Time to Act: Fighting for Our Imperiled Earth

Collage of ringing alarm clock with Earth superimposed on the face encircled by a solar panel, a windmill, an recycling symbol and a sign saying "There is no planet B."

The recent United Nations summit on climate change ended with a widespread warning that our disasters will get worse and happen more often.

Many leaders from around the world vowed to take action to reduce carbon emissions, reliance on fossil fuels, and development in the Earth’s most threatened ecosystems.

So how does a small liberal arts college like Davidson combat climate change? Locally, in the short run, and in the long term, by turning out scientists, scholars, government, business, non-profit and community leaders working toward solutions.

The college has announced a plan to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent over the next five years. From near and far, Davidson College alumni are tackling climate change in their boardrooms, agencies and hometowns.

Dana Beach ’77, founder and director emeritus of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, spent his career working to preserve some of the state’s most delicate ecosystems. 

In Denver, Colorado, Kealy Herman ’08 works as Google’s lead on Supply Chain Climate Strategy. The company’s pushing to develop an energy-efficient, low-carbon supply chain. 

Tom Cors ’92, land director and lobbyist for The Nature Conservancy, helped garner bipartisan Congressional support for federal parks through the Great American Outdoors Act of 2020.

In Washington, D.C., Peter Hansel ‘09, who served in President Barack Obama’s administration, now helps non-profits navigate federal climate policy.

Closer to Davidson, Raul Galvan ’21, who helped craft the college’s climate action plan, serves as a fellow for the Catawba Lands Conservancy and the Carolina Thread Trail. 

And on Davidson’s campus, residents of the Sustainability Cooperative share meals, responsibilities, and a desire to do their part to combat climate change as they prepare to meet the Earth’s future challenges.

Local Actions Add Up

The college’s 2021 climate action plan carries on the work started in 2010. Since then, the college has added more energy-efficient heating and cooling systems and lighting, and has expanded its building space but cut emissions by nearly 10 percent. 

Other strategies include contracting with renewable energy sources, continuing the push for campus-wide sustainability, and instituting more environmentally friendly travel options.

We can’t ignore climate change, which affects our health, economy, food supplies and safety, says Yancey Fouché, the college’s director of sustainability.

“At Davidson, we are seeing disruptions and challenges from climate-related weather events. We have students whose families have been affected by wildfires, flooding and extreme heat,” Fouché says. “Severe drought and subsequent water rationing contribute to rising food costs. The more that the global community can curb the total amount of global warming, the better protected our campus will be from worsening and extreme versions of these and other climate impacts.”

Hansel, who served in the Council on Environmental Quality during the Obama administration, says the evidence predicting more frequent and more deadly disasters continues to mount. 

“This year more than ever has demonstrated how we’re experiencing climate catastrophe,” Hansel says. “There’s a level of intensity—it seems like every day—that I don’t remember experiencing before, and it’s disheartening. But there’s also a reason for optimism because we do have in our grasp the ability to prevent even worse outcomes.”

Hansel says Davidson’s plan, broken into five-year increments, helps ensure accountability.

“It’s harder to think about 10 years down the road or to mid-century,” he says. “You do have to have that long-term vision, but near-term targets are more actionable. As new technology and information emerges, you might realize that you can go at a faster pace.

“I applaud Davidson for revisiting this and leaning in to become a leader on these issues that are affecting our generation and generations to come.”

He’s glad Davidson now offers an established Environmental Studies major and is encouraged that the college will turn out more students and alumni working to reduce global warming.

“When colleges like Davidson commit to these targets, it all adds up. There’s so much that needs to be done in figuring out how to solve this in the United States and the world,” he says. “You can think of it on a broader scale, but it comes down to very detailed decisions among many smaller entities. That’s the value of Davidson doing this. That knowledge bubbles up, and the lessons learned at Davidson can spread.”

—Mary Elizabeth DeAngelis

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Material Matters

Art as a Change Agent.

