As university sustainability staff with 12 years of combined professional sustainability experience, the snapshot of campus sustainability efforts depicted by George Will in his April 15 article, “Divestment gone wild in propaganda-saturated universities,” is not one we recognize.
Sustainability is about recognizing that healthy economies and societies must have healthy environments in order to provide the essential services on which we all depend. Environmental change on the scale currently being witnessed around the world puts these necessary services at serious risk. Today’s students are the next generation of societal leaders, and they will be faced with challenges that we are just beginning to see.
Students see the drought in California and potential near-term water restrictions in Arizona and the Western states. They see global pollution from energy systems and transportation, the challenge of feeding 9 billion people, and vanishing wildlife habitat. They see a collision course between current development patterns and resource needs, and what natural systems can provide over the long haul.
Students today are concerned about their futures, and they want to be prepared for both the opportunities and risks to come. A recent survey of University of Arizona students showed that 66 percent believe the university should do more to improve the environment in its academic programs, and 40 percent hope to pursue a career option that makes a difference in sustainability.
Outside the classroom, while a few focus on protests, most work to develop real and achievable solutions. And they know these solutions require broad collaboration between institutions, citizens, businesses, and across party lines. This sort of collaboration to meet today’s and tomorrow’s challenges is the opposite of fundamentalist rigidity and intolerance of dissent.
At the UA, we have a thriving, student-run program called Compost Cats. It arose out of concern about the amount of food going into local landfills, in a state with little rainfall and great need for better soil fertility, in a nation where up to 40 percent of our food gets thrown away before ever making it to anyone’s plate.
This program has expanded beyond campus to serve dozens of businesses throughout Tucson, even composting entire semi-truck loads of spoiled produce from brokerage houses at the border crossing in Nogales. The city of Tucson has agreed to partially fund the program because it sees composting as a strategy to extend the life of our landfills, avoiding millions of dollars of costs to taxpayers for closing down full landfills and opening new ones.
The students in Compost Cats receive valuable training in business planning, communications, marketing, waste management, event planning, and heavy equipment operation.
Another example is HydroCats, part of the Students for Sustainability internship program. HydroCats students partner with community organizations and homeowners to harvest rainfall through better landscaping and installation of cisterns.
On these, and many other issues, students learn to identify community needs and address them. Sustainability efforts at universities are all about supporting our students as they develop the applied skills and critical thinking abilities to meet societal needs.
None of these activities are anti-capitalist or doctrinaire protest movements. Rather, in the current climate of massive cuts to state education funding, new programs like Compost Cats and HydroCats must think like businesses, to develop revenue streams, plan expenditures carefully, and identify seed funding where necessary to sustain themselves financially over time.
As society is increasingly challenged by environmental change and its costs to current and future generations, campus sustainability efforts offer increasing value to our students and the broader Tucson community. This is exactly the kind of innovative, efficiency-seeking and entrepreneurial spirit in education that can be embraced by progressive and conservative thinkers alike.