Interviewing the first lady
Written By: Katie Runk
Published: December 29, 2020
In recent years, sustainability has become one of Susquehanna’s core priorities, a value that the institution attempts to integrate into every facet of its identity. With the construction of a 14 acre solar array, implementing a Terracycling program, and offering a vast selection of environmental-based courses in the curriculum, the orange and maroon Susquehanna has proved its determination to strive for a greener world. Much of this activity has occurred in the last few years, around the same time that Jonathan Green and Lynn Buck assumed the roles of president and first lady of the campus.
During my first two years here, I have heard about how Ms. Buck has consistently conveyed her passion and knowledge of environmental issues, and I decided I wanted to know more about her thoughts on the topic of sustainability. I supposed that her perspective would be valuable not only because she is a wonderful and clever individual, but also because she is someone whose involvement with the environment is not direct. She could represent the viewpoint of the majority of people who don’t consider environmentalism to be a personality trait, like myself. In order to gain an adequate understanding of a topic, it’s important to look at it from all sides, and in the following interview, Ms. Buck will help us look at it from her side.
On September 23d, I joined Ms. Buck on the porch of Pine Lawn where we began our meeting by sharing a cup of fresh green tea she had graciously offered to make. My first question was this: how would you describe the concept of sustainability? Although the question seems simple, it is deceivingly difficult to answer. At first, Ms. Buck answered that she would describe the concept of sustainability as important. Above all, if we want to keep this Earth around for the future, sustainability is the most important thing. As humans, we need to avoid producing too much waste, because we don’t want future generations stuck cleaning up the mess we made. Sharing and recycling resources are also important elements to the concept of sustainability. We’ve been given only so much on this Earth, and no one country or society is entitled to it all. All creatures on the Earth deserve a fair share of the resources, and once we do extract and utilize them, we need to keep using them instead of just throwing them away.
My next question was also deceivingly difficult: what does it mean for something to be eco-friendly? I wanted to get a basic grasp on how she perceived core concepts of sustainability by beginning with these foundational questions. Her first thought was that something that is eco-friendly must be able to go back to the environment without damaging it. This might mean that the product is made from recycled material, or that the product is made from a natural substance that doesn’t need to be deconstructed in order to decompose. The nature of its production also contributes to something being eco-friendly, specifically regarding the emission of greenhouse gasses and toxic chemicals as well as other pollutants which put the health of the Earth in jeopardy. Every stage of a product, from production to disposal, needs to be enacted with the environment in mind. In addition, the treatment of workers and communities must be considered since humans are ultimately part of an ecosystem as well.
Packaging is a particularly useful concept in assuring that something is eco-friendly. Ms. Buck stated that she makes continuous effort to purchase products whose packaging can either be recycled or reused, whether that be through laundry detergent in a biodegradable carton or food items in glass jars that she can reuse or donate to the campus garden to be used as plant holders. If you ever visit the greenhouse, you’ll most likely see an extensive collection of glass yogurt jars containing succulents, courtesy of Lynn Buck. She also discussed her usage of sustainable skincare brands made with ethically sourced formulas and produced with fair labor.
After gathering a basis on her perception of sustainability, I questioned her about her life before Susquehanna and if she had any interactions with eco-friendly culture before joining us. She shared with me that she’s always tried to be conscious of the environment in her everyday life and consumption habits, and that she’s been practicing sustainability for most of her adult life. When she and President Green were employed at other universities, Ms. Buck often took it upon herself to sort her plastics and transport them to the proper trash bins, which she continues to do here. The general recycling program at our university only processes type 1 and 2 plastics, so instead of throwing other types of plastic into the trashcan, she will walk down to the large bins on 18th street to dispose of her other plastics, since they offer recycling for the other types of plastics.
Many of her practices before campus have been sustained and expanded upon during her time at Susquehanna. Ms. Buck believes it is very important to support community farming and to try to avoid industrial agriculture. So, she makes an active effort to consume organic vegetables and fruits from local farmer’s markets, like the one on Market Street in Selinsgrove. In fact, I have seen her there several times, President Green in tow holding their reusable tote bags and picking out that week’s produce. Speaking of President Green, Ms. Buck has instituted “meatless Mondays” into their routine, much to President Green’s dismay. The modern industrial methods of raising animals for their meat is tremendously unsustainable, so although she does not wish to exclude meat from her diet entirely, she believes it is important to lower the amount of animals slaughtered each year by establishing her lack of participation as a consumer. Gardening is also a significant passion of Ms. Buck, whether that be through planning her botanical landscaping or tending to her vegetable garden. She believes that when people take part in growing their own food, they become more connected with where their nourishment comes from and develop a greater appreciation for the natural world.
