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  • Writer's pictureArielle Kouyoumdjian

A Unfiltered Cry for Sustainability At My High School

I’m fed up with the so-called climate movement that isn’t moving. I spent this past year trying to understand what young people can do to confront climate change, so that all the hard work we’re doing every day isn’t just a futile race to Planet Zero. What are we really doing to change our habits and implement sustainability at Potomac School? I’ve spoken with Potomac School staff and students, as well as sustainability experts at Columbia University and CapGemini. Oddly enough, sustainability initiatives at Potomac are stagnant.

I’ve come to the conclusion that, while there are plenty of well-intentioned faculty, climate initiatives at Potomac are going nowhere because of the administration’s hesitancy to make sustainability a financial priority. When it comes to sustainability at Potomac, there is a disconnect between concept and action. Despite a plethora of ambitious youth, the existence of an environmental club, dedicated environmental educators, a beautiful green campus, and a healthy budget, the only thing that’s changing in the Potomac environment is the climate. We are willing to do what it takes to save the world! Unless it requires nixing our single-use utensil addiction.

Thanks to The Most Important Person You’ve Never Heard Of (NYT), I’ve found a new way of thinking about the problem. Tree hugging, bird watching, and clover picking are feel-good activities that accomplish nothing. What if, instead of performative “earth loving deeds,” we seriously examine Potomac’s toll on the ecosystem, and frame it in terms of economic debt. Sir Partha Dasgupta devised a method to calculate the combined monetary value of every environmental asset in the biosphere (Earth is worth $54 trillion a year, in case you’re saving up)--and he suggests that we pay for what we consume.

For example, your hamburger doesn’t just cost the few bucks you slap down at the drive-through counter.

  • It costs the methane burped out by your hamburger meat.

    • It costs he biodiversity sacrificed to plant the monoculture pastures eaten by your hamburger meat

      • It costs the fertilizer pollution that runs off the monoculture pastures eaten by your hamburger meat

        • It costs the gas spewed out by the trucks that chauffeur your hamburger meat to the drive through

          • It costs the electricity it takes to refrigerate your hamburger meat until it reaches your plastic fork

          • It costs the CO2 emitted as your uneaten hamburger meat rots in a landfill next to your indestructible plastic plate

Can we apply Dasgupta’s paradigm to the Potomac School? Using his method, we would calculate the cost of our environmental impact and add that to the cost of the education. In effect, each student here is receiving a scholarship from the earth. It’s impossible to calculate exactly what we cost the earth, but it would include:

  • The trees that were reincarnated as your pre-calc homework.

  • The carbon emissions of the energy used to power our HVAC

  • The 180,000 pounds of greenhouse gasses our cafeteria waste emits annually, which translates to a social cost of $30,000,000

  • The 6,600,000 pounds of CO2 our propane-fueled bus fleet belches into the atmosphere every year. And that costs the earth up to $113,000,000 a year.

  • Worse yet, the developing nations that contribute the least carbon emissions are the ones who will ultimately pay the price. Doesn’t that make you question our integrity?

Climate change is a capitalist problem. Unfettered production = unlimited success = $$$. In order to produce, we guzzle earth’s resources. Despite living in a money-driven society, we keep borrowing loans from the earth that we never pay back. Which is why our planet is in debt (environmental degradation, soil nutrient depletion, deforestation galore.)

Like the rest of the United States (and most of the world), Potomac School is a capitalist institution swarming with ambitious little capitalists. You know this: it pays to go to Potomac. And in return, Potomac makes big bucks off our ambition.

Potomac School’s failure to make sustainability a financial priority is a microcosm of the global climate catastrophe. Frugality trumps the need for sustainability on the Potomac campus. Whether it be investing in solar panels, recycling, or composting, expenses seem to be the foremost concern that prevents us from implementing sustainable changes.​​ This private school education is a worthwhile investment for our personal futures, but we’re robbing Peter to pay Paul robbing the planet to pay Potomac.

Potomac funnels money towards homecoming and the soccer team and StressLess™ initiatives. You know what would make me StressLess™ than the unveiling of a cotton candy machine at Panther Time? A concrete, financially-backed dedication to pay back the planet for what our school consumes. The genuine prioritization of sustainability at this school.

