Drawing of a house that looks like it is eating, with coal in one hand and a bucket labeled "Fossil Fuels" in the otherBy Ned Kleiner ’16

Volume XXXVI, Issue 1, October 4, 2013

At a recent meeting with students, the architecture firm Beyer Blinder Belle presented their thoughts for the future of the Amherst campus. It included some ideas that are all too familiar: tearing down and replacing the socials, building a new science center, building permanent dorms in place of the trailers. It also included some ideas that came a little bit out of left field: When did we decide that we were replacing Keefe? Didn’t we spend the entire summer fixing that up? And why do we need a new library? What’s wrong with Frost? But while some students have lingering affections for one or another of those buildings—I personally have spent too many sleepless nights doing problem sets in Merrill to watch it go without a twinge of sadness—there seems to be a general consensus that new building on campus is for the best, and the worst buildings need to be demolished to make way for the next generation of Chuck Pratts. I am here to challenge that consensus.

First, some facts: The manufacture of cement is extremely carbon-intensive—the production of cement is responsible for more than five percent of global CO2 emissions, the equivalent of about 1.65 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. By comparison, if you put every single registered car in the United States on a scale, it would only be about 500 million tons, less than a third of the weight of cement emissions. This massive output of CO2 puts the cement industry in second place for the most carbon-intensive industry in the world, behind only the actual burning of fossil fuels. This means that no matter how many motion detectors Amherst installs in the bathrooms or how fervently we’re encouraged to recycle more, those gains are dwarfed by the cost of each new building project. And as nice as it makes us feel to watch the ACEMS electric car zip around like a carbon-neutral spaceship, we can’t ignore the bulldozers rolling past Merrill getting five miles to the gallon. If we, as a student body, are in fact interested in protecting the environment that we are going to inherit, we cannot tolerate Amherst’s new building spree.

Those of you who enjoy rationalizing might be thinking right now, “But Ned, the old buildings are poorly insulated and inefficient; it’s probably better to just tear them down and build new, greener buildings.” This is a false dichotomy. It is possibly true that many of Amherst’s buildings are not particularly well insulated or efficient. This is a problem that could be almost entirely solved by weatherproofing and insulating these buildings. For a fraction of the cost and a miniscule percentage of the emissions, every building on campus could, despite not being a high-tech LEED platinum building, become environmentally friendly.

Many of you might be feeling a little uncomfortable at this point. I am sure that as self-declared members of the liberal intelligentsia (otherwise, why would you read The Indicator?), you consider yourselves to be environmentalists. Yet, you still really love that new building smell, don’t you? And who wouldn’t prefer King over Moore? I know I would. I’m currently sitting in my room in Marsh with its exposed piping and windows that barely open, and it’s hard not to yearn for a nice double in MoPratt.

Our desire to build points to a fundamental reason why it’s so hard to get people to behave responsibly when it comes to climate change. There are many people who are willing to do things to fight climate change. They put up clotheslines, attend rallies, and install fluorescent light bulbs. Unfortunately, there are far fewer people who are willing to not do things for climate change: to not fly across the country, to not eat meat, to not turn on the A/C when it’s hot. People enjoy taking action for a cause they believe in—they can come home after a day of planting trees in the local park and think to themselves, “Wow, I really did something good for the world today.” Then they feel all warm and fuzzy, and take a nice, long, hot shower, washing all their contributions down the drain.

This preference for action over inaction is a human trait that the environmental movement still has not come to grips with. Though protesting at the White House and buying locally sourced food is certainly important to achieving environmentalism’s goals, it is not enough. Yes, it’s far more satisfying to call your senator to protest the KXL pipeline than to tell your teammates you’re not going to fly to a tournament with them, but these are the sacrifices we all need to make. It is not enough to do things; we must all not do things.

And one of the things we must not do is build. As much as we might yearn for fancy new dorms or a state-of-the-art science center, even if we have the money to build them, it is irresponsible and selfish for us to do so. It is absurd for Amherst to build a massive field house simply because someone gave them enough money to build it. I understand all the talk about “prestige” and “attracting the highest caliber of students,” and I certainly cannot claim that it is in Amherst’s best interest not to build any new facilities. It will likely mean losing some fraction of its applicants to colleges with fancier, newer dorms and science centers that don’t look like brick fortresses. But that’s what behaving responsibly means: not always doing what is best for you if it causes harm to others. Just because Amherst is an institution does not mean it is exempt from these standards of behavior. All too often we forget that there are real people making decisions for Amherst—their decisions must reflect the values the College espouses. If you believe that Amherst ought to be a force for good, a place that teaches students how to lead lives of consequence—that is, lives without terrible consequences—then you should stand with me in calling on Amherst to not follow through on BBB’s plans. I will leave you all with a maxim that applies not only to all you pre-med students out there, but to anyone trying to live an ethical and principled life: First, do no harm. That is my motto, and I think it should be Amherst’s as well.