Nichole van Beek tries to understand the life cycle of art materials, from where they originated to how they were processed to where they’ll end up.

The visiting art professor works with materials that cause the least amount of environmental impact. She focuses especially on compostable items, experimenting with mushroom foam and kombucha paper, and ink from botanical sources. 

“Davidson has provided a great amount of beautiful dark brown ink and dye from black walnuts,” she says, “and an intense magenta from pokeberries.” 

There’s a larger message here.

In spring, she’ll teach a class called Climate Art and Action. Students will learn how artists can address climate change through their work. That may range from using images such as melting icebergs or endangered animals for a studio project, creating graphic works that call for change or developing social practice projects. She’ll also guide students as they produce a class project together.

“Ultimately it’s important for artists to remember that they are not just developing and supporting material culture, but they also contribute to creating a sustainable society through the ideas they focus on and where they choose to situate their work,” van Beek says. “This means using their time and artistic voice to support community health and equity, environmental justice initiatives, or policy change on a local, national, and international level in service of those who are most disadvantaged.”

—Mary Elizabeth DeAngelis

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Some Tips for sustainability-minded artists

Look locally: For materials that can be sustainably foraged or farmed. You’re using natural materials and cutting down on transportation emissions and packaging waste.

Reuse: Things that might otherwise get tossed. Think eggshells, plastic bottles and clothing. 

Choose: Biodegradable, or even better, compostable materials. 

Minimize: Make small pieces or use a minimum of materials for larger ones.

Consume less: Artists working with clay can use low-fire methods, painters can clean brushes in a slop bucket that can be used many times instead of running them under water.

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Counseling for Climate Anxiety

Students cope with fear and sadness for an uncertain future.

The winds whip trees and flagpoles as gushing rain pelts the pavement. It’s the kind of late summer North Carolina storm that may blow over quickly with little damage or topple trees on top of houses and leave basements underwater.

The area is under a flood warning with tornadoes also a possibility. It’s an unnerving time to drive on the interstate or live within close proximity to big tree limbs and flood-prone waterways. It’s also an ominous backdrop for the discussion going on at Davidson College’s Visual Arts Center. 

A small group of students, faculty and staff have gathered for a workshop on strategies to cope with climate distress. It’s a common concern at Davidson: Some students and their families have borne the direct impact of hurricanes and wildfires; others worry about the planet’s future.

“I’m hearing a lot about climate anxiety and grief, people are bringing it up more and more,” says Susan Denny, a counselor for the college’s Health and Wellness Center. “If we feel overwhelmed and alone, that can lead to greater distress. We have to talk and normalize that we are anxious.”

Before coming to Davidson last year, Denny spent a decade counseling young adults and adolescents. Her expertise includes outdoor and adventure therapy, such as hiking and rock climbing to seek healing through nature.

She began offering outdoor counseling at Davidson when the COVID-19 pandemic forced indoor sessions to be virtual. Even though a sense of normalcy has returned to campus, she still offers outdoor sessions for students when possible.

Denny teamed up with Visiting Art Professor Nichole van Beek for the workshop, using natural materials as symbols. A rock represented anxiety; a stick, anger and frustration; a pile of leaves, sadness and grief. Participants added each element to an empty basket and talked about those emotions. 

One person described his grief about the wildfire destruction in his home state. 

“It also makes me sad that other people don’t get sad about the coast burning up,” he says. “I see deer and other animals standing in this smoldering area and wonder what it’s like for them.”

Several talked about being afraid, and angry that the world and its leaders aren’t doing enough.

“I feel like we’re on a car heading toward a cliff and I don’t know how to put the brakes on,” one said.

Another described frustration about coming from a region where many people dismiss climate change and say, “Why are you worried? You have a pretty good life.”

It’s important to recognize and work through those feelings, Denny says.

“We’re all part of nature, cells of a bigger body,” she says. “If the body is hurting, we’re all hurting. What can one person do? What can we all do if we work together? Sometimes it helps to talk about what actions we can take.

