Feature: Grading Sustainability - does the School make the grade?

Grading Sustainability - Beyond LED lights and locally sourced food, how does the School make the grade when it comes to teaching about climate change?

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Based on the crude numbers, St. Paul’s School maintains a relatively consistent carbon footprint, accounting for numbers spanning the last decade. That’s despite the fact that the School hasn’t built more square footage, with the one notable exception of the Lindsay Center for Mathematics and Science. From a sustainability perspective, that’s an achievement, but the question for people like SPS Environmental Steward Nick Babladelis in recent years is becoming much more existential. 

“There’s a huge opportunity on the sustainability front, and I think we’re seeing a little bit start to happen at the School, to think about how this ecological work is really civics work,” says Babladelis, who serves as managing editor of The EcoTheo Review, a digital publication that promotes public discourse stemming from faith and ecology. “How do you not just cultivate potatoes and lettuce, but how do you cultivate citizens who are going to be thoughtful about self and neighbor and something bigger than all of that, too?”

Babledelis’s role at SPS grows more significant with each point of record. Last year, the annual Global Climate Report noted that 2015 was the hottest year in modern history, an analysis that accounts for each year dating back to 1880. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released jaw-dropping numbers late last year, affirming that global sea level had risen over the past century at a rate that increased significantly over the last 20 years – nearly three inches higher than in 1993.

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Strategic Stewardship

Whether it’s wildfires or mudslides in California, life-altering floods in Houston, or out-of-season hurricanes ripping along the East Coast, the evidence for a vastly changing, if not unpredictable, climate is clear. And now, those dramatic fluctuations have ostensibly reared their alarming heads and edged to the forefront of the minds of scientists, politicians, local communities, and major institutions worldwide, whether by those who believe in the man-made impact of climate change or those skeptical of it. Whatever the position, one thing is clear: climate is on people’s minds. 

The debate, for better or worse, has led to jobs like the one Babladelis currently holds, a position dedicated almost entirely to the planning and execution of a long-term sustainability strategy. That strategy began more or less during the tenure of former SPS Rector Bill Matthews ’61. Before retiring in 2011, Matthews made a concerted effort to position the School as a steward of conservation, by adding sustainability as one of five major points of the School’s broader strategic plan initiative. That effort has carried over and has since become a major focus for both the operations and engineering sides of the Facilities Department. 

“In practice, this has meant a long series of base hits in terms of environmental sustainability,” says Ben Jorgensen, director of facilities operations and engineering. Among the things Jorgensen cites as aggressive pursuits by his department are improved lighting, motor and environmental controls – replacing older less-efficient technology with newer, more efficient technology, tighter building envelopes both in new construction and in older buildings, upgrading insulation and vapor barriers, replacing windows, and adopting new construction standards calling for ultra-high-performance building standards. “The result,” says Jorgensen, “is that, while the campus has grown, we use significantly less energy per square foot than the national average for commercial buildings.”

An Island of Possibility

Babladelis may not be alone when it comes to the philosophy and practice of sustainability, but as the School’s only environmental steward, it’s about doing more than executing best practices. He often describes his job as “a department of one on an island of possibilities.” He’s hoping those possibilities form the bedrock of some of the goals he’s set forth as the School looks into the future toward its bicentennial anniversary in 2056. By then, Babladelis is optimistic SPS will have developed a far more sustainable, eco-friendly SPS as part of the first Climate Action Plan in the School’s long and storied history. But, he wonders: How do we get there?

Perhaps more than most, St. Paul’s has put forth a healthy and steady progression of eco-standards. One could point to the fact that the School regularly touts recycling as a way of life, rather than a burden of choice; the promotion of a dorm-wide competition to cut back on electricity; collecting plastics; a robust celebration of Earth Day; setting standards for fertilizers and compostables; or harnessing different forms of alternative energies, such as 15 kilowatts of solar paneling recently installed on the back of the Matthes Cage at the Athletic and Fitness Center. For its heating systems, the School recently switched from oil to natural gas, and is currently in the process of converting almost entirely School-wide to LED lights, according to Babladelis. The newly formed Farm Team – an after-school alternative that substitutes for athletics – plants and harvests organic vegetables that figure prominently in the dishes at Seated Meal. 

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Is the classroom the key?

All of that has sustainability payout, Babladelis says, “But…how can we make [SPS] the most sustainable and where is this all going?” If you ask Babladelis and faculty members such as French teacher Laurent Patenotte, the answer lies in an all-too-familiar, but overlooked in this instance, place – the classroom. 

Patenotte joined the Languages Department at St. Paul’s in 2002, after teaching at Phillips Exeter Academy for 16 years. In 2006, he stumbled on a television program about the rapid and, from the program’s perspective, catastrophic effects of climate change. Part of the solution included the promotion and education of renewable and sustainable energy sources. For Patonette, it turned out to be the inspiration for which he was looking. What followed was an unconventional – if not revolutionary – style of teaching, refined over the last 12 years and born out of the necessity to fulfill what Patenotte believes serves a dual purpose. His approach, titled Le Developpement Durable (“Sustainable Development”), started small at Middlebury College, where Patenotte teaches French during the summer. He built a website, a catalog of chapters that incorporates topics such as water conservation and greenhouse gas emissions into the broad context of French linguistics. 