  • Let’s start by becoming a certified Sustainable School through Fairfax 350’s “Earth Friendly Fairfax Initiative

  • Let’s remove disposable containers from the lunchroom (we can even join the Plastic Free Challenge!)

  • Let’s actually implement a few of the 9th graders’ shark-tank style sustainability pitches

  • Let’s turn the Spangler lights out at night.

  • Let’s work out our quarrel with the composting company.

  • Let’s buckle down on our recycling.

  • Let’s plant rain gardens to absorb runoff before it reaches Pimmit

  • Let’s invest in at least a few hybrid buses.

  • Let’s cap the roofs with solar panels.

  • Let’s aim for Net-0 carbon emissions by 2030 (and until then, attempt to offset our emissions.)

These latter initiatives sound expensive. Admittedly, they are–in the short-term. But in the long-term, paying back the earth pays Potomac, too. And even though, evidently, the adults on this planet don’t speak, “the apocalypse is now!”, they certainly speak “$$$!” So let’s talk savings.

According to the Biden-Harris administration action plan for building better school infrastructure, energy is the second largest expense for public schools, after salaries, totaling 8 billion dollars a year. Investing in solar panels can save our school alone up to 8 million dollars over the next 30 years. According to Generation 180, if all of the nation’s K-12 public schools adopted solar energy, we’d save 60 million metric tons of carbon emissions per year.

In lower income school districts, especially those that have historically relied on revenue from the coal industry, investing in renewable energy is a lifeline. If cash-strapped coal mining counties are investing in solar panels for their schools, why can’t Potomac roll up its sleeves and do it too?

I hate to dangle the savings-carrot as a last resort to catalyze change. I wish Potomac would commit to sustainability because it makes our community a better place, just like DEI initiatives and mental health education. Why doesn’t the administration see that climate change mitigation is inherently valuable, instead of viewing it in-terms of financial burden or return? After all, isn’t a drive for short-term financial reward what got us into this earth-destroying mess in the first place?

It may be strategic to force the hands of individuals, as well as large corporations towards a commitment to sustainability through carbon taxes and financial incentives. But let’s be frank: In many cases, this is a commitment more out of financial desperation than true concern for the environment. What does that say about our society, and, in the most literal sense of the word, the “sustainability” of the drastic changes we are trying to achieve? How can we create meaningful change in the Potomac community?

Start by involving the generation that currently has no stake in the financial game: youth. Here’s the part where students come in. We don’t care about the economy; and we are (hopefully) more driven by moral imperative than by money.

If you’re like me: fed up with a climate “movement” that isn’t moving– let’s stop grumbling and actually do something about it. The climate movement at Potomac is stagnant; but it’s not just the fault of penny-wise adults. I mean, c’mon.The least we can do is do our part.

  • Use. Reusable. Plates and dishes. It’s so forking easy!!

  • Recycle.

  • Compost*

  • Better yet, only take how much food you can eat.

  • Don’t buy your hoco dress from Shein (or any other fast fashion store.)

  • Carpool if you can.

  • Email the administration about your sustainability ideas

*Mr. Rosatti, Potomac’s executive chef, is already doing a fantastic job coordinating donations of leftovers to a local food bank. The least we can do is sort our leftovers, so the composting company can’t claim it’s contaminated. Plus, we can use the compost to fertilize the campus ecosystem Mr. Pingree and Mr. Conroy work so hard to protect.

Committing to environmental sustainability is economically advantageous in and of itself. But if the financial gain is what Potomac is really after, the resulting environmental progress is rendered merely a pleasant side effect of increased revenue. When climate change and overconsumption strips the earth of natural resources, there will be no economy and no Potomac (this applies to the river and the school).

In order to catalyze lasting change, students need to be fired up about protecting the earth itself, too.

We can’t solve the climate crisis solely by prodding the economy, because us kids aren’t generally part of the workforce or large corporate decision-makers. Yet it is youth who will inherit the planet. If Potomac is going to open its checkbook, somebody needs to take the first step. It looks like that’s going to be up to the students. If teachers and administrators see that we are passionate and driven about sustainability at Potomac, they will be more inclined to put forth the effort and money needed to make change. If they don’t, at least we can say we’ve tried our best. And: as a future inheritor if this mixed-up, muddled-up, shook up world, I beg of you Mr. Kowalik–invest in sustainability! Your hesitancy to act costs me my future.

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