Shaping a More
Sustainable Future

Colgate University geography professors and environmental experts Adam Burnett and Peter Klepeis explain how small actions can have big impacts

Open young minds and you can change the world. For two professors at Colgate University, this unspoken mantra motivates them as they instruct the next generation on sustainability and the environment. 

And their lessons have had an undeniable impact. Adam Burnett, a professor of Geography and Environmental Studies, and Peter Klepeis, a professor of Geography, helped spark the idea for Fair Harbor. Not so long ago, cofounders Jake and Caroline studied with the inspiring academics while earning their undergraduate degrees in geography at Colgate. "Their classes, coupled with my independent study project on the global plastic problem, laid the foundation for Fair Harbor," says Jake.

Here, we talk with the environmental experts about remaining hopeful amid continuing challenges and how the simple act of altering your ethos can change the future for the better.

We talk a lot about sustainability and environmentalism these days. When do you think climate change became part of the public consciousness?

Prof. Adam Burnett:  Atmospheric scientists knew about it before then, but in 1988 there was a broad heat event and drought in the United States. That was the summer when Yellowstone National Park caught fire and burned. It was a significant event in the American psychology. It was the largest wildfire in the recorded history of Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Shortly after that, there were Congressional hearings on why it was so hot that summer and in those hearings, there was one famous climatologist who spoke and he said, “Look, this is it. Climate change is happening.” Shortly after that, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and the United Nations created the Intergovernmental Panel on Channel Change (IPCC) were formed. 

A buffalo escapes the flames in Yellowstone National Park, 1988

Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Firefighters in Yellowstone National Park, 1988

Jim Peaco, National Park Service

Today, some of your classes explore the science and social and political implications on the environment. Why is it important to consider the whole picture?

Prof. Adam Burnett: When I first came to Colgate, I was just on the science side of things. Over time it became apparent that environmental issues were a blend of physical and human processes. It’s where those two things overlap is when we begin to see problems with the environment. I realized that “Climate and Society” would be an ideal course to focus on physical aspects and human dimensions. It includes cultural issues, how things are communicated, why some people deny a particular problem, and others accept it. Plus economic dimensions that influence climate change. Covering ethics and sociology  allows students to engage with climate change in a dynamic way. 

Prof. Peter Klepeis teaching his Happiness class

Can adjusting your mindset advance change?

Prof. Peter Klepeis: I became convinced through research as well as my own experience that you're not going to change behavior if you tell people that it’s all about sacrifice– that they have to take cold showers and not travel anywhere. I don’t think that’s true, and it’s certainly not an effective way to inspire people to care about issues and work to change them. 

For my “Geography of Happiness” course, there’s a great environmental author, Robin Wall Kimmerer, who wrote a book called “Braiding Sweetgrass.” She uses this expression called “mutual thriving.” I think that poetically captures the goal of the class: If we consume less, focus more on our local communities, get outside more, unplug – the evidence is overwhelming that you’ll be a happier person and have a good life. It’s not that you can’t travel and do other things, but have more of an emphasis on these alternatives. And if you do that, you’ll likely develop an environmental ethic and address some of these problems. It could be beneficial collectively as well as individually. 

Prof. Adam Burnett extracting sediment cores from a local marsh with young Jake on right

Prof. Adam Burnett teaching outdoors

A recent report from the Cambridge Sustainability Commission notes that up to 70% of global emissions can be affected by action from individuals. Do you think that’s an exciting and hopeful opportunity? 

Prof. Adam Burnett: Yes, I believe that if enough of us make small changes, we can have a significant impact.

Prof. Peter Klepeis: Absolutely. In the Happiness course, I mention that things that would lower your carbon footprint and reduce toxic pollution could also make your life better: consuming less stuff and eating more of a plant-based diet is good for the environment and your health. Walking more and biking more are activities that are good for you as individuals for your health and outlook as well as for the environment. It lowers your carbon footprint. If you start to include this idea of mutual thriving into your day-to-day decisions, it will move us all in the right direction. 

And that can put pressure on the market to demand that industry do better. It has to be a combination of systemic change and individual social changes as well. We need to have a healthy economy where businesses are thriving. That’s part of sustainability. It’s not just the environment piece –it’s the social and economic pieces. If you can incorporate a sustainability ethic and make a profit, that’s how we need to move forward. 

Prof. Burnett on Cayuga Lake with students

Is there an everyday issue you feel particularly passionate about?

Prof. Adam Burnett: Every semester I have a soapbox and this semester I am concerned with reducing food waste. When you think about it, there’s a carbon footprint surrounding everything you eat. If it’s grown on a farm it requires fossil fuels to grow, pick, and ship it. We drove to the store to buy it. And now we let it rot in the refrigerator and later in a landfill. It's  wasteful on so many levels. Sometimes it’s just educating people to raise consciousness that leads to mild behavioral changes.

With so much left to tackle, what motivates you both to continue your work?

Prof. Adam Burnett: Sometimes I think of all the stuff I spend my time on and consider what’s really making the greatest impact in the world. Is it being on the Faculty Affairs Council? Probably not. I’m sure only 12 people read my research papers. We probably have the biggest impact on our students, like Jake and Caroline, who approach the problem with curiosity and hopefulness. They’re going to be the next generation of leaders, influencers, and innovators. For me, that’s where it’s at.

Prof. Peter Klepeis: Our students are the future, and they’re why we do this. 

Caroline and Jake meet up with their mentors

Class photos courtesy of Profs. Adam Burnett and Peter Klepeis