The subtlety was not so subtle, as students soaked in vocabulary, while subconsciously informing their impressionable, largely ecocentric minds in a time of heated partisanship. President Donald Trump, for example, has called climate change “a hoax,” while former President Barack Obama once referred to the warming of the planet as a challenge that “will define the contours of this century more dramatically perhaps than the others.” The crux of Patenotte’s innovation is to create a type of game to “help students think about [sustainability],” and, in turn, use the vocabulary to hone their French speaking skills. The payoff is two-fold; producing skilled speakers of a foreign language and an informed citizen-base for the benefit of the planet. “I strongly believe that we need to make our students aware of the planet” Patenotte says.  “Life will continue, but if we want to continue the life we know, we have to limit our usage of energies. [In addition to their French], that’s what I want them to be aware of.”

Mid-term assessment:  St. Paul’s School boasts areas of strength and also welcomes opportunities for growth in sustainability and ecological instruction.

AREAS OF STRENGTH

1 Maintaining nearly flat electrical consumption and greenhouse gas emission levels since 2008, through consistent energy-efficient upgrades. 

2 Passionate, committed, and creative faculty, integrating ecological thinking into courses throughout the disciplines. 

3 A growing sustainable food program, including the campus Farm Team, an expanded community garden, and a rejuvenated Drury Orchard. 

4 Impassioned students are taking the lead on improved campus recycling and composting, materials selection and use, divestment, renewable energy goals, trail maintenance, and more. 

5 A beautiful and diverse campus that continues to inspire students and adults, including an expansive publicly accessible trial system. The School’s longtime partner, NH Audubon, helps manage and improve the trails and habitat, including blight-resistant chestnut tree hybrid plantings and grassland habitat management. 

OPPORTUNITIES FOR GROWTH

1 Ensuring that SPS equips students to be leaders on the most pressing issues of sustainability and justice, particularly through an emerging sustain-able food partnership with the Merrimack County Conservation District and the Organization for Refugee and Immigrant (ORIS) services, and enhancing the School’s civic engagement by involving students in a diversity of issues, from food justice, to refugee and immigrant rights, to lands management, and more. 

2 Developing a holistic action plan, focused on meaningful and achievable sustainability targets for the School’s 175th and 200th anniversaries. 

3 Expanding the diversity of alternative energy-generation sources on the grounds for use in the curriculum. 

4 Better engagement of the passion and expertise of alumni on ecology and sustainability. 

5 Regularly providing comprehensive public sustainability reporting. 

 

 Students work in the greenhouse at the Lindsay Center for Mathematics and Science.

Students work in the greenhouse at the Lindsay Center for Mathematics and Science.

Patenotte’s distinct outlook, however, is perhaps an outlier for traditionalists. Earlier this school year, he presented his course curriculum and his newly developed technique to members of the SPS faculty, though response leading to action has been slow to develop across the curriculum. Change isn’t always easy. Patenotte doesn’t begrudge anyone who’s accustomed to a particular style, but he is certainly not alone in his efforts to integrate sustainable ideas into the curriculum. 

Steffen Poltak teaches a course called Biomimetics, in which students “explore the form and function of nature’s biological models and systems in order to research and develop conceptual designs in engineering and architecture for the purpose of solving complex human and environmental issues.” Science teacher Scott Reynolds leads students in Terrestrial Ecology, while Rick Pacelli (science) and Toby Brewster (humanities) co-teach an interdisciplinary course called In Tune with Nature: A Literary and Scientific Study of the Natural World. Babladelis teaches the interdisciplinary Food, Environment, and Society, and a religion course called God is Green. Paten-otte has received interest from two professors at Wellesley College, who have asked to use his curriculum as part of their syllabi. 

IN TUNE WITH NATURE

At SPS, the problem, if you can call it one, seems much more a matter of timing and, like anything else, priorities. The priority for the last two decades at SPS has been infrastructure. Talking with people like Babladelis, it seems only a matter of time before the School produces a full Climate Action Plan, and it may start in the classroom. There’s reason to believe an interdisciplinary approach might work, as the practice has become a trend among SPS faculty in recent years. It’s how Brewster (humanities) and Pacelli (science) came up with their In Tune with Nature elective, a decidedly Darwinian approach to education. Essential questions from the class syllabus include: How can we learn to become more environmentally aware through our close observations, lab work, reading, and discussions about nature? What makes celebrated nature writers and why are they such accomplished writers? How do we model that in our own writing? What changes could the SPS community make to become a more self-sustaining community? How do we become agents for change? “From my experience,” Pacelli says, “the best way to get people committed to making a difference in terms of sustainability is to have them fall in love with the world.”