The Second Green Wave

Enrollment in post-secondary, degree-granting institutions swelled 26% between 1997 and 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Moreover, the last decade has seen a dramatic upsurge of interest in the environment and sustainability on college and university campuses—in and out of the classroom.

On college and university campuses, there is an increasing demand for sustainability and environmental studies courses and programs for undergraduates and graduates. According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE), there are more than 30 U.S. institutions offering bachelor's degrees in sustainability, and more than 20 universities house graduate programs. Columbia University launched a Ph.D. program in sustainable development in 2004 with many other universities initiating similar programs.

Sustainability features prominently in extracurricular groups on campus, as well. However, unlike the environmental movement that bracketed the first Earth Day in 1970, today’s college students are going beyond raising awareness and organizing protests; they’re organizing programs on campus and getting things done. Many of these students are working on campus recycling, getting their dining halls to use locally grown foods and initiating sustainable gardens. The College Sustainability Report Card includes data on and assessments of 322 U.S. and Canadian colleges and universities large and small.

Two examples from the multitudes:

At the University of Rochester (U of R) in upstate New York, 28 freshmen are selected each year to be EcoReps to plan dorm activities and events to educate students in the residence halls about waste reduction and energy conservation. Twice as many students applied to the program this past year compared to the prior year, according to Alexander David, Class of 2013, who was a coordinator for one of the largest residence halls this past academic year and will be directing the whole program next year.

Members of Students for Environmental Action (SEA) at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachussets, participate in The Real Food Challenge (RFC), which works to change conventional dining hall policies. According to SEA member Marisa Turesky, RFC, which was started in 2007, is a "youth food movement that encompasses producers, consumers, communities and the Earth.  RFC organizers seek social change through coalition-building, advocacy, community organizing, and education around food justice issues. The ultimate goal," Turesky explained, "is for college and university campuses to have 20 percent real food by 2020."  Brandeis students have rolled up their sleeves on other projects: one group petitioned the university for a plot of land to start a sustainable garden, while another initiated a carry-out service in the dining halls using reusable containers.

These actions are truly laudable, but it's what happens after college that will push the envelope. Once the last strains of "pomp and circumstance" have drifted out of college and university auditoriums across the country this month, the graduates who have sustainability experience under their belts are likely to have a huge impact on the workplace—what I’m calling the second green wave.

As these students move into the workforce, not only are they more likely to carry with them sustainability values, they are also more likely to put those values into action on the job, echoing what they did on campus. James J. McCarthy, director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University, told a group at the February 2011 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, "There are lots of stories about students making an environmental difference." These students are "taking their success when they go into other walks of life."

According to Mark Orlowski, founder and executive director of the Sustainable Endowments Institute, which publishes the College Sustainability Report Card, the schools charted in the latest assessment "not only serve as microcosms of the larger society but also possess a combined total of over $325 billion in endowment assets. This places them in a unique position to model successful integration of sustainability into both campus operations and investment practices."  That’s an incredibly powerful model for students.

Alexander David, the U of R EcoRep coordinator, echoed that: "I think the experience of dealing with people who have all different kinds of mindsets about sustainability has been invaluable," he explained. "I want to work in the green market and being able to understand how people think and make decisions in this area has taught me a lot about how to approach them… No matter where I wind up going after college that is something I will hopefully be able to do for my company."

In my own workplace, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), our Green Team is cochaired by Kaitlin Chell, a 2005 college graduate from California.  The Green Team regularly e-mails reminders about ways to reduce, reuse and recycle.  Chell was one of the moving forces behind "Waste-Free Wednesdays" to reduce lunchtime waste. "You’ve got to make a difference where you can," she explained.

Contributor's Biography

Barbara T. Richman is editor in chief of Eos, the weekly newspaper of the Earth and space sciences published by the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, she was managing editor of Environment magazine for almost 19 years.