“Avoiding emotion is what we don’t want to do.”       

—Mary Elizabeth DeAngelis

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Lobbying for the Future

Tom Cors ’92 helps move legislators to action on public lands protection.

The COVID-19 pandemic intensified our connection to the outdoors and reminded us that public lands are healing places. They offer fresh air, opportunities to exercise and learn new hobbies, space for meditation, and a sense of peace. Under the leadership of advocates like Tom Cors ’92, lobbyist and director of lands for The Nature Conservancy, public lands can also heal political divides. 

“The Great American Outdoors Act is one of the few pieces of legislation that passed through Congress in such a bipartisan manner,” says Cors, a key player who was in the room at the 2020 presidential signing. “The whole premise of public lands is that we acquire and manage them for current and future generations, and lasting conservation happens when everyone buys into it. We had very strong votes, which gives us confidence that we will have lasting conservation for the next 50 years. The conservation community can now rely on these programs.” 

The landmark legislation provides up to $1.9 billion a year for five years for maintenance of national parks, forests, wildlife refuges, recreation areas and Bureau of Indian Education schools. It also funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund for $900 million a year in perpetuity, in support of conservation and recreation opportunities across the country. 

Though lobbyists are often maligned, Cors says every good thing and every bad thing has a lobbyist fighting for it. The U.S. government is set up to empower people to represent a constituency—Cors’s constituency is The Nature Conservancy’s more than one million members. It’s not easy work. He can generally count on five defeats for every victory as the organization works toward conserving 30 percent of the nation’s and the world’s lands and waters by 2030. 

“Thirty percent is what is needed, based on the science, to keep the global ecosystem working,” he says. “The big loss is what we’re not able to conserve now—it’s a burden we pass to future generations. If we know there’s a 10,000-acre tract of land that has streams critical to supporting wildlife, we want to conserve that. But if it gets developed instead, once something has a roof on it, it’s hard to undo. As a non-profit, we can’t pay above fair market value, and private entities can come in and outbid us. We’re going in the right direction, but we need to go faster.” 

Cors is an Eagle Scout who served in the Peace Corps after Davidson, doing agroforestry work in Senegal. The avid mountain biker and fly fisherman has always loved spending time in nature and gets out as often as possible. He and his wife, fellow Wildcat MaryFaith Mount Cors ’92, travel extensively with their children. 

Cors says his science background from Davidson provided a solid foundation for this work, but more importantly, he appreciates the way Davidson equipped him to learn and become a subject-matter expert on any number of things. Law school rounded out his education.

“I have to become an expert on whatever the current issue is—and I have to represent it in short order to lawmakers,” he says. “Legislators are busy, and they have to decide that they can trust me. It’s my job to put information into bite-sized pieces they can digest, boiling down complex issues into simple expressions.” 

The support to conserve public lands continues to grow. Cors says pro-conservation voices are welcome on both sides of the aisle, and individuals should become involved at whatever scale they are able. Organizations like The Nature Conservancy provide an easy way to contribute to conservation efforts; members are “activated” when the organization needs people to contact legislators in an effort to craft durable policy outcomes.

“Who doesn’t love to cut a ribbon at a new local park or an improvement to an existing national park?,” he says. “Sitting back and hoping someone else will do it isn’t enough. Folks can get involved in conservation at any level—from maintaining local trails to lending their influential voices for political good.” 

—Danielle Strickland

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Protecting Precious Resources

Raul Galvan ’21 does whatever it takes to preserve vanishing green spaces.

Raul Galvan’s workplace spans thousands of acres. There’s no job too small or big during a workday that’s never typical. 

At Davidson, Galvan majored in Environmental Studies and worked with the non-profit, Sustain Charlotte, as a Sustainability Scholar. He also collaborated with college and town leaders on Davidson’s 2021 climate action plan. 

Read more about Raul Galvan ’21 whose work is on the front lines of environmental advocacy and sustainability.

