Ask any of the students who spent the last academic quarter studying abroad in Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories about their favorite part of the trip, and you’ll get a different response from each one. This is not surprising, since the abroad was a collaborative program between the Euphrates Institute and the Center for Ecological Learning and Living (CELL), criss-crossing the whole of Israel and parts of Jordan in just three months.

It’s tough to pick just one highlight — was it snorkeling in the Red Sea? Visiting the Pool of Bethesda? What about volunteering for the Palestine Wildlife Society? Or seeing Jericho, the oldest city in the world?

You can pack a lot into twelve weeks of traveling around and studying one of the oldest, most historic and spiritual parts of the world. Keep asking questions though, and you might start to see a common thread linking each of the students’ stories, memories and narratives: the connection between peaceful resolution of conflict and environmental sustainability, the program’s twin themes. Junior Sarah Oakes said, “What we learned about was the intersection of the two [themes], and that you really can’t have one without the other.”

The CELL abroad group visits the city of Petra in Jordan during the trip. photo / Heather Libbe

If there was ever a team that exemplified that connection, it’s the partnership of CELL and the Euphrates Institute. CELL, a Maine-based nonprofit educational organization, has been leading student programs in environmental sustainability for over a decade. The Euphrates Institute, founded by former CIA analyst and U.S. State Department consultant Janessa Gans Wilder, is based on the Principia College campus and works to promote understanding and peace between the West and the Middle East.

The question is, can clean air and solar panels really make a difference in any conflict, let alone one as heated and political as that between Israel and Palestine? And what about working to end war, will that help produce alternative energies?

“[You can] think about something like water issues,” said Oakes. “It’s such a dry, arid region…if you can’t have water, then that’s an environmental issue. But if you don’t have water, you don’t have peace.”

It’s true that the control of water – who’s getting it and who isn’t – has been a contentious issue in much of the Middle East, but particularly within Israel, where little fresh water exists to share between Israel proper and the interior Palestinian territories.

For Senior Heather Libbe, the connection between sustainability and peace began to come alive during a visit to a conference in Sderot, a city in southern Israel that is less than a mile from Palestinian-controlled Gaza, and, until 2008, the target of frequent Palestinian rockets and mortar bombs.

“At the panel that I talked to [at the Sderot conference],” said Libbe, “there was a Gazan, and he was saying that over in Gaza right now, you don’t even say the word ‘peace,’ because [the Gazans] are focused so much on their basic needs…[conflict resolution] is at the back of their minds.”

Similar sentiments were shared during a visit to the West Bank, a Palestinian territory occupied by the Israeli military and home to hundreds of thousands of Israeli settlers.

Said Libbe, “You would ask people [in the West Bank], ‘What’s the solution to the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict?’ and they’d say ‘It’d be great if I could have enough water first.’”

Junior Eric Pagett had another way to explain the relationship between environmental sustainability and peace: “If you just focus on the conflict, by the time you get to peace within the conflict, there won’t be any more land, any more resources, to be able to live. But if you just focus on the environment, then the conflict is perpetuated and there’s no point preserving a land … if there are no people to [live there].”

Junior Eric Pagett edits voiceovers for the abroad slideshow. photo / Rigel Valentine

Nor does the relationship between peace and sustainability seem to be a foreign one. “It’s not unique to Israel-Palestine,” continued Pagett, “or the Middle East in general… but it’s so tangible there, you can feel it. That’s happening in the rest of the world too, but we’re just kind of blind to it.”

But there’s a bigger idea behind it all. Sophomore Brie Mayer discovered it while visiting a kibbutz, a communal Jewish eco-village, in Israel: “We literally saw everything we had been learning about in this kibbutz,” Mayer said, “and we talked to [the residents of the kibbutz] and they said the key to [living sustainably and peacefully] was listening to and respecting each other…and then you see your community as including not only human life, but plant life, animal life, the earth.”

This appreciation of community and the idea of a global community – a community including not just our neighbors but all humankind, and not just our own resources but those of the world – was an idea that many of the abroad members shared in their own words. “It’s been great to come back with that new view of community, and the importance of community…and to live that here at Prin,” said Libbe.

“Doing these little things [to help the environment] get you into a more aware mindset of who you are … it gets you to think less centrally-focused on my needs, my wants,” said Pagett. “And helping the world, which seems like such a huge thing to do … as you break it back, the things that you do make a huge difference … you don’t need a trillion dollars or political leverage to change the world.”

Learning to change the world. Identifying the connection between the environment and peace. Appreciating a global community. Sounds like it must have been quite the trip.

“A lot of trips create memories that we’ll never forget…” said Pagett, “but this trip, it creates a mindfulness that we’ll never forget, instead.”

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