Forster, Daily: Students push environmentally friendly change

By Craig Forster, Cheri Daily

Last year the U opened an Office of Sustainability and officially joined other U.S. colleges and universities moving toward a more sustainable, or “greener” future.

Why are institutions that traditionally avoid rapid transformation making this shift in vision and operations? What has induced more than 550 college and university presidents, including the U President Michael Young, to commit to the non-trivial task of making their campuses climate neutral? How might this green campus transformation prepare graduates to live in a world with finite limits on resources and honor the needs of future generations?

Consider the incoming 2008 freshman class. These students grew up in a digitally connected world where recycling is commonplace and Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” stimulated global controversy over climate change issues.

Since earning their drivers’ licenses two years ago, these freshmen have experienced a 50 percent increase in the cost of filling their gas tanks. They will enter college during a national financial crisis unmatched since the Great Depression while controversy swirls around the ongoing Iraq war, national energy security, environmental stewardship and an impending global financial crisis.

Thus, the 2012 graduating class is arriving on campus with an awareness it will need to grapple with a future of shrinking resources, growing population, international terrorism and the ups and downs of the global market place.

Students are coming to campus fully prepared to instigate change. Previous U students have assessed themselves a fee to support the purchase of wind power offsets to emissions from fossil-fuel based electricity, prompted a major upgrade to the campus recycling program and instigated the opening of the Office of Sustainability. This year they are signing up for a new Green Living Floor, leading the U’s 2009 Focus the Nation on Solutions to Global Warming Teach-In and greening Redfest.

Green campuses committed to the “big idea” of sustainability are needed to help these future citizens and leaders remain optimistic while preparing for a difficult future.

The big idea of sustainability provides an interdisciplinary, intellectual arena founded on knowledge about finite limits on resources, a systems view of the world and a concern for the future. There are no limits to the diversity of disciplines that can, and must, contribute to the discussion.

Thus, coursework and experiences in engineering, business, humanities and the sciences (natural, health and social) can be readily linked to the three core elements of sustainability: environmental stewardship, economic stability and social justice. On a green campus, the intellectual exploration of sustainability concepts are threaded throughout the curriculum and linked to the living laboratory of campus operations.

Green campuses are reaching out to collaborate on real-world solutions for our current crises by partnering with corporations who face shareholder and public demand for sustainable practices. These partnerships provide service-learning opportunities for students to make direct contact with the trade-offs involved in reducing energy and water use and waste generation while maintaining a reasonable quality of life.

A representative from a local company recently marveled at what it will be like to hire graduates who can navigate the complex and interconnected landscape of sustainable development. This new paradigm requires an ability to understand not just the graduate’s chosen field, but the impact of business decisions and personal choices on material and human resources, economics, and social justice.

Green campuses provide a safe platform for students to explore their emerging ideas and test their growing skills before being launched into the world.

It is critical that students become co-investigators in global laboratories where the challenges of living more sustainably are explored and resolved and then translated and extended to the world as a whole.

Through a strong partnership with students and alumni, the U is emerging as a green campus leader that is actively working to foster a more sustainable future.

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Editor’s Note: Craig Forster is the director of the U Office of Sustainability.

Cheri Daily is the U’s director of corporate and Foundation Relations.