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Visiting Professor Pedals Small Act of Sustainability at SFS Costa Rica

“Do one thing that is quirky and odd. People might look at you and say, ‘That’s odd’ — but not in a bad way. They’ll say, ‘Wow, this person is out of the box and making a statement!' Little things are meaningful in that way…”

This was the message that Dr. Nathan Phillips delivered in the name of renewable energy when he visited The School for Field Studies (SFS) Center for Sustainable Development Studies in Atenas, Costa Rica a few weeks ago. As he pulled a small, bicycle-powered electricity generator out of his luggage, SFS students took notice and asked questions.

Phillips, an associate professor of geography and environment at Boston University, did not go to Costa Rica to prescribe anything to SFS students and staff. Instead, he went to engage them in thoughtful discussions about energy consumption and sustainable living in the context of their own and future students’ role at the Center. “I was so impressed with these students; they were generating a lot of ideas,” he said.

SFS Dean Dr. Robin Sears noted, “Although our curriculum at the Center introduces students to the theory and practice of sustainable development on local and national scales, our students also think about how they can contribute to sustainability at the individual level. They consider their own environmental footprint, as travelers and as visitors to rural communities. Professor Phillip’s visit and his donation of the bicycle generator drives home the message that sustainable development requires investment and choices by individuals, as well as broad policies and national development strategies. The human-powered generator connects students to sustainability on a personal level.”

The group literally switched gears at one point during their discussion to start generating electricity using nothing more than a staff member’s bicycle and their own leg power. Several students learned firsthand that the average human’s metabolic rate is 100 – 125 watts – enough to charge several laptops and a compact fluorescent light bulb with an hour or two of pedaling. “It also doesn’t hurt that it will help stave off the negative waistline effects of eating rice and beans for most meals,” said Amara Lauren, student affairs manager at the Center.

For Phillips, and those whom he hopes to inspire, alternative electricity-generating devices such as solar panels and bike generators are incredibly practical as well as being educational. His first experience using them happened by necessity when conducting field research in the rainforest of Ecuador on the flow rate of water through trees – in such a remote area he needed a way to recharge batteries without trekking away from his field station.

“In the off season,” said Phillips, “the equipment was just sitting there in my office. I don’t know if it was an epiphany, but something about looking at a solar panel in the dark made me think.” He now works out of possibly one of the quirkiest – but most practical – offices at the University. With a bike generator mounted under his desk and solar panels attached to the window, he is able to keep his office mostly off the grid (it still receives central air and heating), while also attracting quite a bit of attention from others.

For Phillips, being “mostly” off the grid is a key point to foster with people in discussions about energy consumption and sustainable living. He believes that trying to make our human systems 100 percent sustainable by the near future is an unrealistic goal. In fact, it’s the little contributions that make these systems less vulnerable and more productive. As a tree physiologist and ecologist who studies carbon and water, energy and airflows, he easily makes the case to model human systems after natural ones. 

According to Phillips, a tree, for example, is a network in which the most productive and resilient parts are its multiple buds and fine roots. These “terminal ends” give back to the surrounding ecosystem in the form of oxygen while also protecting the tree in their numbers. Many human systems, on the other hand, centralize resources. Phillips cites the municipal waterworks of his native Boston, which promote only end-point consumption while heavily relying on the vulnerability of having only one backup, the Quabbin Reservoir. Small acts, such as installing rain collection barrels at the household level, would not only enhance clean water security but also contribute to the grid instead of feeding off of it.

What does this mean for places such as The SFS Center for Sustainable Development Studies? According to Phillips, the bike generator is just one example of something that is both scalable and can be done without massive or expensive changes in infrastructure: “You could replicate this small change at the Center as well as in the community…I hope community members will look at this and say, ‘We can make this ourselves.’”

Skidmore College junior Aurora Pinkey-Drobnis added, “If everyone had a few of these devices, or at least awareness, the potential for the reduction of energy consumption is significant. I will definitely be more aware in the future of the potential for individual change to make a difference in the larger goal of a sustainable future.” Justin Vertongen, a junior at the University of San Diego, plans to turn his parents on to greener ways of living, such as composting organics. More importantly, he wants to teach them what he learned at the Center in hopes that neighbors and friends will catch on.

As for Professor Phillips, he heads off to The SFS Center for Wildlife Management Studies’ field stations in Kenya and Tanzania next month with a bike generator in his luggage and a small, but meaningful, statement to make.