As people around the world debate the severity — and veracity — of environmental crisis, a quiet revolution is taking place on college campuses across the nation. Unlike the ’60s, no one is marching. No one is burning down buildings. Instead, students are planting vegetable gardens and designing solar roofs.
The tools of revolution for Lindsay Selser ’07 are needle nose pliers and box wrenches. The Willamette politics student was low on cash but needed wheels, so she dug through the recycle bin at her local bike shop and built a bike from the frame out. As she spun around Salem, an idea began to take shape. Perhaps, she thought, one of the only things keeping other students from a bike ride in Minto-Brown Park was a little encouragement, a convenient place to pump up a tire, and a bit of grease monkey know-how to balance out the core curriculum.
Selser wore out an evening writing a Sustainability Mini-Grant proposal. She didn’t ask for much — just space in the already crowded University Center for a bike shop where volunteers could give pointers on bike maintenance, and start-up funds to get the wheels rolling. Selser teamed up with Andrew Myer ’08 and Courtney Staunton ’07, who petitioned for an eight-bike fleet to be loaned to students, residence housekeepers, professors — anyone who wants to give the practice of eco-friendly transportation a spin — and then spent her holiday break stocking up on tire levers and patch kits. Doors opened in March.
In fact, doors are opening across the country, as administrators and professors meet with students to map out a future they believe will be dramatically different from the past. They’re trying to figure out just exactly how “business as usual” works when nothing about the state of the planet is usual.
In 2003 a European heat wave left 35,000 dead. In 2004 Hurricane Katrina created hundreds of thousands of environmental refugees. Oregon has received its own wake up calls: scorching temperatures that broke records and fueled massive wildfires, disaster-stage floods and growing dead zones off the coast. The “Inconvenient Truth” of last summer’s documentary is — it turns out — incredibly inconvenient.
“This whole issue, which seemed very obscure a few years ago, is really coming to the forefront, maybe because nature is taking the lead and saying, ‘You’ve got a real problem here,’” says Jeffrey Sachs, international economist at Columbia University and director of the United Nations’ Millennium Project. He believes the discussion will intensify as the world grows hotter, ecosystems continue to collapse on every continent, the energy crisis becomes more acute, and population pressure on diminishing resources widens the already unstable divide between the haves and have-nots. Scientists note that ecosystems aren’t the only thing affected. Since the 1940s human sperm production has inexplicably fallen by more than 50 percent, and breast cancer risk has tripled, with more than half of all new breast cancer cases attributed to environmental toxins.
Most news about the environment these days is bad news, but in some quarters, the gravity of the challenge is bringing out the best in people — more collaboration, more cross-platform thinking, more meaningful dialogue about our responsibility as humans. Cities and states across the nation have pledged to reduce carbon emissions in an effort to slow global warming. In Oregon, Portland is transforming an industrial wasteland into the $2.2 billion South Waterfront community, the first mega-scale “green” redevelopment in the nation, according to USA Today.
But government and corporate entities cannot transition to a sustainable society without the support of academia. “Higher education institutions bear a profound moral responsibility to increase the awareness, knowledge and values needed to create a sustainable future,” says Anthony Cortese, former dean of environmental programs at Tufts University.
While some believe talk about sustainability is off target, others believe that no educational experience can be meaningful unless it addresses the defining challenge of the 21st century. “Sustainability is about the terms and conditions of human survival, and yet we still educate as if no such crisis existed,” says David Orr, chair of Oberlin’s Environmental Studies Program.
That’s changing, as colleges across the nation take up the call. Long the bastions of isolated scientists who offered dire — and mostly ignored — warnings about species lost and temperatures rising, universities are now infused with the passion of students who will inherit the future we are creating. “We’ve witnessed an exponential growth in campus sustainability efforts in the last few years,” says Judy Walton, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education. “The movement seems to be exploding.”
Students who grew up with “global warming” in their textbooks and professors who understand the implications of population graphs are sitting down together to define what it means to create sustainable systems, systems where human demand doesn’t outstrip the capacity of the natural world to supply resources and absorb waste. They are discussing how to meet the needs of this generation without compromising the needs of future generations, how to rescue a planet whose life support systems have become critically endangered. As Willamette environmental science student Forrest Lindsay-McGinn ’08 says, “Ultimately, sustainability is just about increasing our planning horizon.”
And they’re doing more than talking. Williams College students initiated a “Do It in the Dark” energy conservation campaign, Iona College screen savers announce “Think before you print,” and Pacific Lutheran University sponsored a “Can the Can” campaign to cut down on waste. Brown University installed low-flush toilets, and Pitzer College students manage a “green bikes” program. Oberlin’s new Center for Environmental Studies hopes to become a net supplier of energy, and Evergreen State College students voted to go 100 percent green in energy purchases.
According to the Oct. 20, 2006, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, admissions directors report that more students are asking how green campuses are, and many institutions now advertise their efforts. But the same article concluded that although there is a lot of noise, there’s less substance. “Relatively few institutions have made major commitments to actually alter their campuses, and even fewer have incorporated sustainability into their teaching and research. … For the time being, most institutions are reaching for low-hanging fruit.” Worse, some universities may be “green-washing,” The Chronicle says, taking minor steps to adopt the appearance of sustainability but avoiding difficult changes.