Where the action is: Vermont’s Sterling College serves as role model for a sustainable future


by Laurie Caswell Burke

This week a second earth quake rocked Nepal, twisters and tornados battered parts of five states from Texas to Iowa, and raging floods swamped several mid-west towns. It’s getting harder and harder to deny climate change. Many folks still feel that their small actions don’t matter in the big picture. But if you visit a college campus and witness the dedicated efforts of numerous college communities, who are collectively changing the way they do things to create a more sustainable future, you may change your mind. Bold and subtle actions are taking place across the country, and Vermont is leading the way.

Sterling College, a small hands-on, college devoted to environmental stewardship located in Craftsbury, Vermont is the third college in the nation, and the first in the state, to divest from fossil fuels. This college is the leading voice in higher education for environmental stewardship. Students, trustees, administration, and faculty at Sterling are interested in solving the biggest issues of the 21st century: our food, water, air, and our energy. And they aren’t alone; Just this April, students at Yale and Harvard protested and conducted activities encouraging our colleges to divest from fossil fuels.

President Matthew Derr said, “Sterling College is an institution that lives by its core values of environmental stewardship and sustainability, and our investment strategy is now completely in line with those values. By fully divesting its endowment from fossil fuel extractors, we are reaffirming our mission to educate problem solvers and the next generation of environmental stewards.” Derr continued, “Our Board of Trustees realizes that there is something inherently contradictory about relying on profits from fossil fuels to fund an institution like Sterling. I am gratified that we were able to complete this divestment, which was championed by my friend and colleague Rian Fried-before his recent and untimely passing.”

Sterling College is the first in the nation for serving “real food” which can be defined as local, sustainably harvested, humane, and fair trade. The Real Food Challenge surveyed over 160 colleges and universities around the country and Sterling came out on top. A farm on the campus offers students the opportunity to help with chores and take care of the animals. Twenty percent of the food served on campus is grown on site. In 2015, the college received a STARS Gold rating to recognize its sustainability achievement from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

There is no Chief Sustainability officer at Sterling, as they believe that everyone in the community should focus on sustainable practices daily. As the only work college in the northeast, all students must work regardless of their financial need. This allows opportunities to contribute to the day to day operations including farming, trail crews, taking care of animals and composting. In fact, this college has pledged to be 100 percent fossil fuel free for both heating and electricity by 2018, and judging by recent actions, that goal is achievable. Currently, a mixed power model prevails on the campus farm and fields including the use of tractors and draft horses.

There are many lessons to be learned from this small college with 430 acres and 120 students that grows by 25 percent every two years. Environmental activist and author Bill McKibben shares, “This small college is one of the most important places in this country.” Colleges will continue to be places that inspire us to keep the sustainability train moving as they reduce their carbon footprint and inspire a new generation to do things differently. The wild weather that continues is a stark reminder of who really is in charge. We all need to pay attention. Thank you to Sterling College community for all your good work. For more information visit www.sterlingcollege.edu.

This is the beginning of a series of articles that will appear this year in Living ECOnomically to highlight actions taking place on college campuses, high schools, and elementary schools – that’s where the action is!