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SUNY Potsdam students study environmental impact through action

Have you ever thought about becoming a vegetarian to help the environment? What about measuring your water consumption in an effort to reduce it or carrying around your trash so you can track your impact? SUNY Potsdam students in Dr. Heather Sullivan-Catlin’s “Environment and Society” course were charged with developing both a personal and community action project that would bring about an environmentally positive social change and/or a beneficial contribution to the natural environment. The students are studying environmental sociology, which examines the complex relationship between human societies and their environments. They are focusing on a variety of issues and perspectives with regard to this relationship, including the ecological implications of human behavior and individual and collective efforts to address environmental issues. Students came up with creative ways to make a difference in the face of climate change, energy issues, food concerns and regional environmental matters. “I signed up for the course because I care about where I live, and I want to be the change I wish to see in the world,” said sophomore sociology major Xinnuo Li of Shenzhen, China. Li managed to make it through her two-week stint as a vegetarian for the project. “It feels good to be friendly to the world,” she noted. Eric Quinn, a junior sociology major from Glens Falls, wanted to make an even more drastic change. “I was originally going vegan for two weeks. It lasted two days. Making such a drastic lifestyle change is hard, though not impossible. I finished the project as a vegetarian.” Quinn learned that gradual change is sometimes best when making a commitment to a new lifestyle. “Given the current environmental issues we face, change is necessary for our future,” he said. Senior environmental studies major RJ Mattimore of Rochester used no plastic bottles or silverware for the duration of his project. Instead, he utilized reusable drinking containers and brought his own silverware to the dining halls. He also tracked his water consumption for two weeks. “It was a lot harder than I thought to measure how much water I used for the bathroom and shower. We don’t realize how much water we use – and waste – on a daily basis.” Other student projects have included giving up driving a car, purchasing only locally produced products and not using electricity. Some chose to undertake a campaign to make a change in policy or campus practices or to educate fellow students through posters and Facebook. In addition to the personal project, students must also complete a service-learning community action project in which they work with a community organization to deepen their understanding of the course content. Mattimore’s group is joining with a technical writing class and The Middle Ground, SUNY Potsdam’s student environmental group of which Mattimore is the president, to reduce plastic bottle consumption on campus. Together, they will perform chemical tests on popular brands of bottled water, filtered water and tap water to determine the contents of each and show these to students at a table set up in the student union. They will work with the Student Government Association, PACES and the physical plant employees to install and supply free filtered water and reusable bottles in the student union. During the 2007 academic year, PACES sold more than 172,000 water bottles in their campus facilities. It can take up to 1,000 years for a water bottle to decompose. “We are hoping to dramatically decrease the number of water bottles used on campus and encourage students to drink the free filtered water or regular tap water,” said Mattimore. “People don’t realize the collective impact they have on the environment and how small changes add up to big results.”   Other options for students included working with GardenShare, Inc.; Bittersweet Farm; Birdsfoot Farm and Little River Community School. Dr. Sullivan-Catlin, chair of the Department of Sociology, says the goal of the course is to have students acquire an ecological literacy, or a broad understanding of how people and societies relate to each other and to natural systems and how they might do so sustainably. The participatory, cooperative learning environment of the class encourages the students to teach and learn from each other and features guest speakers, field trips, videos and discussions. The class will take a fieldtrip to the Ecovillage at Ithaca in November, which is part of a growing global movement for a more sustainable human culture. Comprising an intentional community and a non-profit educational organization, the project is developing an alternative model for suburban living that provides a satisfying, healthy, socially rich lifestyle, while minimizing ecological impacts. For more information about the Department of Sociology, please visit

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