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No Preaching—Unless the Dishes Pile Up

Sust’y Coop residents share space, strategies toward sustainable lifestyle.

They come from as close as South Carolina and as far as South America and South Asia.

There are vegans, vegetarians and carnivores; they include the gluten-free, nut-free and dairy-free. Some are accomplished cooks; others have barely mastered the boxed mac and cheese instructions. 

Welcome to Davidson College’s Sustainability Cooperative, otherwise known as the Sust’y Coop. 

Every year, 10 students of varying backgrounds, interests and talents are selected, through the lottery system and an essay, to live in the small red brick duplex on Main Street. There are eight rooms in all; two residents have singles, the rest double up. They share household responsibilities, occasional meals and a desire to live a more sustainable lifestyle.

“We try to limit preaching, nobody has a monopoly on sustainability, we’re not trying to compete with each other,” says resident Heather Mansell ’24. “But there are things we can do more of—or less of—to live a more sustainable life.”

Mansell, an Indianapolis native, is a flutist for the college’s Symphony Orchestra and plans to double major in history and political science. She also serves as the coop’s liaison between the college’s Residence Life and Sustainability offices.

Mansell says that like many college students, she and her housemates came of age at a time of heightened awareness about climate change and concern about the planet’s future. She says the coop’s focus on sustainability helps residents become more conscious of what they consume, from food to energy sources. 

Living with vegans and vegetarians has inspired Mansell to eat less red meat. She and other residents try to minimize waste by cooking only what they’ll eat. They compost in a community garden and buy fewer single serve products. 

“I know I’m not saving the world here,” she says. “We all have different habits and goals for how to make changes, and when we leave here, hopefully we can share what we’ve learned with others.

“Anybody can adopt a more sustainable lifestyle.”

And despite the shade-throwing poem in the kitchen, she says, “there’s no fighting, we all get along really well. Just make sure you clean up your dishes after you make food.” 

Or as the anonymous poet warns:

“If I have to clean up after you again, I will write another poem.”

—Mary Elizabeth DeAngelis

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Corporate Climate Connection

Before Google, Kealy Herman ’08 got her start in sustainability at Davidson.

Kealy Herman ’08 is continuing her fight against climate change with one of the world’s most valuable companies at her back. Herman recently joined Google as lead for supply chain climate strategy and is excited about the opportunities to leverage the company’s supply chain to invest in green energy and reduce carbon around the world. 

“We’re working to build an energy-efficient, low-carbon supply chain,” she says. “And we want to do so in a way that protects ecosystems while being inclusive to the workers in our supply chains—all while helping to accelerate progress in the fight against climate change.”

Herman didn’t always see herself in the sustainability field. She showed up at Davidson dead-set on being a veterinarian—until first-year chemistry got in the way. That prompted a minor identity crisis as she struggled to figure out what she would study. 

“I got some really great advice that I should major in something that you think is interesting, and it’ll all work out,” she says. “And what was really interesting to me was the environment.”

Herman had always loved to be outside. “I was that kid that brought home turtles and frogs from the creek in our neighborhood,” she says. Growing up in St. Louis, she spent summers in Colorado—where she now lives with her husband and four dogs—and that only deepened her love for the outdoors. 

So, she decided to major in Environmental Studies—before it was an official course of study—through the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies. She thought she might be a teacher.

Then, in the fall of her senior year, President Tom Ross signed the American Colleges and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment, pledging that Davidson would be carbon-neutral by 2050. Suddenly, the college needed someone who could actually fulfill the college’s commitment. 

Herman stepped in as the college’s first sustainability fellow immediately after she graduated. And for two years, she worked to elevate sustainability on campus. But the crown jewel of her tenure was the college’s first Climate Action Plan. 

Herman had found her calling. 

“I had to figure out how to get a group of people who didn’t necessarily care about climate to approve these really ambitious climate goals. And it’s such a common challenge for sustainability professionals,” she says. “I feel so lucky to have been just thrown into the deep end immediately upon graduating because I’ve drawn on those experiences ever since. I use the skills I learned in my fellowship every day.”  

