‘Sustainability is a Journey, Not a Destination’

Fresh from a gathering of campus and federal leaders, Philip Nyhus discusses the next phase of Colby’s climate leadership

Philip Nyhus
Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Nyhus represented Colby at the Campus and Community-Scale Climate Change Solutions conference and said that Colby was invited because of its standing as a leader and innovator in sustainability practices.
By Bob KeyesPhotography by Ashley L. Conti
March 17, 2023

Professor of Environmental Studies Philip Nyhus recently represented Colby at a two-day workshop in Washington, D.C., among climate, sustainability, and resilience leaders from campuses across the country.

Participants in Campus and Community-Scale Climate Change Solutions showcased innovative ideas and discussed actions that can support climate-change efforts on campus while benefiting surrounding communities and beyond. It was co-hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the University of Washington, with support from the National Science Foundation.

Only one institution from each state was invited. Colby was chosen because of its standing as a leader and innovator in sustainability practices and was among the few small liberal arts colleges represented at the workshop. Themes included making campuses more sustainable and resilient; ensuring students are prepared to lead clean industries; providing climate services to states, municipalities, and Indigenous communities; and serving as proving grounds for climate solutions and strategies.

Nyhus discussed what he learned after returning to Waterville. This interview has been edited for space and clarity.

Why was Colby invited to this meeting?

Colby’s invitation was the result of hard work over the past two decades by faculty, administrators, staff, and individual students and student groups to identify, develop, and implement climate and sustainability solutions on campus. Importantly, this work was possible because of Colby’s innovative Environmental Advisory Group, or EAG, which was formed in 2000 to advise the president and College community on issues related to the environmental stewardship of the campus and region. Our collective efforts have raised our national profile in this area. I appreciate that Ruth Jackson, vice president and chief of staff, and Margaret McFadden, provost and dean of faculty, asked me to represent the institution. 

What were some of your takeaways from the meeting?

Several panelists reminded us that “sustainability is a journey, not a destination.” This is a good reminder for us at Colby: We have a history of environmental leadership, including having one of the oldest environmental studies departments in the country and becoming among the first colleges to declare net-zero carbon emissions. We cannot rest on this legacy, and we need to continue our journey to enhance our environmental academic programs as well as our campus and community sustainability efforts. We need to continue to engage students, engage the administration, engage faculty, engage the board, and engage alumni in this initiative. We also have the opportunity to be a catalyst to support climate and sustainability initiatives in Waterville and beyond. 

I think a second takeaway is that the federal government and many colleges and universities are taking this very seriously, which is exciting, yet many schools have not done as much. So Colby is uniquely situated to play a leadership role by showing other institutions what can be done.

When we talk about campus and community sustainability, what are we actually talking about?

We were reminded that sustainability is not just about reducing carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. Context matters, and we need to think about all the different ways sustainability is important, from making sure we address sustainability across our curriculum to thinking about our role more broadly in how we can catalyze and support healthy ecosystems, public health,  and environmental justice efforts in our own community, state, and the world. The participation of President [David A.] Greene, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Stacy-ann Robinson, other faculty, and a student at the recent IPPC Conference of the Parties and attaining observer status are among the many examples of how we are contributing meaningfully to global efforts to address climate change. 

Colby is contributing meaningfully to global efforts, but also working locally and regionally. What does that mean for students at Colby?

Partnerships are important. Colby has a strong record of developing partnerships around sustainability. The Buck Lab for Climate and Environment as well as the Environmental Studies Department, for example, have built outstanding partnerships with many organizations to support curricular experiences, student internships, and research experiences. Our relationship with Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences is another example of how we are enhancing our capacity for sustainability research by collaborating with another Maine institution. 

You have returned from Washington invigorated and inspired to pass on what you learned. What is the next step?

Climate change affects all of us. Every college and university, cities and states, tribal nations, the private sector, federal agencies, and civil society can and need to catalyze climate action, support partnerships to address climate challenges, support vulnerable communities, and develop strategies to develop climate mitigation, adaptation, and resilience strategies. Institutions of higher education, like Colby College, are uniquely situated to play a leadership role in working with partners and our local community and state to study, develop, promote, and deploy climate and sustainability solutions. This is a “code red” moment for our country and the world. I am proud of the work so many have done and are doing at Colby to study and implement real solutions to meet this challenge. But we can’t rest on our laurels. Our next steps need to include working even harder to think collectively about how we can continue our journey of making Colby a national and global leader in the area of campus and community-scale climate-change solutions befitting the global climate crisis.

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