Two years after the college first introduced Energy2028, The Campus looks at how far Middlebury has come — and what remains to be done

By Emmanuel Tamrat

May 20, 2021

Emmanuel Tamrat

Shifting to renewable energy is a key tenet of Energy2028.

Over two years after Middlebury unveiled Energy2028 — a plan to divest the endowment from fossil fuels, while investing in renewable energy and environmental education — the college has advanced towards each of these goals while making equity and justice a cornerstone of its work.

Jack Byrne, Dean of Environmental Affairs and Sustainability, explained that there are four main pillars of Energy2028: getting to 100% renewable energy, conserving energy on campus, divesting from fossil fuels and integrating sustainability into the educational mission. He noted that progress has been made towards each of these goals but that finding new ways to integrate the goals of Energy2028 with the educational mission of the college will take the longest amount of time.  

Academics

Chair of the Environmental Studies Program Dan Brayton said that Environmental Studies readily adopted the Energy2028 goals as soon as they were presented to them. Consistent with the equity and justice pillar of Energy2028, core faculty in the program are regularly modifying their courses and placing greater emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion.

Such changes have already been underway in Contested Grounds, a core Environmental Studies course that Brayton has taught for over a decade alongside other professors. He noted that he now covers texts from three or four Native American writers, an increase from one or zero when he first started teaching the course. In addition, conversations about race and identity are now central to in-class discussions about humans’ relationships to their natural environment.

Brayton uses these conversations to pose questions that challenge conventional notions about nature and environmentalism. “Who [traditionally] gets to be an environmentalist in US history? What do environmentalists look like and why? These kinds of questions lead to some really exciting conversations and often some pretty hard conversations,” he said.

Progress towards Energy2028 goals in Environmental Studies is largely constrained by limited staffing, Brayton said. He underscored the need for more faculty who are fully affiliated with the program and expressed hope that future faculty are “more representative of global humanity” in their diversity.

New courses and initiatives are also being designed for the discipline, some of which extend beyond Middlebury’s Vermont campus. Middlebury Climate Semester, a new study-away program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, will commence in Winter and Spring 2022. 

According to Brayton, this new program was necessary in order to introduce cross-curricular courses in the humanities. He explained that it will undergo a two-year trial in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years, with the potential to continue as a permanent, year-round offering if successful.

The study-away program will be directed by Brayton and led jointly by the undergraduate Environmental Studies program in Vermont and the International Environmental Policy (IEP) master’s program in Monterey. The program centers around climate change, environmental justice and international environmental policy, according to Brayton.

Brayton sees room for potential growth in undergraduate programming at Monterrey and envisions more environmental studies courses being offered in addition to the Climate Semester program. He also anticipates more students opting to study-away in future years as the partnership continues to develop. 

“I could imagine more environmental studies offerings at Monterey on top of the Climate Semester — maybe a semester study of the marine environment, maybe a semester study of food and agriculture — these will all be built into the Midd Climate Semester,” he said. “But I can imagine all of these aspects of the Climate Semester kind of building out and becoming bigger.”

Justice

Energy2028 acknowledges the role of inequity and environmental racism in the climate crisis and aims to make justice a central consideration in all efforts. Byrne described a “do no harm” philosophy in which the equity and justice consequences of a decision, both positive and negative, are considered before taking action. 

“I think what we want to be sure of is that we’re very conscious of the potential consequences from an equity and justice perspective of different ways we would be thinking about achieving some of these goals,” he said. 

Byrne pointed to a March 2020 op-ed that demanded better treatment for workers at Goodrich Farm — which supplies renewable natural gas to the college as part of an anaerobic digester partnership — following alleged incidences of wage theft and physical and verbal abuse against migrant farmworkers. He echoed the authors’ calls for Middlebury to expand the scope of sustainability to its own labor practices and those of its vendors.

“In the dairy industry in Vermont, there are a lot of migrant workers, and we know in general that they are dealing with difficult circumstances and conditions,” Byrne said. “So that was the impetus for us to say ‘we really need to have an explicit framework around justice and equity’ — to make sure that when we do a project like that, we’re taking into account opportunities to advance justice from a migrant standpoint or from other perspectives.”

Bryne explained that a working subcommittee on justice exists within the college’s Environmental Council and expects to share a preliminary report by the end of the year on next steps in the development of this framework.

Kate Goodman ’24 believes that the language surrounding justice in Energy2028 does not go far enough. Goodman, who works as a Climate Action Fellow with the Climate Action Capacity Project (CACP), explained that some students are working to incorporate the theme as a more integral facet of each pillar in Energy2028.

“I’ve heard a million times that justice isn’t one of the pillars because it should be incorporated in all other pillars, which I like totally agree with: it shouldn’t be separate from conservation, it shouldn’t be separate from divestment, it should be incorporated,” she said in an interview with The Campus. “But I think that incorporation just hasn’t happened, and it has just meant for [justice] to be left out of the language.”

Goodman considers the CACP — which debuted Fall 2020 with its first cohort of fellows — to be an accessible stepping stone to environmental organizing at larger institutions like Middlebury. She explained that although she had prior experience with environmental organizing in high school, she didn’t realize the operational complexity involved in continuing that work at Middlebury ahead of time. 

With that being said, Goodman underscored the importance of building climate awareness through organic interactions. “I think if you’re talking about how we increase climate capacity, I think a lot of the work — the ways I feel that I’ve helped increase climate capacity — are more natural, like having authentic conversations with friends, other fellows, and people in SNEG [Sunday Night Environmental Group], and less of just individual work on your own,” she said. “But it’s also important to push your own capacity as an individual to know.”