As this year’s community relations intern for the sustainability committee, I attended Bioneers Conference hoping to pick up tips on how to “green” our operations at Vassar. This year, the sustainability committee has several initiatives in the making, including perfecting and expanding the Retreat composting program, launching a campaign to encourage students to drink from the tap and use reusable water bottles, and implementing programs to reduce energy consumption in academic buildings as well as decrease waste in student-organized events.
But I was curious to know what the experts thought. What changes really need to be made in our colleges and how can we approach them?
In that spirit, I attended an afternoon session titled “Transforming Higher Education for the Age of Climate Change”. The speakers stressed that higher education can play a key role in the green movement because it is responsible for shaping our senators, journalists, CEO’s, basically the LEADERS of our society. Higher education has produced the people who have led us down the wrong path and it has the potential to turn out a generation of climate champions to set things right. Also, it is a large economic engine. In the US, colleges and universities manage 2.8% of GDP which means they can create important markets for green jobs and services.
Interestingly, the speakers seemed to agree that there was a trend: while there has been a significant move on the part of higher education institutions to transform their operations, there have hardly been any efforts to transform their curricula. So far, colleges have failed at fundamentally “greening” the education of all their students. Generally, environmental education is limited to students majoring in the field, an average of 5% of graduates.
At Vassar, we have geothermal heating in Davison and photovoltaic panels on the roof of Main. We now have pre- as well as post-consumer composting systems at ACDC and the Retreat. These are important initiatives and we need many more. But we also need to address the “learning” aspect of our institution of higher learning. How can Vassar begin to turn out environmentally conscious graduates – potential agents for change?
We need to make sure that all students understand the Earth’s basic functions. We need to offer and take classes that expose the largely invisible connections between human activity and environmental outcomes. Academics should challenge the idea that nature is there to serve us and teach us how to live off nature’s income, not its capital!
A “sustainability requirement”, anyone? I think it’s something we should consider.