Sustainable Missoula: Sustainability is a culture that includes and responds, UM institute teaches

2019 Schwanke Honors Institute fellows at the Milltown Dam. (University of Montana)

The rented campus bikes and university-issued helmets have become a common sight in Missoula, as much a part of the summer hustle as First Friday strollers and station wagons of inner tubes caravanning upriver.

The University of Montana’s many summer institutes, exchanges and fellowship programs attract students from far and wide to learn about the state’s unique climate challenges and response. For graduate students from Laos and professionals from Burundi, Missoula is a classroom, a living demonstration of how a community faces climate change one small victory at a time.

This weekend is no exception: High school students from around the country, some of whom will be freshmen at UM this fall, will visit some of Missoula’s iconic sites on a tour of what community-focused sustainability looks like in action.

The students, all of them rising seniors or college freshmen-to-be, are fellows in the Schwanke Honors Institute, a two-week intensive program in either climate change studies or creative writing. Led by outgoing Climate Change Studies director Nicky Phear, the climate students have already spent this past week digging deep into the science of climate change, its impacts, personal and national responsibility, global policy and negotiations, and the ethics of climate engineering. The Sustainable Cities Tour wraps up their week with a focus on the local level.

The question they’ll be asking: So what makes a city “sustainable?”

Climate response news has tended to focus on the work of local governments and climate action organizations. And, indeed, these avenues have served Missoula well, as evidenced by our commitments over the past couple years to transition to 100 percent renewable energy, reduce waste, and push for carbon neutrality, all with the support of the city and its many community partners.

But does government-level action alone, or at least policy, make for sustainability?

Consider Free Cycles, the first stop on the tour. On its surface, Free Cycles is a place to volunteer and learn how to repair your bike. If you’re feeling generous, you can donate old bike parts for others to use. That service alone makes it easier for more locals to bike more often, perhaps making a dent in carbon emissions and other pollution from vehicles. But the organization’s mission and impact extend well beyond empowering a few more people to bike.

If you’ve been in the shop, you know the sense of community: People who have never met swap tips on how to patch a tire, and almost every weekend presents another opportunity to hear live music and meet Missoulians from all walks of life, recycled bike parts hanging quietly overhead. When Missoula first started resettling refugees, Free Cycles offered up free workshops and bike access to our new neighbors.

Think also of Home ReSource, the second stop on the Sustainable Cities Tour. Like Free Cycles, Home ReSource’s mission extends well beyond re-selling used building materials to reduce waste and build a more vibrant and sustainable local economy. They run job training programs for people experiencing barriers to employment, host educational skill-building workshops, engage youth through ZWAP!, their Zero Waste Ambassadors Program, and have been active leaders in Missoula’s ZERO by FIFTY efforts.

For both of these organizations, “sustainability” goes well beyond climate or resources. It’s about community, and taking responsibility for something that, traditionally, is not in their job description. For a city like Missoula to be sustainable – government, business, individuals – climate action and community resilience must be in everyone’s job description.

The latest articulation of the university’s goals includes the mantra to “partner with place.” Partnership means learning from and investing in not just the pieces that are directly related to one program or another, but in the vast nexus that defines a community. Reducing transportation emissions means addressing social and economic injustice. Reusing building materials means examining the relationships between people, community, and materials. Building homes, serving tea, growing food – it all means partnering with this place. Partnership builds resilience and diversity, and that means sustainability.

Before the Schwanke students head out next weekend, they’ll be designing climate projects of their own to try at home. May one of their lessons from the Missoula tour be that, when it comes to community sustainability, there are no externalities. Sustainability is not just a footprint metric or the number of recycling bins in the office; it is also a culture that includes and responds. That may be a hard sell for a high school senior with two weeks of experience. Then again, a little bike chain grease and some repurposed hardware might make for a fine start.

Peter McDonough is the Program Coordinator/Instructor for the Climate Change Studies Program at UM.

This Sustainable Missoula column is brought to you – via the Missoula Current – every Friday by Climate Smart Missoula and Home ReSource.

Upcoming Sustainability Events:

June 25. Dine for Climate Smart Missoula at Five on Black. Mention Climate Smart Missoula when you order at either location and Five on Black will donate 50% of the value of your meal. 3-8pm.

June 25. Faith & Climate Action meeting. All welcome. At Emmaus House, 532 University, 4pm

All summer. Join the Logjam Presents Green Team. The Green Team will assist with teaching patrons how to use Zero Waste stations at events. Sign up here.

View more climate and energy events via Climate Smart Missoula’s Calendar.

There are many more conservation events for 2019 HERE.