5 Lessons for Environmentalists Studying in the U.S

By Holly Smith – Wellesley College, MA

After 9 months in the States, I have begun the big post-study abroad reflection. The U.S is an ultra capitalist society and highly focused on growth and prosperity – it’s not exactly known for being environmentally conscious… In this blog post I want to offer some tough lessons that I’ve learned during my time in the U.S and offer some comfort to other environmentalists study abroad.

Lesson 1. You will have to fly.

As someone who opts for buses, bikes, trains wherever possible, the first obstacle to my eco-heart was getting on a plane. It had been so engrained in me that flying is “bad”, that I forgot that sometimes flying is the only way! I did look at a boat, but I did not have 28 days and £2000 to spare… So plane it is. I then turned to think of how can I “make-up” for the flight emissions. Personally, I am a huge sceptic of carbon offsets and the legitimacy of offset services so I would not recommend you console your eco-anxiety that way. Instead, my big tip is to simple make the most of your time wherever you land. Make that plane trip worthy it- the educational opportunities, the natural wonders, the new people. You have to get a plane to get to the U.S (and many other study abroad locations) so best make it worth it.

Me at Yosemite National Park, CA, making my air miles “worth it”

Lesson 2. Public Transport is a Luxury.

The U.S is heavily dependent on cars (or rather built that way to induce car dependence), there will not be the reliable magic bus every few minutes to ferry you around. You will need to plan ahead to avoid getting emergency Ubers. Depending on the city you’re in there are student prices but this is not the case everywhere. Due to the lack of public transport infrastructure, private bus and coach services are extremely popular for intercity and interstate travel. Rather than search every company website, Wanderu has everything all in one place. You don’t have to buy through them (although sometimes it is cheaper) but in my weekend and post-study travels, I’ve managed to get up and down coasts pretty easily.

Lesson 3. Disposable versus reusable dishware is not going to be a choice.

Some places just prefer paper plates to washing dishes, some people are lazy, some establishments are labelling it a COVID-19 measure. When I first got to Wellesley College, I spent the first 6 weeks eating off paper plates with plastic cutlery. The food was not good (see lesson 4), and the disposable dishware did not help at all. Throughout the year, the disposable dishware made regular appearances. My advice for dealing with this is to compost where you can and bring your own cutlery to the dining hall. If you are in catered accommodation, pop a knife, fork, and spoon in your bag for meal times. When you’re done, wrap them in a napkin to wash later. If this is not accessible to you, try to only use the cutlery you actually need. If they come in packets and you only use the fork, save the knife and spoon for another time. This comes in handy too for getting takeaways or a working lunch. You can’t control the supply of disposables, but you can reduce your use of them.

Lesson 4. Flexibility with food might be needed.

In Manchester I am veggie/vegan – it easy to do. Manchester is a very veggie friendly city that caters to plant-based diets in supermarkets, restaurants and take-aways. From my experience this is not the case in the U.S. Remember the UK vegan scene of 2016? Just a small crowd of hipsters declaring they’re going “veguuhnn” for the animals. Well, that’s the situation in most places I’ve visited in the U.S. It is still niche to be vegetarian or vegan (unless for religious reasons). And if you’re on a catered meal plan the options are even slimmer than in cities. The food I experienced at Wellesley College was of poor quality that I had to choose between my dietary values and my health. I’m not saying you have to give up your principles and start eating meat, but this was something I felt I had to do to stay healthy. Allow yourself some flexibility and make the best choices for you at the time – you won’t be able to have great adventures if you are not well nourished.

Lesson 5. People waste stuff, a LOT.

This is something that has bugged my all year round. If you thought Manchester student move out in Fallowfield was bad, you’re in for a surprise here. Due to the size of the U.S and its super-capitalist mindset, waste is a huge issue. To waste is to not be worried about money – that’s one thing. The other thing is that over summer, students often have to pay for storage of their belongings as there is a mass exodus off campus. This means that students accumulate then waste, accumulate then waste for 4 years before the final move out at graduation. One of the ways I tried to tackle waste on campus was in my capacity as Eco-Rep for my accommodation hall. I set up a swap station in the first semester, where people can swap their items as and when they please. Then at the end of second semester, I sent an all-hall email signposting students to the different options they had for rehoming their items. Sometimes students are willing but just don’t know about the resources.

The McAfee Hall Swap Station

These are 5 lessons I’ve learnt as an environmentalist in capitalist U.S. I hope they offer some solace to current and future eco-warriors abroad but also aid preparation. Manchester definitely still has some way to go, but my study abroad experience has definitely highlighted how much of a leading example Manchester is for green cities.

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