The university system does a lot to shape our world. It molds young people into citizens. The best of universities allow young people to mold themselves within a healthy and supportive environment, but most of them simply engage in indoctrination. I could write quite a long critique regarding that, but it’s not my purpose here, so I won’t get into it just now. There are some colleges and universities that have developed a focus on sustainability, but not nearly enough. We need to push for three different areas of change in our university system. This can be done by almost anyone – students, faculty, staff, alumni, prospective students. The areas of change: sustainability of the school itself, courses of study that focus on sustainability and application of knowledge in related areas, like engineering, to problems of sustainability, student organizations and focus groups that engage in discussion and action.
Unless we teach people what it actually means to be sustainable, we can’t attain a level of sustainability that will carry us into the future.
Student body & organizations
Students. The most important part of any school. The raison d’etre of any school. There are so many things that students can do to promote sustainability and to bring the topic into focus for the school’s administration, faculty, and other students. First: make some noise. Start an organization and make yourself noticed. Issue challenges to the entire school and everyone in it, or to other schools, like the “do it in the dark” challenge, in which houses and/or dorms compete for the biggest reduction in energy usage for a month. Have seed-bombing and guerrilla gardening campaigns. Petition the school for an area where you can have a vegetable garden on campus to produce cheap food for students – you can even have a little students-only farmer’s market to raise funds for the organization. Give out free BPA-free water bottles to encourage students not to buy throw-away plastic bottles of water. Ask the school’s bookstore to sell notebooks, flash drives, pens, binders, clothing, etc. made out of recycled and eco-friendly materials. Get involved in boards and committees of the institution in which you have a voice, and can push for change. There are so many things you can do.
Programs of study
This one is trickier. Students, along with staff and faculty with experience in related fields can push for the development of programs focused on sustainability and/or for a focus on sustainability in each related field. It’s really when people come together with experience in different fields and from different parts of the world that we can progress in leaps and bounds and make a huge difference. Look at the programs already available at other universities to see how they’re doing it, and try to improve upon them. If you’re a prospective student, even asking about whether schools have a sustainability program, or have plans to develop one, will help. An increasing interest from the general population can push things in the right direction. If you are a current student, you can aim for this within your own program, and you can encourage all your classmates to study together in the same place, which will collectively reduce the amount of electricity you’ll use by quite a lot over the course of a year. Think of how much more you’d use if you were each studying in a separate room or building all the time.
University & its policies
There are several areas to look at here. Alumni might consider telling your alma mater that you will make donations or donate more if it only makes investments in sustainable businesses and if it implements programs to increase its own sustainability, or you can earmark your donation for sustainability projects, renovations etc. Prospective students should keep this in mind, too. Choose the schools that are most environmentally friendly and that are trying to reduce their carbon footprint. See what you can do in your own department if you’re currently a student. Can you turn in your assignments via email or dropbox rather than on paper? Are all those hand-outs really necessary, or can they be sent to your email or posted on a virtual blackboard? Some students may need a paper copy, but most don’t. Again, there are many things you can do to try to make a difference, especially if your classmates join you.