Practicing what we teach: Faculty and students share their commitment to environmental living

December 22, 2011

Talking about sustainability is easy. Teaching and learning about it pose the usual academic challenges. Living it -- well, that can be another story, one with obstacles and costs that test even a committed environmentalist.

Jean Bahr
Jean Bahr. Photo credit
Bryce Richter/University

And yet actions to reduce environmental impacts are common among the Nelson Institute's undaunted faculty, staff and students, many of whom are doing as much as their situations allow.

There are pioneers like Jean Bahr, a professor of geosciences and environmental studies, who has long been committed to reducing her carbon footprint. In the fall of 2000, she became the first Madison homeowner to connect a solar roof to Madison Gas and Electric's grid.

Bahr's solar roof, which consists of photovoltaic cells in place of shingles, generates electricity from sunlight. Once it was installed, Bahr found herself looking for other ways to reduce her impact.

"When you put something like this up, you start wondering how much energy you're using," Bahr says. "What I discovered was that with some very simple adjustments, I was able to cut my electricity use in half with no noticeable change in my lifestyle."

Solar roof at Jean Bahr's house
Bahr's finished solar shingle roof.

Many of these simple adjustments -- for example, replacing standard light bulbs with fluorescents, using power strips to stop phantom energy drains, recycling -- are becoming widespread practices within the campus community.

"Not everyone can afford a solar roof, but everyone can afford to make choices that reduce their energy consumption," says Bahr.

Students, typically renters with limited budgets, are more likely to look for smaller-scale actions. And they are, according to sophomore Lauren Stinson.

"With an eco-culture emerging, people have become more receptive to sustainable initiatives in their daily lives," she explains. Stinson is one of the many Nelson Institute students working to lower her impact. Between riding her bike, carrying a reusable water bottle and grocery bag, recycling, and avoiding meat, Stinson helps to reduce her carbon footprint in ways possible for most students.

Lauren Stinson
Lauren Stinson

"I choose to use reusable items because I know that it reduces my waste," Stinson explains. "Using these things has become a habit and isn't a burden, but rather a simple way to reduce waste and set an example for people around me."

Sophomore Sunny Nguyen also works hard to save energy and minimize his carbon footprint. By turning down his heat, using natural light and taking cooler, short showers, Nguyen makes his dorm life as low impact as possible.

In addition to reducing his energy use, Nguyen tries to eat as little beef as possible. "The beef industry is one of the major causes of CO2 [carbon dioxide] release," says Nguyen.

Stinson also focuses on her food choices as a way to reduce her impact.

"I believe that the interface between humans and food is a very important consideration for how we treat the environment," she says. "I chose to eat food that is pure and clean for my health, but also with sustainability in mind."

Majid Sarmadi
Majid Sarmadi. Photo
credit Jeff Miller/University

For Majid Sarmadi, growing what he and his family eat is the ultimate expression of that choice. Sarmadi, a professor of design studies and a Nelson Institute affiliate, gardens every available part of his sizeable yard.

"I find ease of mind and comfort in growing my own crops," says Sarmadi.

Hillside cabin
becomes a model
of sustainable living

Nestled in a hillside surrounded
by 35 acres of wooded land sits
a house that, for the past two
years, has undergone a green
facelift. Look closely and you'll
see the efforts of Nelson Institute
Interim Director Gregg Mitman.

Not only did Mitman build the
original cabin with wood
gathered from the Clyde, Wis.,
property, he, his wife, and a
crew of green-minded carpenters
have transformed it into a
sustainable living space that
incorporates environmentally
friendly building materials
and techniques.

The slide show below this story
follows the process, from the
purchase of land in 1986 to the
cabin construction to recent
improvements. View the
slide show »

On an urban 1.5 acre plot that includes his house, lawn and more, Sarmadi is able to maintain a vegetable garden complete with tomatoes, asparagus, eggplant, zucchini, cucumber, countless herbs and more. Strawberry and raspberry patches, along with more than a dozen fruit trees, provide an abundance of pears, plums, apricots, cherries and apples, which he readily shares.

"It's so gratifying to share fruit with my friends and colleagues," says Sarmadi. "It's a good feeling and I'm able to give so much. The things I grow definitely taste better."

Sarmadi saves money on produce, avoids pesticides and is comforted by the knowledge that the food he eats is grown right. Still, Sarmadi insists that his motivation to garden is not due to financial benefits.

"It allows me to live sustainably, and it is a good relaxation technique," explains Sarmadi. "It keeps me young."

Even with the ability to make small lifestyle changes, living sustainably isn't always easy. Even Sarmadi expressed time as a major limitation to his craft. Students especially have a hard time living strictly by sustainable means.

"There are many limitations to being sustainable as a student," Stinson says. "For one, organic food can be expensive. The farmer's market is amazing and Madison is a great place to be around, but as a student I don't have the time or money to get the food I would like to."

Sunny Nguyen
Sunny Nguyen

For Nguyen, the expense of making environmentally friendly choices can be extremely limiting. "It is cheaper in some cases to be less sustainable, and poor college students are going to go for the cheaper option."

In Bahr's case, basing sustainable living on economic benefits is difficult. Even with her solar roof, she doesn't save a significant amount of money.

"If you're doing this strictly on an economic basis, it doesn't pay off," she explains. "To me, reducing my carbon footprint is an externality that is more important."

Even though both Stinson and Nguyen face budget limitations, they say making small lifestyle adjustments are equally important and doable.

"If one person is sustainable, someone else may decide to be more sustainable, leading to a chain reaction," Nguyen says.

Stinson contends that any conscious attempt to be sustainable can help.

"A reoccurring theme that I have learned is that little things do matter," she says. "With environmental studies as one of my majors, I feel a responsibility to lead by example and implement what I study. It's important that other similar-minded people and I lead future generations to view the world through a green lens."

Slide show: Mitman's hillside cabin becomes a model of sustainable living

Are you a Nelson Institute student, faculty or staff member who is making efforts to live sustainably or helping others to do so? Drop us a line at -- we'd like to continue to spotlight your stories.