Imagine a world where you couldn't shower because water was only for drinking, air pollution forced you to wear a mask just to go outside and there was no shade during Southern Oregon's scorching summers because acid rain had killed all the trees.

Imagine a world where you couldn't shower because water was only for drinking, air pollution forced you to wear a mask just to go outside and there was no shade during Southern Oregon's scorching summers because acid rain had killed all the trees.

Southern Oregon University students described this potential future world during a Students of Sustainability presentation and panel discussion on Wednesday afternoon.

The project, a culmination of Carol Voisin's University Seminar class, kicked off with a slideshow of "This is the world as we like to see it," featuring scenic photographs of Southern Oregon to the tune of Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." Then the slideshow switched to "This is what the world really looks like," with shots of littered beaches, toxic water, oil spills, dead birds and industrial smokestacks.

Education is an important part of being more sustainable, said presenters Kayci Hanson, a communication freshman, and Marissa Martes, a math junior.

To that end, they offered their class's definition of sustainability: "The ability to maintain ecological processes and functions while providing biodiversity and ensuring productivity into the future."

Students have the power to make a difference, Hanson said, adding that their age group was an important demographic in electing Barack Obama.

"If we are this influential now, imagine what our impact could be on sustainability," Hanson said.

The presentation alternated between video clips with SOU students answering questions about sustainability, followed by panel members addressing the topics.

In the video, when asked which college was more sustainable, SOU or Oregon State University, students unanimously chose SOU.

But the Environmental Protection Agency ranks OSU fourth among universities for green power purchases, while SOU is ranked 17th.

OSU purchases 66.7 million kilowatt-hours of biogas-, biomass- and wind-produced energy per year, amounting to 74 percent of its total electricity consumption, while SOU purchases 17.6 million kWh of wind-generated electricity per year, amounting to 154 percent of its electricity usage, according to the EPA's Web site.

This is good, Hanson and Martes said, but there's always room to do better.

When students in the video were asked what steps SOU is taking to be more sustainable, they didn't have many answers, but the panel did.

"From the facilities standpoint, much of what we're doing is with energy conservation," said panel member Larry Blake, SOU's director of campus planning and sustainability.

Two of the four boilers in the heat plant have been replaced with more efficient models, and the other two will be replaced soon, he said.

Once a 55 kWh photovoltaic array is installed on SOU's Higher Education Center in Medford, the building will qualify for platinum certification under the LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) system, Blake said.

"To my knowledge, it will be the only LEED platinum building in the state of Oregon outside of Multnomah County," he said.

SOU is also installing more automatic irrigation systems and working to have buildings power down when unoccupied to save on heating and cooling costs. Some buildings' roofs scheduled to be replaced this year will also be shored up with insulation, he said.

With 1.3 million square feet of space operated on campus, "if we can make small strategic changes, we can effect a lot of change," Blake said.

In the future, it would be nice if SOU had an endowment or fund to help pay for sustainability projects and improvements, he added.

SOU also plans to hire a sustainability coordinator, he said.

Ashland already has the lowest per capita energy consumption of any community in the Pacific Northwest, said panel member Dick Wanderscheid, the city's director of electric utilities, and many people see sustainability as a lifestyle.

"I compost. I recycle. I try to walk a lot," Wanderscheid said. "I think that's just accepted in our town and encouraged as part of the culture."

Interested students have an opportunity to pursue "green" careers, and SOU can help students prepare by offering more classes dealing with sustainability, he said.

"What I'm seeing is this ground swelling of support for sustainability that I haven't seen before, and I think there are a lot of possibilities for jobs," Wanderscheid said. "Mainstream companies that never thought about this before now have sustainability coordinators."

SOU students in the video said they had increased their awareness of sustainability since coming to Ashland, and they try to drive less, recycle and reduce energy use.

"Ask yourself the questions, what are the necessities?" Hanson said as she wound up the presentation, suggesting that students turn down the thermostat, take shorter showers and use alternative transportation.

"These are all simple things," Martes said, "but if we all do them they can make a big difference."

Blog: Students of Sustainability

Kira Rubenthaler can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 225 or krubenthaler@dailytidings.com.