                               
—Jay Pfeifer

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It Starts at Home

About two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions are linked to private households. So, what can you do to make a difference? The United Nations Campaign for Individual Action offers some steps.

Curb Consumption

To reduce your carbon footprint, use less energy at home, switch to a wind or solar-energy provider, skip a long-haul flight, and drive less.

Don’t Forget Food 

To reduce your impact on the climate, buy local and seasonal food, eat more plant-based meals, use up what you have, and compost any leftovers.

Speak Up

Appeal to world leaders, encourage local leaders, and urge businesses to take immediate action toward net-zero emissions.

10 Actions For Impact

  • Save energy at home
  • Walk, bike or take public transport
  • Eat more vegetables 
  • Consider your travel
  • Throw away less food
  • Reduce, reuse, repair, recycle
  • Change your home’s energy source
  • Switch to an electric vehicle
  • Choose eco-friendly products
  • Speak up

Credit: The UN Campaign for Individual Action

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Preservation and Persistence

For Dana Beach ’77, natural wonder leads to a career protecting the environment.

When it looked like millions of pigs might take up residence in South Carolina, Dana Beach got to work. 

North Carolina’s 10 million hogs were about to spill over the state line. The multi-billion-dollar pork industry runs farms that dot the southeastern region of the Tarheel state and are surrounded by waste lagoons, where hog feces is collected and diluted with water. In the wake of hurricanes Floyd and Florence, waste lagoons spilled over into flood waters, polluting nearby waterways. Rivers were starved of oxygen and dead fish began piling up on the surface.

Looking to expand operations and profits, two big pork producers planned to buy properties in South Carolina with the aim of moving the industry into the state. At the time, South Carolina swine numbered approximately 300,000.

North Carolina provided an ugly, cautionary tale for environmentalists and farmers alike. Working with legislators, farmers and environmental partners, Beach led a three-year effort to stop the migration of the hog industry to South Carolina, a state that sides with corporations more often than environmentalists. 

Not only did the industry stay out of South Carolina, but the state adopted the strongest industry regulations in the United States. 

“And today,” Beach says, “we have almost exactly the same number of hogs we had in the state in 1990.”

Over the course of his nearly 30-year career as founder and director of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, Beach experienced big victories, heartbreaking defeats, and many surprises. Now retired from the league, he continues to do what he loves—protect and preserve the natural world. 

Among many lessons, Beach has learned that preservation takes perseverance.

“This is not easy work,” he says, “and it never happens quickly.”

Lowcountry Collaboration

Beach graduated from Davidson in 1977 with a degree in mathematics, followed by his MBA from the Wharton Business School. After a stint in New York, he settled in the South Carolina Lowcountry to work in banking. The lush surroundings served as a beautiful backdrop for outdoor past-times and pursuits, like hiking and kayaking, and spurred new interests, including natural history and ornithology.

“I spent a lot of time combing everything from bird guides to books on bird behavior,” he says. “And with that came a better understanding of ecological systems, along with a sense of the need to sustain ecological integrity in these landscapes to protect nature as well as people.”

He volunteered with the Sierra Club and Audubon Society. And he made a career change. 

Beach worked for a Republican congressman as a legislative liaison for the environment, while continuing to educate himself by taking classes in chemistry, biology and ornithology, and studying history and the psychology of human behavior. 

In 1989, he started the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League.

“The concept was to work on things that weren't being done on behalf of the environment, particularly by volunteer groups like Sierra Club and Audubon,” Beach says. “Volunteers didn't have the time or the resources to advance the big changes that needed to be made in order to preserve the Lowcountry landscape.”

The Conservation League grew and evolved into a major player in the region’s land use and preservation decision making. 

Early on, Beach learned that to make progress, his organization would have to meet people where they are—that exposure to the “human element” of the work turned out to be both surprising and fulfilling.

