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Area resident discusses sustainability

By Staff | Jun 15, 2018

Tabitha Johnston/Chronicle Courte Van Voorhees, a Shepherdstown resident and Vanderbilt University graduate, explains community sustainablility practices using a Bell Curve to attendees during his First Tuesday Speaker Series presentation June 5.

Shepherdstown resident and Vanderbilt University graduate Courte Van Voorhees spoke about his experiences with environmental justice policy and community sustainability practices during the First Tuesday Speaker Series on June 5. The topic was “Survival and Sustainability: Hand in Hand.”

“During my doctoral program, I was looking at the application of the environmental justice policy in New Mexico, to see how it influenced local people who didn’t have electricity,” Voorhees said.

Voorhees and a team of other Community Research and Action doctoral students spent three years studying how a new power plant in a rural community without electricity impacted its environment. He said the situation was the perfect example of environmental injustice.

“The power plant was put into a place where no one in the community got the benefit of the electric power; they only got the negative result of the plant’s waste,” Voorhees said. “We need to make sure we don’t have a bunch of people who are getting none of the benefit from a decision, and then a bunch of people who are getting all the benefit.”

Voorhees’ job on the team was to evaluate the study’s research, find ways to learn from it and apply those discoveries to sustainability practices in other communities.

“The idea in the end was, when we think of environmental issues, we have to think of human behavior and how we can change that,” Voorhees said.

He said minor positive changes in a community are often more effective and long-lasting than major changes.

“People are motivated by reinforcement,” Voorhees said. “If you look at what’s going right in a community and reinforce those practices, instead of telling them what’s wrong, they’ll be more motivated to continue their positive environmental practices.” For example, he said, an entire community doing little things like recycling or not using disposable plasticware can make a huge difference.

“When people start to make a change, they often focus on the small things that seem to be working or not be working,” Voorhees said. “If you get all the ‘C’ students of society to use LED lightbulbs or fuel-efficient vehicles, you have all these small changes that aren’t much on their own, but if you encourage all of these small changes in massive numbers instead of large changes in small numbers, you’ll accomplish more long-term.”

Voorhees said people need to be aware that they don’t often see the environmental impact of their choices, because toxic manufacturing processes and electronic waste are often shipped overseas. By making little changes in how they dispose of used items and buy new ones, people can positively impact those on the other side of the globe.

“The community choices we make affect everyone’s ability to make wise decisions,” Voorhees said.