After I learned about her past and present environmental exploits, I wanted to know about what some of her favorite projects she had been involved with on campus were. She first brought up the succulent sale, for which she saves her aforementioned glass yogurt jars to donate for planting. Ms. Buck also expressed her great enthusiasm for the “Hawk’s Stuff” Project, wherein the clothing, furniture, and other items left behind by students are collected and organized to be redistributed to other students for free, thus extending their life and assuring that those items won’t be simply thrown out into a landfill. She shared that she encourages her friends to donate their old clothes and other college-suitable items to the program, and that she is thrilled that Susquehanna’s students have the opportunity to participate in such an effective and clever project.
At this point, I had gathered an expansive understanding about her opinions on personal and scholarly environmentalism, but I wanted to know about how she applied her viewpoints to the rest of the world. Ms. Buck shared that she, like many others, was highly dissatisfied with the way the world’s governments have been handling the subject of sustainability. In her experience, mainstream politics appears to have no room for the environment and most politicians don’t prioritize it as much as they should. She then spoke of how the recent boom in fracking for natural gas fuel has undone strides for conservation, especially in Pennsylvania, which has been a disappointing revelation for her and many others. For conservation to attain its worthy spot at the top of the world’s list of priorities, environmental leaders will need to push sustainability into everyday life, and pioneering countries will need to set examples to spark the spread of conservation across the world.
We then moved onto a conversation specifically about Susquehanna, and I questioned her about what she thinks some of the biggest changes on campus have been. The very first word out of her mouth was simply, Derek, referring to Susquehanna University’s first Sustainability Coordinator. Ms. Buck told me that when Derek joined SU in 2018, he completely transformed the campus and brought sustainability to the forefront of its identity. She said that the first change she noticed from him was the introduction of colored recycling bags to differentiate them from normal garbage bags, thus enabling them to be sorted efficiently. He also brought significant attention the campus gardens, which provides fresh produce to those who are food insecure in our region and give students the opportunity to work with the land and the community. Her favorite initiative of his has been Hawk’s Stuff, which we discussed earlier in our conversation. Ms. Buck also mentioned that he has also worked with the campus solar array, beekeeping program, and local steam restoration.
As the remaining green tea in our cups became cool, I decided to end our discussion with one last question: what would you like to do or see done on campus? Ms. Buck’s first statement was that she wanted to see more strides taken towards environmentalism in general, expanding all the programs on campus with more education, membership, and funding. One of her specific suggestions was to have Hawk’s Stuff open every day on campus, rather than just a few times a year, so that students can treat it like a “free thrift store” where they can donate and take items as needed. Obviously, this would be a near impossibility with the country’s current health issues, but this would certainly be a worthy endeavor in the future.
We also discussed the introduction of “pollination patches” around campus, which would serve as mini oasi of wildflowers for pollinating species such as bees and hummingbirds, who are vital for the maintenance of any ecosystem. Ms. Buck then shared with me what she considered to be her most “controversial” idea, that the pristine clear-cut grass lawns should be either replaced or heavily modified to include more biodiversity. The practice of maintaining a lawn originated as a symbol of status and slowly became a component of the “American Dream,” but its value as a marker of wealth is no longer relevant in our era of awareness for the environment. Traditional lawns require maintenance to an unsustainable level, with the mass-use of pesticides and mowing tools. Susquehanna has been very successful in incorporating nature into the campus design, but replacing our lawns with natural plant life, small trees, or even large patches of moss would demonstrate our commitment to the environment.
Being an environmental studies major myself, it excites me to think that a figure such as Ms. Buck has such enthusiasm for the planet and is able to impact the campus in such a significant way. It was certainly my honor to have engaged in such a fascinating and enjoyable discussion with someone so thoughtful and passionate. I thanked Ms. Buck for her time and she thanked me for visiting with her, mentioning that I would have to return someday for a tour of their beautiful old house, which I had expressed my appreciation for. That evening, I walked away looking at the campus in a different light, excited to have gained so much knowledge on such a unique perspective, and ready to use that knowledge to continue making change on the campus myself.