Imagine a post-carbon Reed College. What has changed? Our generation and the generations to follow will experience the devastating impacts of climate change, and will inevitably be forced to change aspects of how we live that have been central to long-standing institutions since their beginnings. Fundamental societal shifts will take place, either in order to avoid the worst effects of climate change or directly because of their destruction. We have the privilege, at Reed College, to predict some ways in which our institution will be affected, and proactively begin to shift in new directions in order to avoid a messy future that forces change faster than our system can handle.
Every level of the institution should be examined, but I would like to focus for now on how Reed eats. Our current system works by way of relying heavily on the food economy outside of Reed’s campus. Food is farmed on large swathes of land off-campus by farmers employing a variety of techniques, either sold to a distributor or directly to Bon Appetit, the company Reed hires to manage its food, packaged, transported, unloaded and prepared for students to consume.
A sizable amount of carbon in our atmosphere, along with other greenhouse gasses, comes from farms like these. While Bon Appetit may charge a premium for locally-produced and organic food, these farmers are still reliant on carbon-intensive practices like tilling, monoculture, the use of synthetic fertilizers rather than compost, heavy machinery, fossil-fueled generators to heat greenhouses and carbon-heavy transportation infrastructure. Meat that isn’t fed by 100% grazing means all those practices likely went into the production and transportation of the animal feed as well. Factoring in the land use of all these farms, land that could otherwise be left to capture carbon naturally through an ecosystem, raises the environmental footprint of Reed’s eating alone to a level that is difficult to calculate. All while Reed itself maintains acres of monoculture and asphalt on campus, used for little other than storage of inefficient personal vehicles and wasteful lawn aesthetics.
When I imagine a post-carbon Reed, every square inch of land that is currently intensely mowed grass would be gone. In its place, I see a bountiful forest of food, meticulously studied and planted, thriving with animals, plants, and fungi all contributing to a larger ecosystem maintained by and for humans. I see pathways protected from the elements with fruit trees, nuts and berry bushes combed over by students for their lunches, dorm rooftops bursting with fruiting vines and a golden field of grain swaying in the breeze. I see animals we would otherwise classify as pests now being tracked and studied by ecology classes. I see interdisciplinary theses being written about everything from the economics of regenerative agriculture to the re-emergence of indigenous land practices. I see the pride of a generation of ex-reedies coming back to campus to pick mushrooms after a heavy rain, showing the younger students which ones are edible. Not only would our larger biosphere benefit from such a change, but also our local ecosystems. During the first year of the pandemic, I fell in love with the canyon, a love I share with a great many of my peers. I spent many hours walking its paths, staring up at the canopies, singing to ducks and sniffing mushrooms. A regenerative farm that valued biodiversity, rather than a series of lawns and acres of land suffocating under pavement, would extend and combine with the existing ecosystem on campus, creating a space that serves and protects humans (physiologically and psychologically) as well as wildlife. It would extend our love of our campus’s ecosystem beyond the boundaries of the canyon, giving more wildlife a chance to thrive. In the long run, it would also be cheaper. Now, understandably this seems dubious. But I invite the reader to consider the cost we will all have to pay for continuing to destroy our ecosystems. How do we calculate the cost of having to revive a dead biosphere? We rely on it to survive as a species, so its value is potentially infinite; we would, and should, do anything, bear any cost, to avoid killing it. In this sense, it is much cheaper to pay for bio-infrastructure now rather than paying to rebuild it later.
But what about for Reed, specifically? Even on the scale of the local rather than the global, a biodiverse regenerative farm introduces a number of efficiencies that could potentially lower the costs of eating at Reed, especially considering the likelihood of decreasing efficiency of industrial farming techniques, and an increasing cost of gasoline, meat, and fish as environmental destruction progresses and we are forced to adopt policies like carbon taxes. Additionally, government subsidies for agricultural carbon capture (some of which already exist, and are likely to grow as climate change worsens) make it a potential revenue stream.
One clear material efficiency of such a system would be a steady stream of organic matter from all the food waste that Reed creates. By composting everything and recycling all of our organic matter into the soil, we avoid a large chunk of the cost of operating a regenerative farm. Another set of efficiencies has to do with the economics of food production as a whole: all costs not related to growing food directly, such as marketing, transportation, or land taxes, would no longer be associated with Reed’s food cost. There would not even need to be a profit incentive for Reed’s agriculture, only the costs of providing food for students, meaning no individual would own or take a disproportionate share of the income from the farm, because the only income would come indirectly from tuition, nothing from the farm itself. Yet another efficiency of localizing the production of food to Reed’s campus would be that students would have ready access to food straight from the ground, lowering preparation and distribution costs.
Government subsidies might not be the only sources of revenue from such a farm. Indirect revenue, such as an increased number of applicants drawn in by the uniqueness of a liberal arts college surrounded by regenerative agriculture, could make it worth the costs all on its own. An easily-accessible platform for experimentation with new (or old, indigenous) farming practices could also produce fascinating and cutting-edge research on food production, research that is essential for the future of our climate, and likely to be held in high regard by the global agricultural community. One source of direct revenue could be the sale of surplus goods in summer months when students aren’t around. But, I dislike that idea. Instead, I imagine the college changing its schedule so that the majority of students are on campus when there is the greatest abundance of food, taking winter months when there is little available to harvest to pursue other interests or job opportunities.
Who would be the workers for this farm? Well, this is probably the most complicated question of a massive shift towards decarbonizing Reed’s food. In my personal imaginary utopia, students are hired to manage the farm, PE credits are given out to students who volunteer, and a few full-time agricultural managers are hired to work alongside researchers and students. It is democratically led and plots are readily given out to individuals or groups as research projects. However, it is important to consider the economies of power that are introduced when students are given control of Reed’s ability to eat. Suddenly, students have more leverage than ever before in the history of the college. This would push Reed closer to a democracy, forcing administration to listen very attentively to student concerns. Personally, I believe this can do nothing but good in the long term, even if it exacerbates some of the chaos of student activism. This is not an opinion shared by all. Therefore, we must examine arguments against a more interdependent Reed carefully, and point out any that fly in the face of evidence and have obvious conflicts of interest in economies of power. Although the college may have co-opted the student-created slogan “Atheism, Communism, Free Love” to sell t-shirts, Reed certainly does not have a flat or democratic administration.
A transition to a post-carbon biosphere will require a great many sacrifices, especially by the wealthiest countries. If everyone on earth led the lifestyle of a typical American, our biosphere would have collapsed long ago. This is not an overpopulation problem, but a problem of systemic consumption. We must ask ourselves, what is the occasional use of a manicured field worth? Does Reed, a school infamous for its lack of competitive sports, really need a rugby field? In a time of extreme carbon-induced climate change, must we continue to smother otherwise usable land with parking lots? How much is it worth, in years of ecosystemic devastation? In dollars?
To be clear, Reed is not the most polluting of institutions, but systemic change from an academic institution with the capacity to experiment with new and ancient organization will be necessary to provide a framework for others to follow.
And a transition is possible! The collective effort and labor of everyone on earth may be needed to achieve even a fraction of the change necessary, but what lies on the other side may be a more equitable world. A more communal, less hierarchical world. A world that values its land and ecosystems, rather than insulting them by contorting them into unnaturally uniform, picture-perfect, monoculture lawn aesthetics. A world designed to thrive and diversify rather than to be divvied up and sold. The work must start now, and it must start with us.