“One of the privileges of being able to do this work was that I got to know a lot more about not only the biological landscape of South Carolina,” Beach says, “but also the cultural landscape—the people and their historical connections to the Lowcountry.”

Beach was introduced to that aspect of environmental work when developers eyed the island home of a Gullah Geechee community. 

The community of about 200 people, the descendants of enslaved Africans, inhabited the southern tip of Sandy Island, a stunning stretch of around 9,000 acres between two rivers.

Beach worked with Emory Campbell, a Gullah community leader and former director of the Penn Center, to find out how the residents of Sandy Island felt about a proposed bridge to connect the island to the mainland. After weighing the options, residents decided a bridge would be harmful to their community and joined the league in the fight against the bridge permit.

The Southern Environmental Law Center and Nature Conservancy partnered with the league, and the land owners eventually agreed to sell the property at appraised value. Five years later, what had started as an adversarial environmental battle ended as a study in collaboration and relationship building.

“We bought almost 10,000 acres for $11 million,” Beach says. He speculates the 70 miles of waterfront property along the Waccamaw and Pee Dee rivers now would be worth upward of a quarter of a billion dollars.

Today, that land is a federal wildlife refuge and nature center.

“We built relationships around the challenges these communities and landscapes were facing,” he says. “We were responding to a need that was both ecological and human.”

Beach recognizes that South Carolina’s economic and political ecosystem sometimes make for seemingly strange bedfellows.

People have a non-partisan alignment with the land in South Carolina, he says. 

“Conservation in South Carolina is unusual,” Beach says. “That has much to do with the early leadership in the conservation movement here. It came from funders, some local landowners, and advocates, all of whom were basically saying, ‘Look, we don't care who gets the credit, but all we are really focused on are the outcomes.’”

That spirit is needed to meet the challenges of climate change.

“Our biggest shortcoming is that we [the Conservation League] failed to make enough progress in the arena of climate,” Beach says. “The most important thing we've done that is truly beneficial for climate is conservation of land, so these properties are not converted into poorly placed housing that generates more emissions, and the reforestation of some of these properties so they become carbon sinks, where the soil is sustained, and the trees are growing to maturity.”  

The league also lobbied successfully to upgrade the state’s outdated energy efficiency standards and pass legislation promoting solar energy production.  

“But it’s not enough to confront the almost overwhelming threat we are facing,” Beach says.

Despite substantial challenges, Beach keeps working and finding willing partners. One of his latest projects is with the South Carolina Department of Agriculture to develop a climate strategy for farmers.  

"Maybe if I look at one sector, I can make a difference there,” Beach says. “We have a Secretary of Agriculture who wants to do something about climate. We just need to figure out precisely what it is and how to implement it.”

—Lisa Patterson

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Recommended Reading

Dana Beach ’77, founder and director emeritus of the South Carolina Coastal Conservation League, recommends reading for environmentalists, civic activists and concerned citizens.

A math major and avid consumer of behavioral psychology and history, Beach credits the liberal arts and Davidson for the broad skills that have helped him persuade others to join in conservation efforts and characterize environmental challenges so people can understand them.

From writings by the philosopher David Hume to urban theorist Jane Jacobs, Beach says, “These are the books that have helped me better understand the history and the political dynamics that determine the health of the environment and the human landscape.”

  • Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  • Predictably Irrational by Robert Ariely
  • The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
  • The Power Broker by Robert Caro
  • A Treatise of Human Nature by David Hume
  • Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
  • Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
  • The Mind of the South by W.J. Cash
  • The Evangelicals by Frances Fitzgerald
  • The Strange Career of Jim Crow by C. Vann Woodward
  • The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr.
  • The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African by Olaudah Equiano
  • The Problem of South Carolina by James Banner (essay in The Hofstadter Aegis)

This article was originally published in the Fall/Winter 2021 print issue of the Davidson Journal Magazine, and posted online January 4, 2022; for more, please see the Davidson Journal section of our website.

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