The Get-Back-to-Basics Challenge

Check out how one Pace professor is encouraging students to go without common luxuries to discover how their everyday actions affect the world around them.

Written by Pace student Sarah Aires ’14

“Most of the reasons we use certain luxuries is because we want to fit into our culture, not because they are necessary to our survival,” says Laurel Whitney, professor of Environmental Studies at Pace. Some of us can’t imagine what it would be like to live without everyday staples like shampoo and elevators. These simple aspects of everyday life are often forgotten as we fail to realize that these things really are luxuries. For one week during Earth Month, Whitney challenged students in both sections of ENV 105: Social Responsibility and the World of Nature classes and in the dorms to forgo these and other luxuries to discover how their actions affect the environment and how they can promote a greater awareness of environmental issues as part of the Sustainability Challenge. This is Whitney’s third time teaching the course and assigning the challenge—emphasis on the word “challenge”—during which students go without these luxuries and come to many realizations about their lifestyles and the world around them.

Finding alternatives to make day-to-day activities more environmentally conscious is no easy task. Whitney has said that when she first assigns the challenge, it is often met with “a mix of horror, intrigue, and a bit of incredulity” by her students. By the end of the week, however, students not only successfully completed the challenge, but also expressed an interest in keeping up the behaviors they had learned. Students worked to conserve both water and electricity, opted to walk or bike when they could have taken a cab, purchased locally-grown food to drastically cut “food miles,” and became more aware of plastic products they purchased like water bottles.

On the last day of the challenge, students are forbidden from using any fossil fuels at all—quite the endeavor in the modern world we live in today. Despite the obstacle, students still praised the challenge and felt the lessons they learned were worth the struggle. Dyson student Georleena Douglas said, “For me, the challenge tested my personal strength.” Another student said, “This experience has shown me that I think I want a more simple way of life. I depend too much on a number of things. A simpler lifestyle is a happier one.”

Of the greatest lesson students took away from the challenge, Whitney explained, “Many of them talk about going outside, spending time with family or friends, and getting active. Ideally, many of them learn that when you turn off the laptop, ignore your smartphone, and hold off on the Netflix, you starting reconnecting with the community around you.”

Next year, Whitney is planning to extend the challenge out of the classroom and onto the campus. As a part of a plan to make Earth Month more dynamic on the NYC campus, any student will be able to complete the project.