October 10th, 2010

Supporting Generation “E”: Teaching and Research is Not Enough

By Shirley Papuga

In November 2009 the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) released a 70-page report on “Generation E: Students Leading for a Sustainable, Clean Energy Future” highlighting the way that students are leading the charge toward a sustainable future at U.S. colleges and universities.
Recently coined by New York Times environmental writer Andy Revkin, “Generation E” refers to the highly innovative youth engaged in tackling the challenges our world is facing in climate and energy.  Cleverly, the “E” represents a number of inextricably linked players in sustainability, including environment, energy, economy, equity and enterprise.

In the NWF report, the role for faculty was laid out: “Professors and instructors can help provide the platforms (course projects, capstone courses, independent study, graduate student research) by which students can conduct projects, plus they offer expertise and guidance and have considerable clout within their institutions.”   As a faculty member, I have to admit that I found this statement slightly disconcerting…the statement seems to suggest that as faculty, we are not part of the sustainability movement.

Perhaps this is warranted.  In academia, campus life is so fast-paced that time is strategically managed so that these roles are able to play out as efficiently as possible.  For better or for worse, coffee is often presumed to contribute to increased efficiency.  I can cite numerous trips to the coffee shop with sleep-deprived colleagues who have spent the last several days round the clock perfecting a monstrous grant application.  At the coffee shop, we’re behind a group of lively students who carefully remove their lids from their weathered travel mugs before offering them up to be filled.  When our group finally reaches the counter we order our daily doses and are handed our selections in pristine throw away “mugs”.

Throughout the semester, meetings are woven exorbitantly between courses and other pressing obligations.  We are able to convince ourselves that driving from home to campus and between meetings (and driving CO2­ emissions up) is warranted by this demanding schedule.  Various conversations with my colleagues have resulted in an ambivalent general consensus that alternative transportation is just not an option. The bus?  Inconvenient.  Not frequent enough.  Biking? Dangerous. Sweaty.

I would say that what this NWF report suggests is largely correct: we are not part of the campus sustainability movements. We can do better – and in fact we need to reverse our roles.  What if we returned to the coffee shop, walked to the counter ready with our tattered mugs?  We need to be the movement steering away from the elevator to walk the stairs.  We need to be filling up the bike racks outside our buildings demanding more bike parking.  We need to support Generation “E” not just by providing a platform and expertise…we need to be part of the movement.

Editor’s Note:  See the National Wildlife Foundation “Generation E” report on student-led sustainability initiatives.  And note the AASHE Denver 2010 NWF Campus Ecology Student Summit…wait for results and a report in JSE.

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