I began to take the staircase slightly further away from my room. It was a minor inconvenience, but those few extra feet of walking each day began to add up. I felt fatigued. I knew that this had to end.
With firm resolve, I threw open the door to the staircase and marched towards the corner. There it was, mocking me, daring me to make the first move. I stood there for a moment, frozen. The fear and self-doubt I had been repressing up to that moment suddenly began to rise up but I swallowed my trepidation and grasped the can firmly. I relished the sensation of the thin aluminum buckling under my grip.
The surface of the can was sticky, coated with the remnants of a beer drunk long ago. It was a bit gross, but I worked through it. Unperturbed, I carried the can to the blue recycling bin up the stairs. I cast it into the bin, in a scene I only now realize is vaguely reminiscent of the climactic scene from Return of the King. “You can’t hurt anyone anymore,” I thought.
Did I learn anything from this experience? Maybe not, but I do know this: The notion that somebody else will take care of a problem is unreasonable. If everybody said that, then nothing would ever get done. I think deep down we all understand this point, but it bears repeating.