In the opening chapter of Genesis, God gives the newly created humans a “cultural mandate.” This command to “be fruitful and increase in number,” to “fill the earth and subdue it,” and to “rule over … every living creature” (Gen. 1:27-28) is both an exhortation and an act of profound generosity that embodies God’s overflowing love for creation.
But the cultural mandate isn’t just about what we do; it’s also about who we are. Humans are made in God’s image and ought to rule over creation in ways that reflect how God rules—not by lording it over creation, but as those who serve (Matt. 20:25-28).
At Calvin University, this is what drives the call to environmental stewardship. In response to the cultural mandate, Calvin has been committed to interdisciplinary sustainability work for a half century.
Calvin believes the call to care for creation isn’t limited to a single discipline or committee. Everyone is invited into this work. At Calvin, that work includes installing curb-cut rain gardens, leading groundbreaking research in the physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities, and investing in renewable energy.
Faculty lead students in sustainability initiatives. Plaster Creek Stewards, for example, is a group of faculty, students, and locals led by biology professor Dave Warners to restore the Plaster Creek watershed, which includes much of the Grand Rapids, Mich., area.
Using grants totaling more than $5 million since 2009, PCS combines a commitment to sustainability research and innovation with the hard but important work of community building and on-the-ground environmental restoration work. Students conduct research and communicate with local partners about their discoveries, all while harvesting and preserving native plants and trees. Warners also heads up a 12-student Green Team that works on restoration projects throughout West Michigan.
Another example of sustainability at work involves engineering professor Matthew Heun and economics professor Becky Haney. They teamed up with Clemson environmental engineering and earth sciences professor Michael Carbajales-Dale to advocate for resource preservation in a book called Beyond GDP: National Accounting in the Age of Resource Depletion.
At first glance, this alliance seems unlikely: What do engineering, economics, and earth sciences have to do with one another?
Quite a bit, actually. In the book, Heun, Haney, and Carbajales-Dale frame international economics in terms of managing both natural and manufactured resources and assert that routinely gathering and analyzing information about earth’s “natural capital” is essential to making policies for a sustainable future.
Calvin students interested in sustainability come together through programs such as the Outdoor Recreation and Creation Care Floor, an intentional residential community committed to wilderness experience, environmental stewardship, and sustainable living.
This fall Calvin also launched the Sustainability Fellows program, an interdisciplinary experiential cohort that fosters one-of-a-kind learning experiences and promotes holistic sustainability efforts on campus. Students and faculty from all disciplines come together to learn about creation stewardship challenges and generate solutions.
The spirit behind these newer sustainability programs isn’t itself new to Calvin. In 1980, Calvin faculty Peter DeVos and Loren Wilkinson wrote a book on creation care titled Earthkeeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources (Eerdmans). In 1985, Calvin established an ecosystem preserve that spans more than 100 acres. Certified arborist Bob Speelman, who has been with the university for more than 34 years, has planted more than 300 trees on campus, allowing Calvin to be designated as an arboretum in 2022.
The student-led Environmental Stewardship Coalition has been active since the 1990s. In 2004, Calvin built its first LEED-certified campus building. A few years later, the school established the Calvin Energy Recovery Fund (CERF), aimed at reducing energy consumption on campus. And in 2017, Calvin’s then-president Michael Le Roy pledged to make the campus carbon-neutral by 2057.
President Wiebe Boer remains committed to this important work and to accelerating and expanding it wherever possible. Boer brings five years of experience in running a renewable energy investment fund to his work at Calvin.
Students in Heun’s capstone sustainable engineering class this year will have Calvin as their “client”: they’ll design methods for accelerating the university’s carbon-neutrality timeline.
The school is already being recognized for its sustainability efforts. In five of the past seven years, Calvin has earned a STARS Silver rating from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, which assesses sustainability in curriculum, public and campus engagement, operations, planning and administration, and innovation and leadership. That means that people at every level and in every vocation have contributed to the sustainability of Calvin’s campus.
Many students are involved from their very first day. Some help track and pioneer sustainability initiatives as the leaders of student groups. Some intern with the Calvin Energy Recovery Fund to learn about financial planning and energy management. Others serve as sustainability coordinators within their residence halls and run an annual “Kill-A-Watt” contest.
Students even contribute to Calvin’s creation care work when they sit down in the dining hall. Calvin offers green food containers, and dining hall staff are continually making improvements to reduce food waste and increase sustainability.
These diverse collaborative efforts are supported by a research-based incentive structure designed from the beginning to motivate everyone on campus to join in creation care work in 13 different areas covering all of Calvin’s campus. Engineers, botanists, economists, and laborers of all stripes bear the same call from the Creator: lifelong stewardship that begins with everyday opportunities.